Talking about consent with Cari Ionson
Mount Royal University’s expert on how to approach the topic
By Sabrina Harmata, Staff Writer
Consent is the most important part of any sexual interaction. No matter what the situation, partners should be completely comfortable with each other the entire time and it is the responsibility of the people involved to ensure that their partner feels safe every step of the way. In addition, bystanders who witness someone in an uncomfortable situation should speak up, and help them escape the situation. But how do we do these things?
According to Cari Ionson, Mount Royal’s Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator, asking for consent and helping someone as a bystander are both “context and person dependent, so each person will probably find ways that work for them.” Luckily, she has some tips on how to best succeed at making sure everyone feels safe.
Look for signs of consent
Ionson explained, “If [people] have consent on their minds, they will be looking for signs of consent.” Signs of consent can range anywhere from body language to verbal agreement, especially the person’s tone of voice. If your partner feels uncomfortable in any way, chances are their body language will be more closed off and their tone of voice will likely be unenthusiastic. On the other hand, positive signs of consent include: initiating sexual activity, saying “yes,” “I want you,” or any other variation of these words, open body language, direct eye contact and active touching. Take these signs into account and only continue with your advances if there are positive signs of consent.
If there’s any ambiguity, ask
Sometimes positive signs of consent aren’t enough and people may be left with mixed signals. If this happens, just ask your partner where they’re at. This shows them that you put their level of comfort above everything else. A simple “is this ok?” or “does this feel good for you?” won’t kill the mood and will clear up any ambiguity. Most importantly, if their answer is “no,” back off. This is not an invitation to convince them. Consent can only be given if someone is entirely sure of what they want. Feeling like you have to convince someone just proves they aren’t completely sure.
Make consent sexy
Some people think asking for consent is a mood killer because it takes you out of the action. This is inaccurate. There are plenty of ways to make consent sexy. The phrase “tell me what you like” implies you are looking for consent without saying it outright and can even open the door to new, exciting possibilities. Consent doesn’t have to be a super formal thing. Have fun with it, and find new ways to ask what your partner is comfortable with.
Realize consent is ongoing
Just because you’ve received consent one time does not mean this consent extends to later encounters. Consent must be renewed every time you engage in sexual activity even if you and your partner are in a long-term relationship. Likewise, just because you’ve received consent at the start of the interaction does not mean this consent is set in stone. Both partners have the choice to revoke their consent at any point in time. Keep this in mind and remember to check in with your partner every once in awhile to make sure they’re still comfortable. If they are, great! Go ahead and continue. But if they aren’t, stop right away. Once again, convincing is not an option.
Check with the individual who looks uncomfortable
Like asking for consent, there are many ways to help someone who seems to be in an uncomfortable situation. One of these ways is to simply check in with the person. Approach them and ask them if they feel uncomfortable. If they do, stay with them and strike up a conversation. Place yourself in between the individual and the pursuer and ignore the pursuer until they leave. Once the pursuer has left, ask the person if they feel safe alone or if they would prefer some company for the rest of the night. Not only does this keep the person safe, but chances are you’ll also make a new friend.
The distraction technique
This technique involves approaching the person who looks uncomfortable as though you know them. Walk up to them, and say something along the lines of “Hey! I haven’t seen you in so long.” They might seem a little confused, so offer a hug and explain that you thought they seemed distressed and that you just wanted to check in. Usually, if they are feeling unsafe, they will play along. Like the last tip, continue the conversation until the pursuer leaves and offer the person some company to make sure they are safe for the rest of the night.
Approach the pursuer
As explained at the beginning of the article, everyone has different comfort levels with how to help others as a bystander. This technique can be very nerve-wracking for some people. However, it is very effective most of the time. Just address the pursuer saying it seems as though they are making the person uncomfortable. The pursuer might go on the defensive, so take a stance and don’t back down. Often, once the pursuer sees that other people think their actions are not appropriate, they will leave.
Get outside help
If none of these tips seem to work for you, there is still something you can do as a bystander without getting directly involved in the situation: go to someone for help. If you are at a bar or another public place, there are always people available to intervene. Explain the situation to a bartender, a bouncer, or anyone else who works there, and they will be able to interfere.