What does consent mean in relationships?

What does consent mean in relationships?

In September of 2020, Meg-John Barker presented the topic Consensual Relationships for Dating Kinky’s weekend event, ‘More Than Yes or No,’ and I was the host/interviewer. The original presentation was free to all who joined us live, and was recorded for Dating Kinky’s PLUS members to access through the Dating Kinky Library (over 400 videos and 550 hours of content!).

Here is a clip from that hour-long show, where Meg-John and I discuss the nuances of consent in relationships.



But I think that in using ‘consensual’ as a modifier for ‘relationship,’ you’re taking it beyond the “Do I agree to have this relationship or do I disagree to have this relationship?”

More Than Yes or No. This is going to be a theme!


I see where you’re going here. Yeah, yeah.


And into: If a relationship is consensual, it allows people, encourages people, maybe even requires people to feel free and safe and able to be their authentic selves and to be able to communicate in the ways that they need


‘Cause in a way, like it can go back to that really simple dictionary definition of like agreeing, agreeing to something, because can you really agree if you don’t feel free enough and safe enough, you know.

So like, yeah. If you feel under some kind of pressure to have sex, you know, if you’re in a relationship where like there’s so much social pressure that you ought to be sexual in that relationship, that you’re kind of going along with it to feel like you’re being normal, are you really agreeing consensually to sex?

I don’t think so.

So I would think, you know, in a way being—feeling free enough and feeling safe enough, is what you need in order to be able to say yes, no, or maybe.

And so to tune into yourself and know what’s a yes, no, or maybe and to be able to articulate that to the other person.

Like again that’s about anything.


I think that’s the key though, that you just said to tune into yourself.

Because I think a lot of people—and and this this is what I’m really excited about for this weekend: is digging into the nuance of consent and sort of picking that apart for people because I think people understand the concept of “Well, if they say ‘yes’ it’s consent and if they say ‘no’ it’s not consent,” but all that middle bit can
be very confusing.


I agree.

And I think we often think about coercive relationships or abusive relationships as the opposite of consensual, and what we tend to think about there is sexual and physical abuse.

But there’s also emotional, you know, and that can be just as damaging and it can be just as coercive or controlling and non-consensual.

So first of all, need to put that in the package.

And then we need to see it as like quite a complex spectrum. Rather than just like, “Here’s the abusive ones over here or the coercive ones, and everything else is consensual.”

And I would say it’s like it’s vital for us all to think about consent in all our relationships because it’s just really easy to treat people non consensually—whether that’s just, you know, as simple as, you know, “Give grandma a hug,” when the kid doesn’t want to or, you know, “Do you want to come to the pub tonight?”

And the person says “No,” and you’re kind of like, “Oh, go on,” you know?

It’s just so normalized to treat people non consensually and like, we might, you know, in the kink world, we’re really, really, thinking carefully about it, in terms of kink play, right? But we might not think about it, so carefully, in terms of vanilla sex, perhaps, you know, or we might all be trying to think about it pretty carefully in terms of sex so we don’t assault somebody or abuse somebody in terms of sex, but we really have to think about it on all those levels: physical and emotional, as well as sexual I would say.

Oof. As I was writing this up, someone was commenting on my FRIES consent post on FetLife, and said:

With a person you really like and who you really find sexually attractive, and who really likes you and who really finds you sexually attractive, you don’t need all these hard, negotiated conditions and boundaries set beforehand in all their details, because you trust that during the process of engaging your mutual attraction, your love, your sympathy, your empathy, your attention in the here and now will lead you both to a happy experience.

May I go bang my head into a wall, now?

Because this shows me exactly why consent education is SO needed for all parts of life, and that it needs to be taught from a MUCH younger age than most people are getting it right now.

I’d like to point out that the U.S. Department of Justice reports that: 73% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger, people KNOWN to the victim. Of these, 45.4% of female rape victims and 29% of male rape victims were raped by an intimate partner.

Intimate partner.

Someone who they really liked and who probably really liked them back (at least at one point).

Not such happy experiences.

And no, I don’t believe that consent education would eradicate all of these cases. I’m not naive. I do, however, believe that it would reduce those numbers, and that’s always a good thing.

But more, I believe a better comprehensive understanding of consent would help in ways not immediately obvious:

  1. Understanding consent in more nuanced ways would lead to better laws.
  2. Understanding consent and how it works in relationships beyond just yes-or-no-to-sex would lead to people in relationships being able to advocate for themselves more effectively, and to spot problematic behaviors and remove themselves before sexual assault might happen.

Seeing consent modeled in many different situations, not JUST sex (or kink), but in daily interactions and conversations could make a huge difference in how people relate to each other and in fact, build their relationships from the ground up.

What are your thoughts?

What does the term ‘consensual relationship’ mean to you? What steps do you take to make sure your relationships are consensual for you, if any? What steps do you take to make sure your relationships are consensual for the other person, if any?

You can learn more about Meg-John Barker here: https://www.rewriting-the-rules.com/

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