Can Body Language Indicate Sexual Consent?

Obtaining sexual consent is a way of respecting a partner's sexual boundaries.
... Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images

The responsibility of obtaining consent before engaging in a sexual activity is enormous. Unfortunately, it is sometimes misunderstood or neglected. To be absolutely sure a potential sexual partner is a willing participant, you can simply ask. Aside from verbal consent, it is possible to assess your partner's comfort level via her body language. There are, however, a number of factors to consider when giving and getting consent in any case.

1 Understanding Consent

Consenting to engage in sexual activity is the act of agreeing to it. It is not, however, an agreement to participate in all sexual activity. Therefore, if someone agrees to kissing and fondling, it does not indicate she is open to oral or vaginal sex. Consent is also not a binding agreement. This means that it can be revoked at any time. If someone agrees to sexual activity, she is not obligated to participate for the length of time her partner might demand.

2 Ability to Consent

Not everyone has the ability to give consent. Children, for example, cannot give consent because they lack the maturity and experience to do so, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network in its website post "Was I Raped?" Even those who are old enough to consent may not always be able to do so. For example, a grown woman who has been drinking alcohol may not be able to agree to sex due to her level of intoxication. This affects peoples' abilities to understand and agree to certain behaviors, according to Northwestern University Women's Center in the post "Defining Sexual Assault and Consent." As drug or alcohol intake increases, the wherewithal to consent decreases.

3 Body Language

A verbal "yes" or "no" is not always required to give or obtain consent. Body language is sometimes a guide to judging someone's sexual boundaries. If a partner is of age, able-minded and actively participating in the act, she may be consenting. However, if she becomes tense, pulls away or turns her head, for instance, she may be withdrawing or refusing consent. Any pressure to continue sexual activity despite your partner's lack of participation constitutes sexual assault. If you are unsure if a partner is comfortable with certain sexual contact, ask her. If you are still unsure, do not continue.

4 Role of Coercion

Because there are multiple myths surrounding consent, sex and gender roles, coercion is sometimes used as a way to obtain consent. For instance, males are sometimes socialized to feel entitled to sex in return for paying for a date, and females sometimes believe their worth is based on their level of sexual engagement. This manipulative behavior of coercion, however, is not a safe or appropriate means of affirming consent. The University of Michigan's Sexual Assault Prevent and Awareness Center (SAPAC) provides clarification in its post "Consent and Coercion." Previous sexual activity between two people does not imply consent. Saying "What's the big deal? We've done it before" can be coercive. "If you loved me, you would" and "I'm leaving for school soon. Let's do it before it's too late" are also examples of coercive language.

Jill Avery-Stoss is a graduate of Penn State University and a writer and editor based in northeast Pennsylvania. Having spent more than a decade working with victims of sexual and domestic violence, she specializes in writing about women's issues, with emphasis on families and relationships.