By Kate Napolitano, MA, LCSW, Social Relationships & Sexuality Educator at Wildwood
Welcome to another edition of Love Letters from Wildwood! In this column, we talk about all things love, sex and relationships, often with a special eye towards current events and/or the world of disability. This edition of Love Letters will be about Informed Consent: what it is, why it’s not just about medical stuff, and why I think it’s a good idea for all of us. If you already feel you’re an expert on informed consent as related to sex and social relationships, that’s wonderful! But know this article strives to describe it for those who may not have given much thought to it before.
If you’re interested in learning even more about Informed Consent after reading this, consider coming to our online Informed Consent educational workshop, happening Wednesday, October 28, at 10am. Registration is free, and more information can be found at the end of this article.
Some of you may know “informed consent” as a phrase hospitals and doctors use, based around the big clipboards of paperwork they get you to sign before surgeries or medical treatments. Broadly speaking, applied to almost anything, “informed consent” means:
Informed = Learning as much CORRECT information about something as you can, including the possible good things and possible risks about it, before you...
Consent = say yes to it. And when you say yes, you’ve taken some time to think about the risks and benefits, and whether you still want to move forward.
I love the concept of informed consent. I think it should apply to everything, especially sex, love and relationships. I mean, why say yes to anything without really thinking about what you might get?
Let’s pause for a moment and consider: Is it wise to…
- Say “yes” to buying a house without asking any questions about it? Why or why not?
- Say “yes” to voting for a candidate without asking any questions about their experience, or their plans? Why or why not?
- Say “yes” to free ice cream without asking any questions about it? Why or why not?
If we simply consent to any of the above without asking questions and doing a little research first, we run some bad risks. We could buy a house in disrepair that will be too expensive to fix. We could vote someone into office who is charming, but not qualified. And that free ice cream? Maybe it’s a flavor you hate, or maybe it’s all old, gross and melted. “Free” alone is not enough to know if it’s right for you!
Informed consent helps and protects you, as well as those you care about. It is always worth taking the time to get informed before you say yes.
Now, maybe you’re reading this and thinking what I said was simple: it’s obvious or a “no brainer” to get information about a house before you buy it. Fair enough! But from my experience, when it comes to sex and relationships, living with an attitude towards informed consent can be challenging.
Why? Because of the reasons why people seek sex and relationships. We seek out sex or social relationships to do things like have fun, to feel physical pleasure, to soothe loneliness, to satisfy feelings of longing, to create families, to satisfy feelings of sexual arousal, to find emotional support, to experience love, and more – there are a lot of perfectly healthy, logical reasons.
But sometimes, when we seek these things, we can get hasty or impatient. We can also mistake a feeling of pleasure as something healthy, when it might not be. For example, if we’re insecure and feeling lonely, we might say “yes” to someone who asks for our attention just because they are charming at first glance and take interest in us. We might see what we “want” to see – our hope of finding a friend or sweetheart – but not what’s really there. Sometimes, we keep saying yes to someone, hoping they will turn into the person we wish they would be, even though the whole time they are not treating us well. Is this healthy and worthwhile?
We might also say yes to someone who is doing something that makes us feel physical pleasure. For example, if someone gives us a gift, we can feel excited about spending more time with them. Or, if someone kisses or hugs us. Or even if we experience sexual arousal just by thinking about this person – the pleasure can drive us to say yes to many kinds of things – some of which, we could regret later.
As I mentioned in my previous online safety article, risks exist, like kind strangers who tell us what we want to hear, only to find out they are lying about who they are, or were taking financial advantage of us. Another example: It’s possible we might have sex with someone who looks attractive and spoke kindly – but it turns out they have a sexually transmitted infection (STI, STD), and now we have it too. So, although the feeling of sexual arousal felt good, it didn’t mean we made a safe enough decision for ourselves to say yes.
Informed consent is a potential remedy for risks. It asks us to slow down and think before we act, so we can be more assured of our safety going forward. Being safe only ever increases fun and pleasure – where there is trust, health, and truth, you don’t have to worry about who you’re with, and that gives you maximum freedom!
So, let’s think about it: if we want to use informed consent in our friendships and sexual relationships, what are the things we should stop and get informed about before we say yes? What can you think of?
I’d like to offer some basic tips.
In friendships, getting informed before consenting can include:
- Self-Reflection. What am I feeling? Am I lonely? At risk for being used by others?
- Trustworthiness. Are they who they say they are (especially if you meet them online)? How can you double check this? Do they ever lie?
- Responsibility. Do they generally do what they say they will do? Do they take advantage of you?
- Respectfulness. Do they care if they break or hurt your belongings? Do they make sure you are comfortable with what you’re doing together, or do they pressure you and make you feel bad so you do what they want? Do they act supportively about who you are, or do they make fun of things like your interests, your religion, your clothes, etc.?
- Reasonable. If you disagree, even if you both get mad at first, can you kindly and fairly work it out so that there is healthy compromise?
Some of these things may take time to learn. But with informed consent, you’re not just saying “yes” to anyone in life. “Anyone” won’t do – you deserve fun, safety, health, and a positive wellbeing. Take the time to get informed about this other person and then decide if you want to keep saying “yes” to having them in your life.
In sexual relationships, all of the above in reference to friendship also applies here. But there is additional information that can be gathered:
- Sexually Transmitted Infection status knowledge. Do either of you have an STI? Don’t just take each other’s word. Go get tested with your doctor to be up to date. If you are with someone who refuses to get tested, is it still safe to have sex with them? Are they trustworthy with your body? Using condoms can help protect you, but not completely.
- Children. If we’re talking about someone with a penis having intercourse with someone with a vagina, there can be a risk of pregnancy, even if using birth control. Do you know how birth control works? What’s a science-based, reliable source to find out (e.g. Planned Parenthood)? What if you do find yourself pregnant with someone? How would you feel? Personally, I advocate that if you wish to have sex with someone, and there’s even a slight chance of pregnancy, you should stop and think about your attitude about conceiving a child. How would you feel if you accidentally did? If you want ZERO risk of conceiving a child, you might want to think about avoiding penis/vagina intercourse altogether, and opting for alternate sexual acts with no risk of pregnancy, like oral sex. (But also bear in mind, while oral sex won’t cause pregnancy, it still could transmit certain STIs). You can also consider methods of birth control that reduce your risk of pregnancy to nearly zero, like sterilization.
- Laws. How old is the person I’m interested in sexually? How old am I? What do state laws say about sex and the other sexual things I want to do with them (like sexting)? Breaking the law regarding sexual behavior can have terrible consequences for you and your partner(s). Get informed, so you can have an easier time knowing the boundaries before you say yes.
- What my partner’s “no” looks like. Sometimes, if we’re aroused or excited, we want to move forward with the sexual act on our mind. We can get eager. But do you want the act, or do you want your partner to have a good time too? What does your partner look and sound like when they say “no”? Do they say it loudly, clearly, and move away from you? Do they say “no,” but quietly, shyly, and let you touch them anyway? Talk with your partners about saying “yes” and “no.” Make it a priority in relationships that mutual safety, respect, and fun come first. Sometimes people try to please each other because they are scared of rejection, but then they walk away feeling used or taken advantage of. You do not deserve fear of rejection, nor do you deserve to be used. Make it a rule for everyone’s pleasure that saying “no” clearly if they don’t want to do something is important, desirable, safe, and ok. Let each other know it will not jeopardize your relationship to say “no.” And make a note: anyone who has a problem with you saying “no” to sexual interaction probably is not a nice person. Walk away and find someone who respects you.
- What my partner’s “yes” looks like. What are your common interests? What are some of your different interests? It can be satisfying to learn how each other is different, and then make the effort to love each other on each other’s terms. For example, maybe you like lots of physical touch, but maybe your partner does not. Maybe your partner feels really loved when you buy or make them small gifts (like flowers, or love notes), but for you, that’s not as satisfying. But that said, maybe you can make the effort to write them a love note every so often. Maybe your partner can knit you blanket so they can give you a way to feel “snuggles” from them that still respects their touch needs. Informed consent can help you learn about each other, develop intimacy, develop trust, and develop creativity. At the end of the day, a lot of having relationships is about seeking acceptance from someone else. When you each take time for informed consent, you are showing each other you accept each other – as you are, with your preferences, boundaries, quirks, and needs respected.
Informed consent does require us to slow down and not act hastily. It may not always be “convenient,” but as I was saying above, it will almost always give us freedom to try to realize our fantasies, because it will help point us toward the people who will probably really last in our lives. It will also help us shape our own behavior and choices in wise ways.
Further, if you are someone who has already made relationship mistakes that have hurt, never fear. It is never too late to start using informed consent as your strategy. Remember, all informed consent really is, is asking yourself: “What do I need to learn or think about first from reliable sources like laws, science, my partner, or my own feelings before I say “yes” to the choice before me?” We can start that attitude any time.
Lastly, please note that part of why I’m writing about this is because there are people out there who may not yet be able to demonstrate the skills of informed consent. This can have legal repercussions for them, such as having guardians assigned to them who would be given power to make certain social choices for them. The good news is, informed consent can often be a learnable set of skills with practice. I encourage everyone to think about what areas of Informed consent they could learn more about in order to find their maximum freedom and enjoyment in life.
There is always more to learn about informed consent, and you can always practice your skills. If you are interested in learning more or practicing, I invite you to join me in Wildwood’s online Informed Consent Workshop. This will be happening through Google Meet on Wednesday, October 28, at 10:00 a.m.
To register for the workshop, please contact Lynn LaFave at 518-640-3370 or email@example.com. Share the following when you register: preferred email, preferred phone number, the title of the workshop you are interested in, why you are interested in the training (if you have professional/agency affiliation or are a family member), the number of people attending, and if you are FSS eligible (or if you/your child or loved one is OPWDD eligible). Eligibility is not required, but is used for grant purposes.
In order to attend, you must click on the Google Meet link at the time of the training. For questions, please reach out to me, Kate Napolitano, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 518-60-3346.
Thank you for reading!