So you have been practising strategies to check for consent, and you understand affirmative consent . You know you need to establish a ‘yes’. You’re aware that consent can be withdrawn at any time. But what about those gray areas, where someone might say yes, but not actually mean it?
How can you know if someone doesn’t mean what they say? And what should you do when you’re unsure?
In this post we’ll give you a lesson in checking for congruence, helping you better practise consent.
Why people don’t say no
It’s unnerving to think about, but there are a multitude of reasons why someone might say yes in a sexual situation when it’s actually not what they want. Maybe they don’t want to offend by saying no. Maybe they were hoping they’d feel more into it once they got going but that hasn’t happened. Maybe something’s uncomfortable but they’re not confident enough to say anything.
And while teaching individuals to find their voice during sex is important, everyone has a role to play in creating a safe space for their sexual partners to speak up. That’s where checking for congruence comes in.
If a person’s body language and demeanor is consistent with what they’ve said, then you’re probably good to go. But if that's not the case, or that changes, it’s important to stop and check.
What is congruence and how does it relate to consent?
Let’s take a step back and examine what the terms congruent and incongruent mean when it comes to consent.
On its own, the word congruence means agreement or consistency. If two things are congruent with one another, then they are consistent, in agreement - in harmony. Whereas incongruence means the opposite - there’s a disharmony if two things are incongruent.
When it comes to consent, we think about congruence as the harmony between what someone says verbally and the way their body language is in harmony with that. For instance, your partner might say yes to being kissed and then lean in towards you expectantly. Their posture is congruent with the verbal consent they’ve given.
Checking for congruence is about being attuned to your partner and making sure their tone and body language matches what they’ve said verbally. Maybe they said yes but their tone was hesitant. Perhaps they consented to being touched, but now you’ve noticed them clamp up.
We’re all familiar with situations where a person’s response might be incongruent with what they’ve agreed to, in one way or another. Humans are complex and sometimes we don’t always say what we mean. Or we don’t know that we don’t mean something until after we’ve said it.
What does incongruence look like?
Imagine you’ve asked if someone would like a hug, and they say yes, but when you put your arms around them they tense up, visibly uncomfortable. That’s incongruent body language. Checking for congruence is all about looking for cues that may suggest a person is uncomfortable.
What to look out for:
Mismatch in tone
Looking away/avoiding eye contact
Any of the signs above may indicate a lack of congruence and when you notice a lack of congruence, checking in is vital.
Why should I pay attention to incongruent behaviour?
Why do you need to check in if you notice something’s not congruent? Let’s think about what might happen if you didn’t. Let’s consider a scenario where two people are kissing and one has asked the other if it’s OK if they take their shirt off.
“Um… yeah… of course,” says their partner hesitantly. Verbally, they’ve consented, but their yes didn’t seem comfortable. Chances are, removing that shirt is only going to make them feel more uncomfortable.
A partner checking for congruence might notice this and say something like: “That seemed hesitant, shall I keep it on for now?”
When someone checks in like this, it gives their partner an out. Think about it. Wouldn’t you find it much easier to simply say yes to the above question than to have to come right out and say that you’d actually prefer your partner keep their shirt on?
Encourage your partner to communicate with you
When you notice incongruence and check in with your partner, you help them feel safe and comfortable. You encourage them to find a voice and communicate what they really want and how they really feel. You’re opening a dialogue and encouraging healthy communication about sex and feelings.
By checking in when you notice that someone’s tone or body language doesn’t quite fit with what they’re saying, you give the other person the space to check in with themselves. It prompts them to take stock of how they are feeling and what they really do or don’t want. It gives them a chance to withdraw consent, give feedback or request to change something, all of which is really important in healthy, happy and ethical sexual relationships.
Consent doesn’t stop at hearing “yes”, and consent education shouldn't end after high school. Work on continuing your learning, and make sure you’re always checking for congruence.
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