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How to check for consent

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

A Definitive Guide To Ensuring Boundaries are respected and Everyone stays Safe and Comfortable


You already know that checking for consent is vital. It shows respect for your partner/s, helping them feel safe and comfortable. Not to mention, it’s the law. But when should you check for consent? And how do you go about it?


Read on for a definitive guide on how to check for consent.


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UNDERSTANDING CONSENT: WHAT DOES IT MEAN AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?


First, let’s take a step back for a moment and consider what consent is. Consent is a knowing, voluntary agreement to do something, be a part of something, or have something done to you. Often, when we talk about consent we’re talking about sex, but consent can also be practised outside the bedroom.


A useful mnemonic from Planned Parenthood is FRIES: Consent must be Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, Specific. If there’s any pressure or coercion to participate, then it’s not freely given and therefore not consent. A person can withdraw their consent at any time and when they give consent, they need to be able to fully understand what they’re consenting to.


Not saying no, or not saying anything isn’t consent - a person must give an enthusiastic yes. And you must seek consent specifically for each individual act; saying yes to one thing doesn’t mean a person is willing to do something else as well.


DEBUNKING MISCONCEPTIONS: CHECKING FOR CONSENT DOESN'T RUIN THE MOOD


Often, when people first begin to practise active consent, they’re uncertain because it might not be what they’re used to. They don’t know how to go about it, or how often they should be checking. A common misconception is that it might be awkward, or ruin the mood.


Let’s clear that one up. Checking for consent does not ruin the mood. If anything is going to ruin the mood, it’s not checking.


When you check for consent you're telling your partner/s you care about them, that you don’t want to do anything they’re not comfortable with. That you want them to feel safe to tell you to stop or change something. You’re explicitly telling them what you’d like to do and asking if they’d like to participate.


Quite frankly, checking for consent is hot.


OVERCOMING Barriers: WHY WE SHOULD CHALLENGE SEX NEGATIVE BELIEFS


Unfortunately, many of us grew up in sex-negative cultures, where we internalised the belief that we shouldn’t talk about sex. That it was something that we needed to skirt around. That by explicitly asking about a sexual act, we might somehow offend. We grew up thinking that sex was a secretive act that would somehow just organically happen.


Our consent education went as far as respecting ‘no means no’, but with no discussion how to truly hear a ‘no’ or to make someone feel comfortable to say no. We never developed the tools to establish an enthusiastic yes, or to ask for and receive feedback in the bedroom.


It’s time we changed this.


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WHEN TO CHECK FOR CONSENT: Clear Guidelines FOR ANYONE THINKING ABOUT SEX


Before we address strategies for how to check for consent, let’s first consider when you might actually use them. Obviously any sexual act requires an explicit check for consent. Consent can never be assumed. Before engaging in any sexual act, you must check for consent, each and every time, for each and every act.


Here's a breakdown of when you should be checking for consent:


1. Get CONSENT BEFORE STARTING


This means checking for consent before commencing any sexual act with a partner, even if you have an established sexual relationship. It means checking for consent during sex before changing to a different act. You may have established consent before touching your partner, but you need to check again before introducing any penetration.


2. CHECK For Consent Before Moving on to anything DIFFERENT


Checking before each and every act means clarifying before making any change to what the person has consented to. A partner may have consented to penetration, but not checking for consent before removing a condom is rape.


In short, you must always check for consent before commencing any sexual act and you must check again before changing to any other sex act. At the time. Each and every time. It’s the law.


3. Stop and check-in at any indication someone might not feel comfortable


It's all well and good to have gotten consent to do something, but it doesn't stop there. Consent can be withdrawn at any time, so it's the responsibility of both partners to create space for that. In fact, creating space is one of the keys for consent.


Consent isn't valid without congruence. The moment someone says or does something that indicates they may have changed their mind, or need to stop, it's vital that their partner/s check in with them, giving them the space to say stop or change something.



Consent Beyond the Bedroom: Establishing Boundaries in Non-Sexual Situations


But checking for consent should also happen outside the bedroom. If we really want to prevent sexual harm, we need to move towards a consent culture, by modelling consent every day.


It’s good practice to check for consent before engaging in any physical contact. Before kissing, or hugging, or touching someone’s hair, or even using their things.


If you’ve ever been pregnant, you may have experienced a stranger touching your belly without asking first. That’s a situation where someone should have asked for consent.


Consent can also be established for things that aren’t physical, like checking someone has space before unloading on them emotionally or talking about something that’s potentially triggering.


In the next section, we’ll look at strategies for checking for consent. While most of the examples given relate to situations of physical contact that aren’t specifically sexual, you’ll notice that many of the phrases could be substituted to specifically ask about sexual acts.



How to check for Consent: 5 Strategies to Make Sure you Get it Right:



1. When checking for consent, Be direct


When it comes to checking for consent, it’s best to just come right out and ask. Be clear and direct. Yes, it can feel nerve-wracking to put yourself on the line and ask if someone would like to kiss you for instance, particularly a new partner, but it’s actually no more nerve-wracking than not asking and just leaning in. In fact, if they are going to say no, it’s probably going to feel far less awkward than if you’d leaned in without asking. Plus, when you get comfortable with hearing no (see point 4), it’s actually not uncomfortable at all.


“Can I kiss you?”

“Do you want me to keep going?”

“Can I put my hand in your hair?”



2. Be Specific about What you're asking for Consent For


For consent to be valid, a person needs to fully understand what they’re consenting to. That’s why it’s important to be specific. This can be specific about an act, as well as time or place. Don’t beat around the bush - make it clear exactly what you’re asking. Anything else could be misleading. When things might be unclear, make an effort to clarify. This opens up a dialogue around what is and isn’t comfortable, encouraging the type of clear communication that we should strive for in all our relationships.


“Can I hold your hand in public?”

“Would you like to get a coffee with me after class, as a date?”

“Would you like to come back to my place for sex?”


3. Make it Safe to say 'No' By Providing options


When you ask someone whether they want to engage in a particular act with you, offer the alternative of continuing what you’ve already been doing, or what you were doing earlier. Giving options like these is great because it makes it easier for people to choose not to engage, and it comes to consent, you to make it safe to say no.


Many of us have grown up in a culture where we’re not accustomed to flatly turning something down. Instead, we make excuses for why we don’t want to do something, or suggest maybe later or another time. We’re simply not used to saying no. And so specifically offering someone the option of continuing what you were doing instead of engaging in physical contact allows them more space to choose what they’re more comfortable with, without feeling like they are turning you down.


“Can I kiss you, or shall we keep talking?”

“Do you want me to keep going, or should we pause?”

“Can I touch your hair, or would you rather I don’t?”

“Can I get changed here, or would you prefer I went into another room?”

“Would you like to come back to my place? Or should we head back out on the dance floor?”


4. Learn to hear “no”


Unfortunately, in many cultures it's commonplace to pressure someone into something. You say you’re not drinking tonight and your mate says c’mon, just one. How about we change this culture of coercion by learning to hear and respect a no.


When someone says they don’t want to do something, be grateful they’re staying true to their own wants and boundaries. Thank them for this.


When someone says no, they’re keeping themselves safe and comfortable, which is great. Think about it, do you really want to do something with someone who’d rather not? Let’s get comfortable hearing no, so that more of us feel comfortable saying it. The more comfortable everyone is saying no, the more we can trust a yes when people do give one.


“Let’s just keep talking.”

“I’d love to!”


“I’d prefer that we pause.”

“Sure thing!”


“I’m not interested.”

“No worries, thanks for being clear.”


“I’d rather you don’t.”

“Thank you for letting me know.”


5. Give people the chance to change their mind


Moment to moment, things can change, so make sure you’re allowing people the space to communicate this to you, by checking in or double checking. This is particularly important if time has passed, or you’ve changed locations. Remember, consent must never be assumed and can be withdrawn at any time, so help others feel more comfortable by reminding them of this.


“Did you still want to catch that movie, or should we head home?”

“Would you still like to have sex? Or should we just hang out tonight?”


Consent is so important, and for too long we've focused on the fact that it's needed, without really teaching anyone how to actually practice it. A Let's Talk About X, we believe that by having #FrankDiscussions about what consent looks like we can spark #MeaningfulChange and reduce the prevalence of sexual harm.


Let's Talk About X offers training for schools and workplaces. Check out our Keys for Consent Lesson series, designed for teachers to help senior secondary students develop the skills to practice consent.




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