Most of us understand consent within the binary parameters of “yes” or “no”. However, the question of whether or not you want to have sex is one that often elicits a more complex response than a simple yes or no. This is especially true for survivors of sexual assault who are navigating a nuanced process of regaining safety and autonomy over their traumatized bodies. What this means is that we need more specific language to have conversations about consent so that we can accurately assess needs and desires related to sex and then act in alignment with them.
Many survivors of sexual assault struggle with sex throughout their healing process. There are a variety of valid reasons for this, some of which relate to a sense of disconnection from themself and from their body. Because of this disconnect, it can be difficult to know what you want or need (which are essential ingredients for good sex!). This can sometimes result in survivors agreeing to have sex without fully understanding whether they truly want to or not. This understandably brings up the issue of consent.
Writer Kai Cheng Thom (URL at bottom of page) brings us the image below, which is inspired by the work of Certified Sexological Bodyworker, Betty Martin (URL at bottom of page). Thinking of consent as a spectrum gives us the specificity that is necessary to locate more accurate self-knowledge around consent.
Image description: pink background with four circles waning in size from full circle to half moon shape labeled with Enduring, Tolerating, Willing, Wanting
It is important to get acquainted with how your body feels at each of these stages so that you can assess where you are on this spectrum from moment to moment. You may begin at “willing” and move to “wanting” or you may start at “willing” and move into “tolerating” depending on what is happening between you and your partner during sex. The more awareness you have of yourself and your body at each of these stages, the better off you will be in communicating with your partner about your needs during sex.
Identify where you are on the spectrum of consent with this exercise:
Fellow therapist, Sara Heidbreder, LCPC, BC-DMT, GLCMA (url at bottom of page), shares a way for you to identify where you are on the spectrum of consent. Sara states, “This simple body-based exercise can help you focus on feelings and sensations in your body that you may not otherwise pay attention to often. It helps you not only identify feelings, but also reconnect with your body. It is important to practice this exercise in a safe space where you have some level of privacy and comfort.”
Sit, stand or lay down in a comfortable manner
Close eyes (or soft gaze) to bring your attention to your body
From the top of the head to toe, go through each body part by asking “how does my — feel right now?”
Try to focus on physical sensations (5 senses, internal sensations, breath, heat rate, tensions, etc.)
Once you identify sensations, take a few breaths to close the experience
Sara also shares some examples of what you might feel at each point on the spectrum:
Enduring: high tension, shallow breath, hard to focus, physical pain, shaky
Tolerating: some muscle tension, restlessness, discomfort, numbness
Willing: natural breath, feeling connected to your partner and their desires, feeling emotionally neutral toward sex, relaxed muscles
Wanting: soft, can have a deep breath, sense of excitement, groundedness, the sensation of arousal in the body such as warmth, swelling, wetness, or tingling in genitals and heightened sensitivity in other erogenous zones on the body. Warmer overall body temperature and possible perspiration.
Remember, every person’s body is different! You may find some of these sensations align with your experience and you may also discover other sensations that show up. What’s most important is that you get to know your body’s sensations.
Our hope is that this tool can help you understand everything that is in between your “yes” and your “no” when it comes to sex. We understand that most of the time those two words are insufficient when it comes to expressing the complex landscape of your sexual desires, especially as they become intertwined with the wound of sexual trauma.