Sexual Wellness

Gray Area Consent: How to Handle Tricky Situations

| 09/28/2021

Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

Yes means yes, and no means no — but what about all of the sexual experiences that lie somewhere in between? 

Sex can be way more complicated than the dichotomy we’ve been taught. Our past experiences, current contexts, and prevailing power dynamics can all affect the ways that we show up during sex. So, how can we center consent even while navigating those tricky areas? 

I promise, it’s possible. As a sex educator who works with adults (and who specializes in consent and sexual trauma), here are the complicated consent questions folks ask me most often — plus the ways you can navigate them. 

Full disclosure: This article is about consent, communication, and power dynamics. Because we’re talking about the complicated questions folks have about consent, it could be triggering to folks who have experienced sexual trauma. Take care of yourself as you read this article, and take breaks whenever you need to. 

What if substances are involved?

This is the consent question I get the most often, so let’s start here. Legally, consent can’t be given if someone is under the influence of a substance (like alcohol, pot, opioids, or anything that alters your state of mind). 

That’s because alcohol and many drugs can both affect three things: your inhibitions, your thought processing, and your ability to communicate clearly and quickly. Plus, if something is overused, there’s the risk that someone could actually be unconscious or non-responsive. If you’re in that place, consent can’t happen — it’s as simple as that. Not conscious? Can’t consent. 

But what if you’ve been using substances at your usual level and you and a partner have sex? It would be really easy for me to say “if you’ve been using, don’t have sex.” But we all know that abstinence-only education doesn’t work, so let’s get into some harm reduction strategies. 

If you’re planning on using substances and having sex, here are a few key pointers: 

  • Don’t try anything new for the first time 
  • Implement a safe word and safe gesture 
  • Reschedule sex if you’ve approached your personal usage threshold (such as two drinks)
  • Talk about it in advance and come up with a mutually agreed-upon plan
  • Have emergency contraception on-hand, if relevant 

Remember, it’s also more difficult to properly use barrier methods (like condoms) and other forms of on-demand birth control when you’re under the influence, so you should talk about that in your conversation, too. 

And just to say it, there are a bunch of sexual concerns that become more pronounced with substance use — like erectile difficulties, vaginal dryness, and anorgasmia. So, sex may just be more pleasurable if you do wait it out. (That said, many people use cannabis for the express purpose of sexual enhancement, so things are complicated.) If you’re looking for physical contact, you could snuggle up together. If you’re fantasizing about some new things to try, write them out in a note in your phone and then revisit it together in the morning! 

What if your partner didn’t realize how drunk or high you were?

Look, no one can ever truly gauge another person’s level of intoxication just by observing them. That’s a big part of the reason why people will tell you to not have sex when substances have been used! Sure, you might be able to tell if someone is approaching alcohol poisoning or if they’re having a bad trip, but intoxication isn’t always visible. Some people may be able to front sobriety (or light usage) even if they’re several drinks or doses in. They might appear like they’re totally with it, but in reality, they’re not. 

It’s always best to err on the side of caution and postpone sex until you know for sure. But if that hasn’t happened, and your partner didn’t realize that you were so intoxicated, have a conversation about it. Here are some points to bring up: 

  • At what point in the night do things start getting hazy? 
  • What limits should you and your partners set for substance use and sex moving forward? 
  • What type of care and support do you each need today? 
  • What does an appropriate apology look like for you in this context?

The way that you handle this situation is going to vary based on what type of foundational trust exists between you and your partner already. Were you having sex for the first time? Does this person typically advocate for your needs and boundaries to be respected? Or is that foundation a bit shakier? Regardless, take the time to figure out how you’re feeling and what you need moving forward, because this can be a jarring situation to be in. 

What if someone says “yes” to something, but you’re pretty sure they’re not actually into it?

There are a lot of reasons why people might say “yes” to something, even if they aren’t excited about it (or don’t want to do it at all). They might feel pressured because of the context or they may feel guilty setting a boundary. Or, they might be curious about the situation or sex act but not actually excited about it (we’ll get into that more later). Or, there might be a power dynamic that leads them to feel like they have to respond in a certain way. There are countless other reasons, too. 

Two of the foundational tenets of consent are enthusiasm (which can be complicated) and a pressure-free environment. 

So, if your partner is saying “yes” to something, but you sense they don’t really mean it, then the best course of action is to not do that thing and talk about it more later. 

This situation often comes up when people bring up sexual desires in the middle of having sex. That’s not the time to bring up that new thing you want to try, because it can inadvertently pressure your partner into saying “yes” when they actually mean “I need to think about it” or “I don’t think so.” 

Instead, talk about new sexual experiences in a neutral context — like when you’re out for a walk, or while having a cup of tea in your living room. You should plan for that conversation, too. Don’t just spring it on them! 

Try something like, “I’d like to check-in and reconnect about our sex life. Would you be up for talking about that over dinner tonight?” That helps your partner prepare themselves for a vulnerable conversation and helps to ensure that you’re all as present as you can be. 

How do you reconcile the enthusiastic consent model when you’re partner isn’t enthused, but still wants to have sex? 

The enthusiastic consent model is great as a basic overview, but there are a bunch of situations where someone might not be enthusiastic – and that’s okay. Here are some of them: 

  • Someone has never had a certain type of sex before. They’re curious about it and interested in trying, but are still nervous.
  • Someone has a history of trauma and wants to rebuild a positive relationship with sex, but knows that they might be triggered. They want to have sex, but feel worried about managing their triggers during and after.
  • Someone is on the asexual spectrum, so generally doesn’t get super excited about sex. Still, they find it interesting and pleasurable, and are down to explore.
  • Someone has been trying to conceive and now sex feels like a chore. They want to feel pleasure and intimacy (and are aiming for pregnancy), but are struggling to reconcile the stressors of the big goal with the in-the-moment pleasure.
  • Someone feels disconnected from, or bothered by, their postpartum or pregnant body. They want to feel pleasurably connected, but right now, their body doesn’t really feel like their own. 

The list goes on. In all of these situations, it’s best to talk through the emotions that are hitting the brakes. What are the worries, stressors, or other factors that impact your ability to be enthusiastic? How can you keep an open line of communication if things change from “yeah, sure” to “I’m not into this right now”? 

As the partner of someone who is experiencing these things, the best thing you can do is listen to what they’re telling you, create a context that allows them to explore their “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” responses, and find other ways to build intimacy, pleasure, and connection outside of sex.

What if your partner wants to have sex, but is bogged down by cultural shame? 

If someone has been raised in a sex-negative environment, they might really want to have sex…but shame voice in their brain might be saying some pretty nasty things about them. That’s complicated, but also very common, especially for folks who have been raised in strict, religious environments

If your partner was raised in purity culture or another strict religious context but you weren’t, you might feel like you’re having two totally different sexual experiences—and you are. The good news is that partners are always having different sexual experiences because each person brings a totally unique perspective and history to the bedroom. 

This is a situation where aftercare—the emotional and physical care that happens after or even during sex—is really key. Work on creating a shame-free context when it comes to nudity, sexual expression, and sexual play. Build sex talk dates into your weekly calendar so that you can each practice talking about the things that might feel taboo or shameful. 

It takes a long time to loosen shame’s grip on our sex lives, but it is possible. You can help it happen by fostering a playful environment, talking back kindly to the shaming thoughts, and creating a patient atmosphere. 

Can it ever be consensual to be woken up by sex?

This example shows up fairly frequently in media portrayals of sex. But remember: Sex scenes in movies and TV shows almost always skip around the conversations about boundaries, birth control and barrier methods, and desires (and they almost always exclude the awkward and messy moments that are totally normal). 

Here’s what I’ll say: A sleeping person cannot consent to any kind of sex. 

But, if you want to incorporate some sleepy morning sexy time into your schedule, you can still bring this vibe in and center consent.  

Talk with your partner well in advance about your morning sex fantasies. How do they feel being the initiator or the responder? What concerns do they have? How do they want to be woken up? Then, make a plan for when you’ll do it so that it’s not a total surprise. 

From there, don’t just jump straight into genital stimulation while someone is sleeping. Instead, wake them up with caresses, kisses, and light massaging on neutral parts of their body (you can talk about these during that first conversation). Once they’re awake, ask them – ”would you be into doing _______ right now?” Have them open their eyes and make eye contact with you as they respond so that you know they aren’t just sleep-talking. This is also a great way to implement a safe word or gesture: Ask them to confirm that they’re awake and down to play by using their safe word. 

How you’ll proceed from there will depend on the types of things you have discussed are okay for morning or mid-sleep sex. But remember, heavy sleepers (or the sleep-deprived) may start to drift off again! It’s imperative to check in frequently to make sure your partner is still present. 

Overall, if you find yourself feeling confused about consent and power dynamics in a situation, do some research, journal through your feelings, and make time to intentionally talk with your partner about it. As long as everyone is fully informed and is able to communicate their desires and boundaries without being pressured, consensual sex is possible. 

 

If someone has ignored your sexual boundaries or you don’t feel safe talking to your partner about consensual sex, reach out to the National Sexual Assault Hotline via online chat or via phone at 800-656-HOPE (4673). Even if you aren’t sure if your experience could be categorized as sexual assault, their team can help guide you to supportive resources to process your experience.

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