Consent in Romantic Relationships

In this episode of the podcast we covered consensual romantic/partner relationships: why this is particularly important to talk about right now, and what we can do to move towards a more affirmative model of consent in our relationships.

Non-consent in relationships

The current moment – in summer 2020 when we recorded this – highlights the importance of turning our attention to consensual relationships in several ways. 

First, domestic abuse has gone up globally by 20% during the pandemic. In the UK calls for domestic abuse helplines jumped by a half in the first month or so and a further spike is predicted post lockdown. Boots pharmacies began offering safe spaces for people to go if they were in abusive situations, and legislation was put in place to help survivors to escape abusive homes during lockdown. All this led to domestic abuse being called the ‘shadow pandemic’. So we see clearly the scale of non-consensual relationships, and just how important this is to address.

Then #BlackLivesMatter highlighted massive flaws in the policing and criminal justice systems. When some responded to calls to dismantle and abolish these systems by asking ‘what about’ survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault, many pointed out that the criminal justice system has never served survivors. Survivors often experience legal processes as retraumatising and gaslighting, given the minimising, denial, victim blame, and perpetrator defense which often happens in court cases – mirroring how survivors are treated in wider culture. Number of cases passed for charges is low as rates continue to rise. Many have suggested that policing is ill-equipped to deal with sexual and relationship abuse, and that it is actively dangerous when those involved are people of colour. For these reasons, people have turned to alternative models like funding other forms of support for survivors, building accountable communities, and transformative justice.

The UK statistics on non-consensual sex are that 1 in 5 women have had someone try to have sex with them against their will and 1 in 10 women have had someone had sex with them against their will. For men this is 1 in 20 have experienced attempted non-volitional sex on them and 1 in 71 have had sex against their will. In most instances of completed non-volitional sex, the perpetrator was known to the participant, either as a current or former intimate partner (40·6% women, 22·9% men). 

This highlights the fact that we need far more focus on how to avoid and address sexual – and other forms of – violence in the home and within known relationships. Instead, media focus tends to be on stranger sexual assault, which potentially puts women at more risk (constraining them to private/home spaces) and makes it harder to speak out about assault with known people when it occurs. Also, non-consensual sex often happens in contexts where other forms of non-consent are normalised, so we need to look to how to cultivate cultures of consent around all our relationships.

Spectrums of consent

The common idea with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse is that the majority of relationships are ‘normal’ and non-abusive, and a minority are abusive and need an entirely different approach. This is unhelpful because it encourages us – as survivors and wider culture – to keep asking the binary question of whether a situation is ‘bad enough’ to count as abuse, and only counting it, and feeling able to address it, if it meets those criteria: often the legal criteria. 

Also, this binary perpetuates the idea that there are bad ‘abusers’ and everyone else who is perfectly good and safe. This makes talking about consent in relationships really hard because we feel like we have to present ourselves as perfectly good and safe, and deny or defend any non-consensual behaviours, lest we be seen as an abuser and rejected, called out, or reported.

Also, as with sex, the criteria for ‘abuse’ is a low bar for a relationship. The idea should not be that if it doesn’t meet the legal criteria for abuse/assault it is fine, but more about how it can be as consensual and beneficial for all involved as possible.

A more useful approach is to see these things on a spectrum. In a highly non-consensual culture where non-consensual behaviour is normalised in romantic relationships in particular, it would be unlikely – if not impossible – for any relationship to be entirely consensual. So we might more usefully ask ‘how can we maximise how consensual this relationship is for all involved?’ – as the people in that relationship and as the people around it. Then if we feel like the level of consent is not good enough – if we start feeling unsafe or our freedom constrained for example – we can know that that is enough reason to ask for that to be dealt with, and to step away if the other person isn’t up for that.

Thinking about all the following features on spectrums rather than as legalistic abuse/non-abuse binaries can be helpful:

  • How consensual is physical touch in this relationship (rather than does it count as physical abuse or not)?
  • How consensual is sex in this relationship (rather than does it count as sexual abuse or not)?
  • How consensual is money in this relationship (rather than whether someone is entirely controlling of the other’s personal finances)?
  • How kind are people in this relationship, and are they able to regulate themselves when not feeling kind (rather than do people actively put each other down or diminish each other)?
  • How safe do people in this relationship feel (rather than are active threats made)?
  • How free do people in this relationship feel to have other close relationships (not just whether they are explicitly isolated from friends or family)?
  • Is everyone in this relationship able to meet their basic needs and get support when they need it?
  • Does everyone in this relationship get the privacy and solitude they need on- and offline without monitoring from the other person/people?
  • Is everyone free to decide where they go, who they see, what they wear, when they sleep, etc.?

Lockdown has highlighted to many people the areas in their relationships which are not as consensual as they would like. It also potentially presents a good opportunity for us all to start to address our own non-consensual patterns where we have them.

A culture of consensual relationships

The wider culture of romantic relationships normalises non-consent, with common tropes like it being romantic to pressurise or manipulate somebody into a relationship, to attempt to shape them into who you want them to be, to focus on that relationship at the exclusion of others, and to say that you couldn’t live without them and try to convince them to stay with you forever. 

There’s also a dangerous idea that romantic relationships are private and shouldn’t be shared with anybody else, and that we should present them as perfect on social media and never talk about the difficult parts. 

Ideally we would change the whole culture to depict romantic relationships far more consensually. In the meantime hopefully we can try to shift the consent cultures in our communities and networks.

Moving towards a culture of more consensual relationships could involve things like:

  • At a micro level learning how to notice what non-consent feels like in our body: both when we are at risk of doing it to another person, and when it is done to us. This requires getting enough solitude and privacy to be with our feelings and to check in with ourselves regularly about our needs and boundaries.
  • Addressing our stuck patterns which make us more likely to behave reactively or non-consensually, and being up for getting support with this when needed. Again some time alone and with others is necessary for doing this work, as is the capacity to take ourselves away to a safe-enough place when we become reactive.
  • Practising addressing micro moments of non-consent in relationship so it becomes everyday and normalised to do so.
  • Cultivating systems of support, and consensual relating within those systems, so that it becomes normalised and that we have people to support us in this. 
  • Committing to keeping the windows on our relationship open with our close people and community so we can be alerted if people have concerns, and supported to maximise consent.

So what might consensual romantic relationships look like? Here we’re taking the key ideas that we often talk about around consensual sex and applying them to the whole of a relationship:

Make consent the aim.

With sex making consent the aim, rather than getting sex, enables consensual sex to happen. With relationships we could make mutual consent the aim of the whole relationship, and each encounter: not getting what you want from the other person, or being what they want. This might look like wanting the maximum freedom and safety for you and the other person, regardless of what the relationship needs to look like in order for this to be possible.

Everyone knows that they don’t have to do it (now or ever).

Sex can’t be consensual unless we know that we absolutely don’t have to do it, and that no kind of punishment will occur if we don’t do it. With relationships the same is true for the whole relationship. We need to know that we are free to not be in this relationship, or in this particular way, without fearing that we will be punished or suffer significant loss. Here it can be useful to keep affirming with each other that our whole relationship (and our home, community, security, etc.) isn’t contingent on, for example: having sex regularly, continuing to cohabit, feeling romantic towards this person, our body staying the same, earning a certain amount, etc. 

Consent is informed.

In sex this means knowing what’s on the cards before the encounter rather than being surprised with activities we weren’t expecting. In relationships this means having enough information to be able to make a decision about whether this kind of relationship with this person is a good idea for you. It’s important not to hide vital information that you know might make a person think twice or want to go slower. With each step in a relationship people need enough information in advance in order to make a consensual choice. For example it’s good to be clear about your feelings about having kids and childrearing long before you’ve committed to a relationship that would preclude people doing that elsewhere, or not doing it if it’s not what you want. It’s good to be clear about your financial situation and relationship with money long before sharing/borrowing/lending finances in any way. Considering speed of relationships can be helpful for having long enough to ensure informed consent before each step. It’s also important to explore shame and how we cover over shame in presenting ourselves to others.

Consent is ongoing.

In sex this means checking in verbally and/or non-verbally during the encounter that everyone is enjoying it, and pausing or stopping if not. In relationships this means also continuing to check in whether it is working well for everyone, and taking whatever kinds of pauses or breaks are necessary on aspects of the relationship – or the whole relationship – if it isn’t working (if it’s not working for everyone, it’s not working for anyone). The cultural idea of specific vows, promises or commitments can make ongoing consent difficult because they suggest that it’s possible to agree to share your money, body or home in a certain way for the rest of your life, whatever happens in relation to money, health or feelings.

There is no default script, but multiple options.

In sex there is the default script of first to fourth base (or similar). In relationships there is a similar cultural ‘escalator’ model where it is seen as good to get closer, more entwined, and happier over time, checking the points on the relationship checklist (e.g. dating, having sex, becoming exclusive, moving in together, getting married, having a family, etc.) For consent it’s vital to know that all erotic, sensual or sexual activities – and none – are equally valid, so you can choose what works best for everyone. In a relationship all ways of doing relationships – and all aspects of relationships – need to be affirmed as equally valid. Then you can find what works – and doesn’t work – for this particular relationship. It’s important that the person or people whose ways of doing things are the closest to the normative script maximise the agency of those whose ways are further away to articulate their preferences and have them respected.

We’re all mindful of power imbalances and how they constrain consent.

Sexual consent is way harder when one person has a lot of power over the other. For example it is hard to say ‘no’ if you feel at risk in some way if you don’t respond to another person’s sexual advances (career, money, care, safety, etc.) Similarly those with more power in a relationship need to recognise those with less may feel far less able to say what they need and where their boundaries are. It’s good to be open about the power imbalances, and to do what you can to enable those with less power in each area to identify and articulate their needs and boundaries and have them respected.

We try to be accountable.

It’s important to recognise that we won’t always be perfectly consensual and to recognise – as soon as possible – when this hasn’t happened, and to be accountable for that. Micro moments of non-consent can be fairly easy to repair, and the more we make a habit of doing that the more easy it can become. Bigger moments can be much harder, and this is where it’s really good to have a network of support around you to help each person to process what has happened, to enable them to take as much space as they need in order to be ready to address it, and to support them coming together to hear and be heard, and repair if possible.

Further resources

Here are links to a few of our other resources which relate to this:

© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020