Four types of verbal consent
One of my many roles is teaching people about consent. We like to think that obtaining consent is a straightforward process, but all human interactions are inherently complicated. There are non-verbal cues, ways we touch each other, facial expressions, tones of voice, and so on. Each of these can produce confusion, particularly for people with disabilities that inhibit their ability to detect facial expressions or vocal nuances. And as I discuss in this article, certain people have figured out how to manipulate these systems to intentionally produce misunderstandings.
I will save most non-verbal consent for another article. It’s a complex topic, and verbal consent is already complicated. The only non-verbal cue I’ll include here is enthusiasm because it’s so commonly prescribed in certain contexts.
I’ll also mention that I developed these ideas from material in Ranger Belmont’s green dot training a few years ago. As context, green dot rangers are the people that provide mental health first response in Black Rock City. Belmont is the first person I’ve seen break things down this way, but he’s never written any of it down publicly, and my own ideas have evolved since learning about his framework.
Some general principles
There are a couple of useful mnemonics which outline some basic properties of consent: CRISP and FRIES. FRIES stands for freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific. CRISP is considered, reversible, informed, specific, participatory. For reasons that I discuss in this article, CRISP may be more universally applicable. Both are designed for use in the context of sexual intimacy.
This post, however, is about all of the ways people get consent in a variety of contexts, not strictly sexual. It’s hard for consent to a handshake to be reversible because it happens so quickly, though we would certainly expect someone with a cold to inform us before shaking hands, to not coerce us into a handshake, and to not expect the handshake to automatically lead to other things.
Types of consent
First, it’s important to note that each of us goes about getting consent in different ways depending on the context, and that this framework is primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive. Hopefully by the time you finish reading this, you’ll feel empowered to make your own prescriptions with regards to how other people obtain your consent.
|Class example or statement
|No Means No
|“Hell yes!”, “yeah!”
|“Yeah,” “sure,” “okay”
|“No”, “I can’t tonight”
|“No!”, “Leave me the fuck alone!”
The table header describes the four general ways we go about obtaining verbal consent in different contexts. The left column gives examples of responses people might give. The cells aim to show how each response might be interpreted depending on the framework people use.
Depending on the circumstances, we may expect people to opt in (enthusiastic, affirmative) or opt out (no means no, token no).
Clearly, it’s still possible to introduce ambiguity with non-verbal cues; it’s possible to imagine scenarios where even a “Leave me the fuck alone!” is actually a playful yes, and herein lies one of the challenges of using the token no framework, and why in some contexts people have safe words (“Pineapple! PINEAPPLE!”).
The astute reader will also note that a refusal in each framework is acquiescence in the one to its right. For example, if I say “Sure,” someone using enthusiastic consent might hear a no, but someone using affirmative consent will undoubtedly hear a yes. Likewise, if I say nothing using an affirmative consent framework (a refusal), someone using an opt-out framework may interpret agreement. And finally, if someone says no in no means no, a clear refusal, a person using token no may believe they received consent.
Moreover, the difference between “Yeah!” and “Yeah” is almost certainly entirely non-verbal. Most of us tell these apart in spoken language on the basis of tone of voice and facial expression. As I mentioned, not everyone can distinguish between these. Likewise, not everyone can distinguish between “No” and the much more adamant “No!” with an explanation point, because these too are conveyed non-verbally.
Sometimes people express a preference for affirmative consent over enthusiastic consent on the basis of agency, as in, “I should have the agency to consent without enthusiasm,” or “I should be able to agree to something without feeling enthusiastic about it.”
Finally, it’s essential to understand that almost every individual will find themself using each of these in different contexts. To illustrate, a very short story:
George goes to a party, and Kye asks him if they can kiss him. Kye’s really hot and cool, so George says, “Fuck yes!” which clearly means yes.
The next day, George is at work. His boss asks him to email her the receipts from a recent trip. George says, “Sure, okay,” which also clearly means yes.
Later, his boss comes in and says, “Hey, I’m really impressed at your work with the new client,” and holds out her hand. And without saying anything, George takes her hand and shakes it. (In this context, George is using “no means no.”)
Later, George goes on a date with Kye. Kye offers to pay, and George says, “No, that’s okay, you don’t have to do that.” Kye says, “Seriously, let me get this one, you can get the next one.” George says nothing, and lets Kye pay. His no was a token no; he acquiesced.
This story illustrates that the consent framework used is situational even for a single individual, and relies on pre-existing assumptions and implicit agreements. Many social gatherings specify in their invitations the type of consent that should be used for touch between new acquaintances.
In a purely social context (a party with friends, acquaintances, and strangers where alcohol or other substances might be involved), enthusiastic and affirmative consent are common, particularly among millennials, zennials, and younger Americans.
Sometimes, an individual has already consented to certain things, like following instructions from one’s employer, or a request from a romantic partner. As such, one might agree to a request without the non-verbal enthusiasm, or without any affirmation at all. Most people use a “no means no” standard for a proferred handshake, even a few years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which so many of us eschewed touch from strangers completely.
Members of Gen X may feel familiarity with no means no, which aimed to give women (and others) agency to refuse in a western society which respected refusals even less than today’s world. However, many millennials would argue that people (and especially people toward the femme side of the spectrum) have been conditioned not to offer verbal refusals even when they don’t want to consent, and that affirmative or enthusiastic consent is preferable.
Definitely not a defense of token no
Even token no arguably has a place in those environments where women are not afforded the agency to say yes. Consider a society in which femmes will lose social status, or be cast out or even killed for having consensual sex (e.g. “slut shaming”). The use of token no offers the woman an insurance policy in the case of a partner who kisses and tells: “I said no,” she might say, “but he did it anyway.”
To be clear, I don’t advise participating in a society where anyone must rely on a token no for plausible deniability, but not all of us have the luxury of a choice, and leaving can mean losing access to one’s entire life, livelihood, family, and community.
To pile onto the extremely fraught debate surrounding the song, Baby it’s cold outside, written by Frank Loesser in 1944, let’s consider the lyrics:
I really can’t stay (But baby it’s cold outside)
I’ve got to away (But baby it’s cold outside)
This evening has been (So happy that you’d dropped in)
So very nice (I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice)
My mother will start worry (Beautiful what’s your hurry)
My father will be pacing the floor (Listen to the fireplace roar)
So really I’d better scurry (Beautiful please don’t hurry)
Well maybe just a half a drink more (Put some records on while I pour)
The neighbors might think (But baby it’s bad out there)
Say what’s in this drink? (No cabs to be had out there)
I seem to be in (Your eyes are like starlit sin)
Some crazy spell (I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell)
I ought to say “No, no, no sir” (Ya mind if I move in closer?)
At least I’m gonna say that I tried (Baby make my conscious your guide)
The female singer never actually says no; the closest she gets is to say she ought to say no, and then says, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried.” If we’re using enthuasiastic or affirmative consent, the dude is being pressurey and gross. But if they live in a society where pre-marital sleepovers are unacceptable, and she really wants to sleep over, one might imagine that this is how she goes about negotiating such an arrangement. One might also hope that the male performer of the song is not getting between the female performer and the exit.
As an exercise, I want to share with you a rewrite of this song which changes it from token no to affirmative consent by two friends of mine, Dorry Segev and Sommer Gentry. In this version, the male performer expects an explicit opt-in. This song was performed at Lindy Focus XV, a dance event in Asheville, North Carolina, every New Year’s Eve week.
Courtesy of Dorry, here are the lyrics to the opt-in version of the song:
I really can’t stay (Baby it’s cold outside)
I’ve got to go away (I better get you a ride)
This evening has been (I’ll make sure you get home safe)
So very nice (I also had a really good time)
My mother will start to worry (Call her so she knows you’re on your way)
Father will be pacing the floor (He won’t need to worry today)
So really I’d better scurry (Always do whatever feels right)
Tomorrow can we dance a bit more? (I mean, we’re at Lindy Focus)
Our friends might think (That I’m a respectful boy)
Say, what’s in this drink? (Pomegranate La Croix)
I wish I knew how (Your words are beautiful to me)
To break this spell (I love the way we talk things through)
I ought to say no, no, no (If you wanna go you should go)
Maybe I can say that I tried (To me a maybe is still a no)
I really can’t stay (I know ‘cause I listen)
And baby, consent is right.
Manipulation and misunderstanding
The downside of having four frameworks for obtaining consent is that two parties to a negotiation may be using two adjacent frameworks. In the best case, someone is new to a social group, or is slightly older, and does not realize enthusiastic affirmation is needed for a hug. Some people call this a consent accident, and that it is an accident doesn’t make the violation feel any better, particularly when sex is involved. I prefer to avoid this term because it may minimize the experiences of survivors.
The conflicting frameworks also leave the door open for intentional manipulation. Most of us have heard a person who has committed a gross violation claim that “She didn’t say no!” and suspected that the perpetrator knew full well that an explicit opt-in was required.
The fact that laws are different even between states in the U.S. confuses the issue even more. California, New York, Illinois, and Connecticut require that consent to sexual activity be explicitly affirmative, but many other states don’t.
When one is occupying the role of community steward, I recommend watching out for people who have multiple such so-called misunderstandings. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Blanket consent, pre-existing relationships, and flirting
Occasionally, I hear people new to a community express confusion regarding an explicit opt-in requirement despite some people present at community events seeming to rely on opt-out. “I saw people hugging without asking first,” is the common objection. When teaching people about consent, I work to emphasize that pre-existing relationships may supersede community agreements around consent expectations.
I’ll sometimes tell friends as we deepen our relationships, “Blanket consent to hug me whenever you like!”
Another friend sometimes says, “You don’t need to ask before hugging me, but sometimes I’ll say no.” She’s specifying that she prefers to use opt-out for hugs, at least with the person she says this to.
Despite efforts to prescribe a consent framework for a specific community, some individuals inevitably have other preferences about how they want people to interact with them. One acquaintance prefers to use an opt-out framework for hugs, but will refuse whenever people ask her for an explicit opt-in.
None of these descriptions apply to established friendships or partnerships within communities, which have their own agreements. As Catherynne Valente wrote in one of my favorite books, Deathless,
A marriage is a private thing. It has its own wild laws, and secret histories, and savage acts, and what passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders. We look terrible to you, and severe, and you see our blood flying, but what we carry between us is hard-won, and we made it just as we wished it to be, just the color, just the shape.
I hear millennials occasionally complain that opt-in consent takes the fun out of flirting, to which I challenge them to have more creativity. I tell students that flirting is itself a way of obtaining consent, and that there are lots of ways to do it. One common non-verbal flirting strategy used fairly widely in human society is touching of the hands, arms, and shoulders. In a group that expects an explicit verbal opt-in, I recommend to students playful one-liners such as, “Can I flirt with you by touching your arms and shoulders?”
In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker recommends that hosts of a space protect their guests, but also that they don’t become too authoritarian. Protecting the guests creates an environment where people feel safe to participate fully. With consent, protection may consist only of ensuring that guests understand what is expected of them. Clarity prevents misunderstandings and also makes it easier to tell when a violation is intentional.
Community standards: an example
Earlier in this article, I promised not to prescribe. I will, however, describe the framework I teach at interactive theater parties in the vicinity of the San Francisco Bay Area. These events are particularly complicated for a number of reasons.
Firstly, many of the people present are paid employees or contractors of the organization hosting the events. Others are in volunteer roles, and still others are simply participants. As it is a tight-knit community, some of these people date each other, and some even date their coworkers. We expect people may be under the influence of some substance or another, which further complicates the consent landscape. A number of attendees are neuroatypical; many are autistic, and some of those have difficulty interpreting enthusiasm. Finally, interactions may take multiple forms, ranging from performing an impromptu (and possibly triggering) art piece at someone to flirting to a variety of more intimate behaviors.
The complex relationships and presence of substances both make it necessary to be clearer about expectations, particularly of those joining the events for the first time.
The framework I use can be simplified into a few bullet points:
- Explicit verbal opt-in (people need to give a clear “yes” first, not a “maybe”): touching, performances involving sex or nudity in the same space, staring, photography of people, uploading of any photographs to social media. FRIES (see above), because it’s familiar to most people.
- Explicit verbal opt-out (stop if someone asks you to stop): performances without sex or nudity, trying to talk to someone.
We also require art pieces that involve sexuality, nudity, or other things people might find triggering to go through a separate coordinator who discusses additional responsibilities with these projects.
My goal in this article was to provide a description of the various ways people obtain consent. It is especially important to me that people not interpret these descriptions as endorsement of any particular framework. It is possible to use any of these strategies in a healthy context, and it is also possible to use each of these unhealthfully. Much comes down to intent.
If you want me to teach consent at an event, please reach out. I also encourage questions and comments.