Dating is hard. Especially when people come from different backgrounds or cultural norms, based on religion or geography, for example, it can be difficult to know what another person’s expectations for. Spelling out expectations can feel unromantic. Plus, you may not know exactly what you want right away — a big part of dating is about figuring that out!
So, how can you be sure you are setting boundaries, but also exploring love and romance in a way that is healthy?
One question that comes up often is around consent. As a conservative Christian, I was taught to never date non-Christians, because we would be “unequally yoked” and it was “missionary dating,” which “never works” — i.e., you won’t likely convert your non-Christian boyfriend into a Christian. I was also taught that all men want is sex.
What I never explored was whether I wanted sex. Seeing my role as the person responsible to set boundaries around intimacy was overwhelming, and I generally avoided romance because of it. What I’ve since learned is that consent is not hard.
I put together a list of guidelines and examples to help others navigate expectations around sex and dating.
When you agree to the date
If you’ve never had sex, you may be wary of going on dates, because in today’s sex-saturated culture, many people expect to have sex on the first date. You don’t want to be defined by such terms as “leading someone on” or being “a tease.” In fact, if you’re not sure you want to have sex with someone, you might be nervous about even going on that first date.
But actually, going on a date is not consent. It is perfectly reasonable to go on a date and not have sex. If sex is offered, a simple “no, thank you” will do. Some dates may even suggest “Getting drinks and see where things go” — this sounds sexually explicit — but the same rules follow. You haven’t consented to sex by agreeing to a date.
After the first drink
Friends go out to get a drink together. Drinks in most cities, whether it’s alcohol or coffee, cost less than $10. There’s probably lots of people you’ve had a drink with and haven’t slept with. Having one drink, no matter who pays for it, does not mean consent.
In fact, multiple expensive drinks, or sharing a bottle of wine, is not consent either. Sometimes a romantic partner may be eager to buy multiple drinks in a group or one-on-one setting. No matter the size of the bill, it’s important to remember the only transaction happening here is money for drinks. Money doesn’t buy sex, unless you want it to — and you’d still have to give consent. You haven’t given consent by having a drink.
Dinner is different than drinks because it’s more serious. After drinks, you and your partner might agree you’re actually just friends, but dinner is more often categorized as a date.
Some people might think that dinner dates are followed by sex, but that’s actually not the case. In fact, you can have dinner with someone multiple times and not have sex. You can do dinner dates for six months and not have sex. If someone wants to buy you dinner, then guess what — they get to have dinner with you.
If they want to kiss you, you can kiss them, or you can say, “No, thank you.”
If they want to have sex, you can give consent by saying “Yes,” or “Let’s keep going,” or you can say, “No, thank you.”
After you’re drunk
A co-worker once told me she lost her virginity at a party when she was drunk. She said “I don’t want to,” and the guy responded, “Well, you’re drunk.”
In this instance, she did not give consent. In fact, she verbally communicated non-consent. This is rape.
When someone is intoxicated, especially if they are unconscious, it is impossible for them to give consent. So, all sexually activity in this situation would be rape. A simple best practice, if you want to sleep with someone, is to not have too much to drink, and perhaps encourage them to do the same.
On the way home
Consent is especially hard for such people who want to have sex and lack empathy, and assume that their partner will want to have sex, too. A popular time to verbalize consent, or non-consent, is on the way home. Your partner might say, “Want to come to my place?” You might respond, “No thanks,” if you don’t want to have sex.
But actually, going to someone’s house isn’t giving them consent for any intimate activity.
In this instance, you can say, “Sure,” or “That would be fun,” and you haven’t given consent. You can go to someone’s home and not have sex with them. It’s totally normal.
If your partner has indicated a lack of empathy thus far on the date — touching you non-consensually, or not respecting previously verbalized boundaries, for example — I don’t recommend going to their home.
This may sound repetitious, but when you’re in bed and naked with someone, you haven’t given consent. I once dated a man who not only identified as a feminist, but actually acted like one. We’d had dinner followed by a few drinks on our second date, and then come back to his house, where we were kissing on the couch.
“I want to take this off,” he said, and waited for an affirmative verbal or non-verbal cue.
This is how we moved from kissing, to naked kissing, to oral sex, to intercourse — with consent given at each step. After the kissing, I could have said, “No thanks.” After the clothes came off, I could have said, “No thanks” … you get the idea.
When it’s time to reciprocate
Sometimes, a partner will offer oral sex before requesting it in return. Maybe you enjoyed receiving oral sex. Maybe it didn’t work well for you and you asked the person to stop. It probably seems polite to reciprocate, because after all, at least your parter put the effort in, right?
But actually, consenting to receive oral sex is not the same as consenting to give it. Maybe you don’t like doing it. Maybe you don’t want to give oral sex to this specific person, but you liked it with other people. Maybe you just aren’t in the mood. If someone asks for oral sex and you don’t want to, you can say, “No, thank you.”
Relationships are about communication and discussing your preferences around various acts of intimacy can help to build a healthy relationship. But, consent does not require details or reasons. It’s a simple yes or no.
The morning after
One time, I was mad at an ex-boyfriend and didn’t have sex with him, but then I was less mad the following morning, and we did have sex. Another time, I had sex with someone and spent the night, and didn’t sleep well, so when he started making the moves the following morning, I said, “No, thank you.”
Especially if you’ve spent the night in someone’s bed, you may feel it’s appropriate to have sex with them if they want. Host rules, or something. But actually, previous acts of intimacy do not imply future consent. You can have sex once and then decide not to the next morning, or on future dates. There are lots of reasons to not have sex, some related to a specific person, your own body, or your religious beliefs, but consent does not require you to name a reason. It’s just a yes or no.
After you’re exclusive
Some couples wait for physical intimacy until they are exclusive. This does not mean umbrella consent is given for all intimate acts.
After you’re married
Marriage is not consent. Perhaps you’ve read 1 Corinthians 7 to mean husbands and wives cannot refuse sex to one another. But, this is a misunderstanding of consent, as the passage actually emphasizes mutual and equal consent. Perhaps a husband requests sex, but he is meant to yield to his wife, just as she yields to him. So, despite being married, there is no blanket of consent. Consent must still be given to your partner to have sex.