The Triangle of Consent

Consent is an agreement between two people about how to move forward in a sexual relationship. While it’s easy to assume that obtaining consent is easy, American society has never created a space for people to learn how to obtain consent. What appears to be a simple issue of “yes” and “no” to sex often turns into “he said, she said” when someone makes an accusation of sexual assault.

So how do we improve our knowledge of how to handle consent? The sex positive community has not been a good example. In January 2018, Reid Mihalko, a well-known sex educator and cofounder of Cuddle Parties, was accused of of sexual harassment by a colleague. Though he later apologized and entered into a restorative justice process with other colleagues, his initial decision to not take responsibility shows a huge gap between his preaching about obtaining consent versus his actions.

Milhalko created an model for consent called the “safer sex elevator speech,” a way to establish boundaries and agreements before sexual activity. If a person who taught others how to obtain consent made a potential partner feel pressured, how can a regular person know what to do when consent gets messy?

I used to promote the safer sex elevator speech to people that want to know how to communicate about sex before the act. Once I learned about Mihalko’s behavior and his response, I started working on my own model. Who am I? I’m the website editor of Black & Poly, a community for black people transitioning to polyamory. I have been an assistant organizer for my local polyamory group and I am part of the sex-positive New Culture movement. I’ve taught others about consent and I am a survivor of sexual abuse. I identify as a womanist and I believe everyone wants to get this right.

A green triangle with the word consent in the middle. At the top is communication, and the at the bottom are power and agency.

This consent model expands the elevator speech beyond the basics of who, what, and how. It starts with the recognition of agency and power balances and ends with specific communication about sexual acts. This model has the form of a triangle in equal relationship to each other. If one part is missing or abbreviated, it will affect the entire experience of giving and obtaining consent. Here are the three legs: agency, power, and communication. I’ll break down each leg in detail.

Agency

The first leg is agency, which is the recognition that we all have the ability to make choices for ourselves. We make those choices based on available information and our own judgment. When we’re in a relationship, disclosing relevant information is the way we recognize our partner’s agency.

For instance, a person in the dating scene may tell a potential partner that they are seeing others. For those currently in a relationship, it may mean telling a partner that they have acquired an STI. This information usually affects the partner’s future actions, which is why it’s difficult and sometimes embarrassing to talk about. When we withhold information, we are taking away some of our partner’s agency. When a partner has the right information, they can respond in a way that will protect their own safety and peace of mind.

Another part of agency is cognition, or each person’s ability to understand the situation. Children, teenagers, and even young adults do not have the brain development of mature adults; it’s why we restrict drugs, alcohol, and driving by age. In the same way, neurodiverse people often lack the social awareness that will give them the information needed to give or obtain consent. For all people, impairment due to drugs and alcohol means people may make different decisions than if they were sober.

When determining if your partner has agency, compare their individual development against what is expected of people the same age and disability status. If they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are they cognizant of the decision they are making and its possible effects? Recognizing our partner’s agency is a critical part of obtaining consent. We must also acknowledge that even when consent is asked for and given, their actions could cross legal and/or moral boundaries.

Power

The second leg of the consent triangle is the awareness of power. It’s no accident that the majority of celebrities called out for sexual assault and harassment in the #MeToo have been powerful white men. Men born in the US have been brought up in a culture of toxic masculinity that values aggressiveness, manipulation, and dishonesty in order to “get the girl.” When a potential partner refuses to consent, a man’s response of disappointment and even anger is seen as socially appropriate.

Men are not always the bad guys, though. Any relationship between two people is subject to a power imbalance when someone has more seniority, wealth, status, or social support than their partner. Women who pressure men into sex by using their “feminine wiles” are just as guilty of manipulation. The power dynamics of each relationship is not fixed, and it’s always subjective. If someone believes they have less power, that will impact their ability to give consent.

In order to move forward with consent, people should acknowledge the power they hold in the situation. Have they considered the reasons their partner might say yes besides an actual desire to engage? Are they using their position or cultural privilege to get the sex they want? Can they give their partner the space to say no without fearing the consequences?

The fear of rejection is a powerful motivator during consent conversations. Saying or hearing “no” can be painful no matter how justified they are. In fact, many people go through with sex they are not sure about because the idea of hurting their partner seems to be worse than grinning and bearing it. To counter this, sex educators have asked people to ask for enthusiastic consent: it’s either a “Hell, yes!” or it’s a “no.”

Consent is almost meaningless when one partner has created a power imbalance through coercion and violence. People evaluating consent from the outside cannot use someone’s failure to stand up to or leave their abuser as a sign of consent. In the same way, it can be difficult to tell if a situation is sexual harassment or not. We can only start by believing the accuser and looking for patterns in each person’s behavior as it relates to the power balance.

Communication

The final leg of consent is the actual communication. Even in romantic comedies where the couple is falling over each other to get in a bed, consent has to be asked for and given. In an ideal world, progressively more intimate activities are verbally consented to by each partner. In the real world, it looks more like shy touches, smiles, and other nonverbal communication. The problem is that some people will look back on those activities and know that at some point they were unwilling to continue.

The moment bad sex becomes something worse is when this unwillingness is glossed over, when one partner notices that something is wrong but continues anyway. We have all experienced the feeling of powerlessness when we give up our agency to another. Our consent is half-hearted, and the guilt can be overwhelming. If you’ve ever had that experience in a non-sexual situation, then try to act with compassion when you see your partner hesitating to give consent.

So what does a conversation about sex look like? It starts with the truth. “I want to be intimate with you.” Even if the phrase sounds awkward and perhaps unauthentic, I encourage you to go into even more detail. The initial yes should be followed up with a checklist of sorts to cover the entire spectrum of sexual activity. Consider the following areas:

  1. Dirty talk
  2. Kissing
  3. Touching genitalia and erogenous zones
  4. Penetration (genitals, fingers, toys)
  5. Oral sex
  6. Anal sex
  7. BDSM activities such as spanking and fetishes

In the spirit of recognizing agency, both partners should discuss any potential barriers to consensual sex. This includes:

  1. STIs and date of last testing
  2. Use of barriers (such as condoms or dental dams), what kind and where
  3. Current relationships and agreements
  4. Past sexual history
  5. Use of birth control or medical sterilization
  6. Medical conditions and other physical limitations
  7. Psychological limitations, history of abuse, and triggers
  8. Attitude towards sex and how it will affect the relationship moving forward

Practice communicating consent before you and your partner get to the bedroom. Over time, these conversations will become commonplace and easier. It’s understandable that not everyone can talk about these things without feeling embarrassed or nervous, but sex is not something to be done in the proverbial dark. The more openness you bring to the conversation, the less shame you will feel about doing one of the most human acts.

At the end of the day, consent is just one part of navigating relationships. Due to the legal and social change in the world, it’s more important than ever to find a way to give and obtain consent without shame and guilt. Recognizing each other’s agency, addressing power imbalances, and communicating consent is a great way to create space for the pleasurable experience that sex should be.

Examples

Now that we have a model of consent, let’s apply it to different situations.

Situation 1: A heterosexual couple has gone out on their first date and are now at the man’s house for a nightcap. The man, recognizing his power in this situation (it’s his house and his alcohol) tries to make the woman as comfortable as possible. He may offer her a drink and sit beside her, almost touching her in a way that is intimate but not forceful. Either may initiate sex by engaging in touching and other nonverbal signs.

In order to bring the triangle of consent into balance, they can do things differently. Either partner could demonstrate agency by speaking the truth about the situation: “I’m at your house and excited about connecting more with you.” “I know I invited you over, but I understand if you want to leave without us having sex.” They can also turn touching into communication by saying, “Can I give you a hug or kiss?” Creating an opening for communication gives both partners the space and time to get in touch with their desires and act from a place of enthusiastic consent.

Situation 2: Gay acquaintances have been drinking at a bar, and one partner is interested in making out. Both partners have been using their agency by flirting and talking during the night. They have the social skills to be able to interpret when their attention is no longer reciprocated. Either one can gain consent by verbally asking for a kiss.

No matter how encouraging a partner has been, direct communication establishes a starting point for consent that they can both point to later. It’s true that alcohol can interfere with judgment, and that people can still regret activities they consent to. The more time they spend talking about what they both want, they more likely they will look back on the situation with confidence.

Situation 3: A woman at a higher level in a company is flirting with a colleague. The woman can acknowledge her position of power by saying, “I know I’m in upper management at work, but I want us to be equals outside.” She can clarify what she wants by saying, “I’m flirting with you because I’m interested in a sexual relationship.” It is vital that she gives her partner space to say yes or no and to follow up with details. Instead of depending on innuendo and creating a potentially dangerous “he said, she said” situation, both people can consent to the interaction in a way that feels good. (It’s still possible that their relationship could violate company guidelines.)

The world of dating is often murky, and misunderstandings can be played up as humorous or treacherous. By incorporating the triangle of consent into your interactions, you can create a container of safety and awareness around sexual activity.

Bonus

Believe it or not, a children’s show has created a perfect scenario for talking about consent. In the show Steven Universe, Steven is a half-alien who has a human friend named Connie. In this episode, they realize that they can fuse together like the aliens can. Fusion is an analog of sex for the aliens, and the episode is a great representation about how consent works.

In this episode, Steven and Connie are enjoying themselves at the beach. They start dancing, which is how the aliens initiate a fusion. Steven recognizes his power and covers his eyes before asking Connie to dance. They both allows themselves to be vulnerable with awkward dance moves and giggles. When they fuse, they are able to enjoy the pleasure of being in sync with each other while recognizing that sometimes they are uncomfortable. After interacting with other characters in the show, they stop to check in. “Are you ok?” This simple question opens up space for both people to communicate their willingness to continue.

Later, at a dance party, Steven and Connie’s togetherness becomes downright uncomfortable. They stop dancing and wonder why it’s not fun. They are both willing to say that something is wrong, even if they can’t explain why. Whether we express it or not, we know what a no feels like. Many of us have also experienced the negative consequences of saying no. In the episode, the response to no included aggressive shaming and attempts to convince them that their no is not a real no. We can create a better consent culture when we recognize a no, stop, and enjoy our time with a partner at a level where we are both comfortable.

H/T to Gregory Avery-Weir for their breakdown of Alone Together.

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Representation Matters

When you talk to white middle class polyamorists, you get the viewpoint of white middle class polyamorists.

Olivia Goldhill recently wrote about polyamory and whether it is a political movement. While she acknowledged the existence of Black & Poly's Facebook page, she concluded that the poly community was largely white and cisgendered. Unfortunately she did not reach out to Ron Young or any of the non-white leaders in the polyamory movement. As a result, her article demonstrates a narrow view of polyamory.

Missing from the article are people of color and queer people who struggle to live their lives in a culture that is not at all accepting. Despite the fact that black polyamorists face discrimination from family, potential partners, and work colleagues, non-monogamy has always been a part of black culture. The Black Panthers lived collectively and had multiple partners during the sixties, but the author is ignorant of this history. Black & Poly specifically takes a womanist view of the world that centers the experiences and desires of women in a distinctly non-patriarchal way.

The author also glosses over the LGBTQ community and their history of non-monogamy. Though she mentions some women and non-binary people who identify as queer, it's clear she has only talked to bisexual women who largely operate in the heterosexual poly community. Ana Valens, responding to the article, writes: “Instead of suggesting polyamory began with hetero communes and ended up in Brooklyn bars, it’s much more accurate to suggest that queer poly people see their sexual and romantic interactions as part of a larger queer experience of challenging the norms that permeate in cis, straight relationships. In other words, poly queers are not looking for belonging. They’re looking to exist independently from straight people.”

Middle class whites did popularize swinging, where couples meet in homes or sex clubs for purely physical relationships. The author confuses these two flavors of ethical non-monogamy while trying to define polyamory. In doing so, she conflates sex and love in a way that many poly people dislike. The event she profiles in the article is not a poly meetup but a BDSM mixer. While the kink and poly communities overlap, they have many differences. The only black voice in the article talks about a common problem in the BDSM community, but it is not necessarily representative of black women's experiences in the poly community.

Her description of polyamory also ignores the asexual community and those who include non-sexual relationships in their polycules. It was inaccurate and harmful for her to say that both men and women are “expected” to enjoy sex because consent is the absolute bedrock of polyamorous relationships. The couples new to non-monogamy that look forward to threesomes with single women quickly realize the reality of polyamorous dating: you can't force sexual attraction.

Her article has an uncomfortable focus on the economic benefits of polyamory. Poly family homes are another stereotype that is not part of most people's lived reality. For all her focus on marble countertops, she ignores the subset of black polyamorists that specifically seek to build black economic power outside of the mainstream economy. Once again, the black poly community is actually more political than the people she interviews.

While I know and respect the people at Chrysalis, none of them can be considered typical polyamorists. New Culture is a radical movement focusing on relationships and vulnerability, but it faces its own issues with race and LGBTQ representation. I was disappointed that Michael Rios, a respected leader, downplayed the effort required to maintain interracial relationships. Kevin Patterson's book Love's Not Colorblind deserves more than a casual reference as a guide to how people can deconstruct race and privilege in the poly community.

The benefits of polyamory, such as autonomy and self knowledge, are not limited to those who live together and have group sex. Polyamory requires not only openness but a desire to build interpersonal skills and work through tough problems. The author's drawing of poly as a cozy, multi-family network doesn't show the real work that people do to maintain their relationships. This is the reason polyamorists do not disparage those who chose monogamy. It's not for everyone, and we certainly don't expect everyone to move into family-friendly communes.

The author went looking for radicalism in the poly community, and she found middle class people who are using their privilege to live comfortably despite having an alternative lifestyle. She missed the people who are actively challenging white privilege and patriarchy through their relationships, and in doing so she did a disservice to the entire poly community.

If it feels like history is repeating itself, it is.

Couple’s Privilege

A listing of the best sites to find out more about unicorn hunting and couple's privilege.

Unicorn Hunting: In dominant polyamory culture, almost always used of a hypothetical woman who is willing to date both members of an existing couple, agree not to have any relationships other than the ones with the couple, agree not to be sexually involved with one member of the couple unless the other member of the couple is also there, and/or agree to move in with the couple. So named because people willing to agree to such arrangements are vanishingly rare, whereas couples looking for a woman who will agree to these terms are incredibly common.

Couple's Privilege: The presumption that socially sanctioned pair-bond relationships involving only two people (such as marriage, long-term boyfriend/girlfriend, or other forms of conventional intimate/life partnerships) are inherently more important, “real” and valid than other types of intimate, romantic or sexual relationships. Such primary couples (or partnerships that are clearly riding society’s standard relationship escalator toward that goal) are widely presumed — even within many nonmonogamous communities — to warrant more recognition and support than other types of intimate relationships.

How to Find and Meet Polyamorous People

A short primer from Franklin Veaux of More Than Two:

I have found that it's quite easy to locate partners willing to accept polyamory. In fact, in all honesty, I have to say "no" far more often than I say "yes."
Here are the things I have found that work to help make it easy:
1. Don't pre-script what the relationship will look like ("it has to be a polyfi triad with a bisexual woman," "it has to be a quad with a married couple"). Be flexible and open to connections even if they don't form the way you expect.
2. Don't go around scoping out everyone you meet as a potential partner. Go about your life doing what you love and expressing your joy. When you do this, people tend to be attracted to you.
3. Be open about polyamory, without apology, fear, or shame. If you are not open, you could be in a room with 15 other poly people, and all of you might be thinking "gosh, where can I go to meet other poly people?"
4. Focus less on what you want than on who you are. Seek to build in yourself the qualities the kind of person you're looking for might find desirable. If you are looking for people of integrity, be a person of integrity. If you're looking for people who are flexible, be flexible. If you are looking for people who are compassionate and kind, be a person who is compassionate and kind.
5. Don't treat people as things. Don't consider new relationships disposable. (This is a lot harder to do than it sounds.)

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I Do it For You

When people start exploring polyamory, their reasons for doing so lay out the initial map for the journey. But what happens when your partner tries to convince you to explore polyamory and you’re not ready? Should you ignore them? End the relationship? Acquiesce? Experienced poly people have tried all of them with mixed results. Continue reading “I Do it For You”

Black Love: A Family Affair

My grandfather died when I was in middle school. As with all funerals, there are a multitude of family members I’d never met or barely talked to. But hearing about one woman caught me completely by surprise: my mother’s half-sister.

My grandparents on my mother’s side had six children, and I knew them all well (they lived in Gastonia and surrounding towns). I had met their spouses, played with their children, and attended weddings and funerals with them. They’d never mentioned a seventh child, the daughter of my grandfather. My grandmother was reluctant to talk about her. My grandfather was dead. My mother doesn’t want me to talk about it online. But she exists, and the fact that she exists highlights an important part of black culture.

We are not monogamous.

If you’ve read Sex at Dawn, you’re aware of the historical underpinnings of marriage and how it is tied to property and birthright. It’s part of the reason polygyny (a man married to multiple women) is still acceptable across the world. As a black American, I don’t feel much connection with the African women in polygamous marriages. I do feel a connection with my great grandmother, who decided, after having five children, that she would have the next two with a different man. Was she a cheater? Most definitely. Did she have any other models of love and relationship other than monogamy and polygamy? Probably not.

During the slave trade, economic interest was stronger than marital bonds. Black families were routinely separated and sold to different owners whether they were married or single. A woman could not expect to stay on the same plantation with her father or her husband. She often could not decide who would be the father of her own children. Naturally, when freedom came, black families tried to create homes and communities that looked like white families’. They joined a culture that had decided monogamy was best, no matter how often the model citizens failed at it. But consistently up until the modern era, black families have looked more like single parent families, extended support systems, and skipped generation rearing.

Modern critics call it “the breakdown of family structures.” I call it the irreparable damage of white supremacy.

Research shows that, despite the fact that black Americans are less likely to be married than white Americans, black Americans still want and have romantic relationships. They just don’t always end with marriage. The stereotypical lower-income black mother with multiple “baby daddies” has a kernel of truth–black culture, in general, is accepting of serial monogamy and blended families. It’s acceptable to end a relationship when it no longer meets our needs, and it’s just as acceptable to ask that the ex participate in co-parenting along with or instead of a new partner.

Compared to the cultural standard, our way of doing relationships looks dysfunctional and unhealthy. Often times it is dysfunctional and unhealthy, but sometimes it works. Polyamory, a word invented in 1991, is about openness and honesty around our wants and needs. In polyamory, it’s normal to decide whether to live together or not, who participates in co-parenting, and who contributes financially. Black culture does not have to make a giant leap into polyamory–it just has to bring our current practices to the light. Not everyone is built for non-monogamy, and there is still work to be done around removing religion-based shame. At the end of the day, people will be healthier by having more options with which to live authentic lives.