New beginnings, consent and when to have sex

Healthy relationship indicators relationshipAs with anything new, a new relationship is very exciting.  You are learning about each other, likes and dislikes, wants, needs and expectations, and hoping this might be ‘the one!’

The other side of new relationships is the uncertainty, the not knowing each other enough to be able to guess reactions, dealing with those little things that might be fun now but annoying in the long term, the ‘what ifs’ for the future. 

This article will look at setting out your stall in a new relationship; is it ok to delay having sex, and ‘Consent’, what it means and the power of the word NO!

New beginnings…

So you just met them…’the one’ and you are a smitten kitten.  Everything is looking AOK!  Or is it?

Whether it is personal, friends or work, at the start of any relationship, we all have expectations; about the relationship, the role of each partner, what is and is not acceptable and how to manage things when they go wrong.  That is quite a shopping list for a beginning, which is why it is important to be clear in your own mind about what you expect from a partner and a relationship, so you can be clear from the get go!

Let’s think about what we want from a relationship.  Have a look at our Healthy Relationships sheet that gives some indicators of what a healthy relationship should include.  Now think about where they might/would fit into your expectations.  Add more if you have others, remember nobody else’s relationship will be the same as yours.  Key things you should include are:

Trust; Without trust, a relationship is difficult to maintain and it is difficult to avoid conflict and accusations.

Honesty; Goes hand in hand with trust.  We are all human and if your relationship is solidly built on trust, even if you make a mistake you are likely to be able to weather the storm.

Communication; Without communication it is almost impossible to build a relationship; you should be able to verbalise your wants, needs, desires and expectations without judgement.

Respect; Mutual respect should be the basis for any relationship.  Partners should be equal in decision making, access to resources, choices.

Boundaries;  We all have boundaries within our lives, whether these be social, legal or moral.  Relationships are no different, they need and should have boundaries.  You should be able to spend time apart, doing different things with different people.  You should be able to be open and honest about feelings, needs and wants.  You should be able to be honest about what you are and are not comfortable with.

Now you have some ideas, see if you can make a list of your own expectations for a relationship.  Does this fit with your current relationships?  Are there changes you could make to improve on things a bit?

not sure / stop

It’s getting hot in here, let’s take off all our …hang on a minute!

Ok so let’s move things on a bit.  It’s all going well, you are in love (lust?), and phewee is your new partner hot!!!!  Do you?  Don’t you? Should you? If so when should you? Shouldn’t you? Why not?  What if you do?  What will they think of you? What will they think if you don’t? What a pickle!

There is a lot of pressure from partners, friends and peers, the media and cultural assumptions to go on and have sex.  Let’s hang on a minute –sex should be something you both want to do, both consent to and should not be something you feel pressured into doing.  After all it is supposed to fun!  What a pickle!

Firstly let’s make something very clear, there are lots of different ways to be intimate with someone in a non-sexual way; if you don’t want to have sex – then don’t.  Say NO and mean it.   There is no ‘right’ time in a relationship to have sex, other than when you are both ready and comfortable to do so.  What is right for others may not be right for you.  Also sex is not a treadmill – you can get off if you want to!  Just because you already had sex doesn’t mean you can’t say no, put the brakes on and take a break from it for a while until you feel ready.

A quick checklist for you is below, if you haven’t ticked all the boxes, perhaps you aren’t quite ready yet.

Ready Reckoner: R U Ready?

  • You feel you could say no if you wanted to but still want to do it.
  • You can have fun together without anything sexual involved.
  • You each want if for yourself, not for the other person, or to fit in with friends or other’s expectations
  • Nobody is forcing you, putting pressure on you or coercing you to have sex.
  • You have discussed using condoms and contraceptives and agreed what happens next and whether or not to tell friends afterwards, as well as talking about the implications if you/they become pregnant.

If you’re not sure, then you’re not ready, but if you have ticked every box then you are probably in a good place in your relationship and may feel it is the ‘right’ time; that’s great, but always remember you can say NO!  Putting off sex for a while can help you feel more in control of your life.

Consent – what does it actually mean?

consent what does it meanConsent is a contentious issue and has been the cause of many disputes, accusations and allegations and sadly prosecutions.  So what is it all about?  Below is the official description of what consent means:

verb (used without object)

to permit, approve, or agree; comply or yield (often followed by to or an infinitive):He consented to the proposal. We asked her permission, and she consented.

Archaic. to agree in sentiment, opinion, etc.; be in harmony.

This is the dictionary definition of consent and it is clear this is about agreement or approval for a particular event to happen.

When we are talking about consent within a relationship or about sexual activity there is a clear definition used by NHS and police. There is a big difference between consensual sex and rape.

Consent is defined by section 74 Sexual Offences Act 2003. Someone consents to vaginal, anal or oral penetration only if s/he agrees by choice to that penetration and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice. Consent to sexual activity may be given to one sort of sexual activity but not another, vaginal but not anal sex or penetration with conditions, such as wearing a condom. Consent can be withdrawn at any time during sexual activity and each time activity occurs.

Taken from consent-information-leaflet.pdf.  Information correct at time of printing.  11 Jan 2021.

There are four areas of consent to consider:

Capacity to Consent; This is about your ability to understand what you are being asked to do and your ability to verbalise your consent.  Things that impact on your capacity to consent are alcohol and substances, mental health issues, being asleep or unconscious, medical conditions that might limit understanding.

Freedom to Consent; This is about your choice.  Is there pressure being put on you to comply.  Things that could impact are;

Domestic Violence; In a relationship where there is domestic abuse this may result in partners using force, power or coercion to remove freedom to consent.

Those in positions of power, e.g. doctor, teacher, therapist.

Obtaining Consent; This is about how the partner obtained, knew or believed their partner had consented to sexual acts and that they continued to consent.

Reasonable belief in Consent; This is that the partner checked consent was given for all sexual acts and not just some, e.g. consenting to oral sex but not sexual intercourse.  They did not recognise or ignore any sign that the partner was not consenting to any sexual activity/specific sexual activity.

Addressing myths and stereotypes about CONSENT: 

  • The form of dress a person wears does not mean they should expect to be raped/assaulted.
  • The majority of rape/sexual assault cases are where the offender and complainant know each other.
  • Trauma can affect memory and create inconsistency.
  • Being drunk makes the complainant vulnerable. It does not mean they were ‘asking for it’;
  • Most victims do not fight; resistance and self-protection/defence can be through dissociation, freezing or trying to befriend the defendant – in fact any effort to prevent, stop or limit the event. It does not have to succeed to be an ‘effort’.
  • Late reporting may be due to inability to cope with the trauma of the incident, fear of repercussions, maturity with age recognising the abuse, control of the complainant, fear of going to court.
  • In cases of adult survivors of child abuse the complainant may regress and behave or speak as a child.

And finally…how to say NO! And mean it.

Saying NO to a request can often leave us with negative emotions, guilt for saying no, awkwardness, embarrassment.  In a relationship it can be even harder to say no when there are so many conflicting emotions involved.  So how do you let someone down gently but firmly?

Your immediate feelings will usually tell you whether you want to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a request; your gut instinct is there for a reason so listen to your gut!  If you feel the answer should be NO don’t be pressured into changing your mind.

If you are not sure what you are being asked to do ask for clarification.  Saying yes generally might mean agreeing to something you weren’t aware of or wouldn’t have agreed to, e.g. sexual intercourse rather than oral sex.  Be clear from the start what you are prepared to do. 

Nobody else can say NO for you in a relationship; you can’t refer this one to your line manager.  You have to be brave enough to say NO and stand by your decision. 

Whilst it might sometimes be kinder to let people down gently, when we are discussing sex and consent issues there is no room for indirect or euphemistic conversation.  The answer has to be clear.  If it is NO, then say NO! 

Make it clear that you are refusing the current request, not rejecting the person or the relationship. If this relationship is healthy, with someone who genuinely cares for you, then you will survive the odd ‘No’ along the way.

Saying ‘NO’ and surviving the guilt gets easier with practice.

Remember:  When you say no to something you don’t want to do, you are saying ‘yes’ to yourself, acknowledging your own importance and taking control.  Nobody has the right to lay hands on you without your consent.