What is Consent and Why Does it Matter?

By Wendy Rose Gould

For many, physical intimacy is among the best aspects of dating and being in a relationship. It’s a form of deep connection where you can feel desired and express your desire for your partner. And the physical pleasure aspect is obviously pretty great, too. 

Whether it’s a one-night stand, a long-term relationship, or something in between, it’s imperative that any sexually intimate experience only happens when there’s clear, enthusiastic consent from both sides.

Simple enough, right? Then why is there still a shroud of mystery around consent? Ahead, we turn to the experts to explore the clear definition of consent, why getting enthusiastic consent is so important, and some of the nuances you might encounter. 

At its core, consensual intimacy means getting complete permission from another person to engage in any form of sexual interaction. This includes kissing, touching, and sex itself. It’s a recognition of the other’s bodily autonomy, decisions, and your unwavering respect toward them. 

“Enthusiastic consent is the golden standard of mutual agreement,” says therapist Michele Green. “It ensures that both parties are not only willing, but are also excited and eager to proceed.” Enthusiastic consent is about ensuring that everyone involved feels seen, heard, and valued. If your partner isn’t wholly consenting, you shouldn’t engage with them physically. You also shouldn’t try to convince them if they seem reluctant, at any stage. Because intimacy tends to progress in levels of intensity, it’s important for both parties to enthusiastically consent along the way. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether your partner is enthusiastic about engaging in physical intimacy. However, there are some signs you can look for. Here’s what our experts said about what enthusiastic consent can look like: 

  • Verbal confirmation of excitement and desire to move forward 
  • Active participation through body language and expressions 
  • Initiating physical touch 
  • Asking for your consent
  • Expressing that they like what you’re doing 

Just as we’re looking for signs that point to your partner being engaged and excited about physical intimacy, there are some behaviors they may exhibit that demonstrate they’re not feeling it. Our experts say that any of the following behaviors are a sign that the other person isn’t enthusiastically consenting: 

  • Hesitation: If someone seems unsure or takes time to respond, they might not be wholeheartedly into it.
  • Distraction: If they’re frequently looking away or seem mentally distant, they’re not engaged with the situation.
  • Body language: Pulling away, tensing up, or lack of active participation can be signs of discomfort.
  • Silence: If someone is unusually quiet or not responding to prompts, they may not be enjoying the intimacy.
  • Expressed concerns: If someone voices uncertainties, even if subtly, it’s a clear signal to pause and check in. If they say no, stop. 
  • Creating obstacles: If the other person is pushing you away, going into another room, or otherwise creating obstacles to intimacy, they’re not consenting.

Getting verbal consent is always a good thing—and it doesn’t have to be awkward. While you can pay attention to non-verbal cues that signal your partner is consenting, it’s difficult to always know what’s going on in their head. In this case, verbal consent is a must.

“If someone hasn’t verbally communicated consent—even if they appear eager—it’s as simple as asking,” says therapist Mendi Baron. “You can say something as simple as ‘I just want to confirm that you’re comfortable with this.’” 

This is a clear way to ask, and signals kindness, maturity, and empathy to your partner, which will help them feel at ease. Gentle check-ins along the way (“Is this OK?” “Do you like this?”) are also always welcome. Therapist Indigo Stray Conger agrees: it doesn’t have to be a mood killer to ask your partner whether you can kiss them, take their clothes off, or beyond. 

“In fact,” she says, “this can heighten excitement while simultaneously ensuring that you’re respecting your partner’s boundaries.” In other words, asking for consent can make your intimate connections even sexier. 

In more established relationships, it’s not always necessary to ask for explicit consent each time you engage. However, it’s important to always pay attention to verbal and physical cues from the other person to make sure they’re wholly on board. If you sense any reluctance, you should get verbal confirmation from them. 

We tend to fall into predictable patterns with long-term partners, especially when it comes to physical intimacy. However, Conger stresses that implicit consent based on having sex with someone in the past, or being in a romantic relationship, isn’t enough to assume consent in the moment. 

“Consent isn’t a one-time checkbox—it’s an ongoing dialogue,” Green adds. “As intimacy deepens or changes, comfort levels might shift.” For example, she explains that someone might not be excited about something they were into five minutes ago, let alone the last time you had sex. This is why it’s so important to check in with your partner, read your partner’s non-verbal cues, and ask them direct questions as you progress. This ensures that the mutual comfort and enthusiasm remain consistent. 

In other words, enthusiastic consent is a continuous conversation between partners. By honoring our partners in this way, we ensure safety and comfort. This leads to nourishing our connections and enjoying meaningful relationships that are rooted in trust and respect.