Content note: Includes descriptions of consensual kissing with people in more or less dominant and submissive mental states, and mention of non-consensual sexual behaviour without descriptions.
The Wheel of Consent is an idea from the awesome sexologist and intimacy coach Betty Martin. I heard about it through my mates in the sexological bodywork and urban tantra scenes and found it extremely useful. However, I’ve also introduced it to other people in my life who haven’t connected with it at all. So I thought I’d write a bit here to try and explain it because it can be complicated to get your head around. I’ll also say why I find it so helpful.
This is definitely my take on the wheel, so please do check out Betty’s own website to get her – far more thorough – explanations. She’s super generous with her free resources and you can download both the wheel and the three minute game based on it for free, as well as watching plenty of vids that go into detail about how it all works.
The idea of the wheel of consent is that when we’re sexual – or probably in many other contexts in our lives – we move between different zones. Often we’re not aware of which zone we’re in. The wheel divides the zones up so that we can notice where we are more readily, and reflect on how to do consent in each of the zones, because it works in different ways in each one.
Here’s the basic wheel as I understand it …
So taking the example of a kiss, here’s what it might be like in each of the quadrants:
‘May I kiss you?’ you ask, and when they nod enthusiastically, you take their shoulders firmly in your hands, and press your lips up against theirs, invading their mouth with your tongue, feeling the heat and excitement rising up inside you.
‘May I kiss you?’ they ask, and when you whisper ‘yes’ they step towards you, tilting your head back and bringing their lips against yours. You open your mouth and let them take it over, knowing how much it’s arousing them to do so.
‘Will you kiss me?’ they ask, blushing a little at their boldness. ‘Yes,’ you agree, moving slowly towards them in order to judge their response. You bring your lips against theirs, softly at first, tuning into their movements and breathing to judge how your kiss is being received. This is all about giving them pleasure. After kissing them for a while you pull back to check in. ‘How’s that?’ you ask. They flush further ‘Amazing… Please will you do it even harder…’
‘Will you kiss me?’ you ask. ‘Hell yes,’ is their immediate response: so keen to serve. They put their arms around you and begin to explore your mouth with their lips, tentatively at first. You make appreciative noises, and pull them into you, to show them exactly how you like it done.
Hopefully these examples illustrate both what it’s like to be in each of the zones and how consent works in them. I’ll now say a bit about four reasons why I find the wheel – and the three minute game that’s based on it – so useful. For me it’s about hotness, matching sexual preferences, self-consent, and other-consent.
Perhaps one of the big reasons why I, and others, like the wheel so much is that it can be very hot to focus on being in one quadrant at a time. Often in sex – and in other aspects of life – we try to be in many places at the same time. So, for example, we’re kissing each other and we’re trying to excite the other person because we want them to find us a good kisser, but we’re also trying to get excited ourselves because we want to be ready if things progress beyond kissing. Perhaps we’re doing ‘taking’ style kissing because we think that’s what they want, but that throws us more into ‘serving’ mode, except we haven’t actually checked out what they like. In such situations are you doing or done to? Are you giving or receiving? It can be pretty confusing.
Many people like the simplicity of the quadrants because you know where you are and you can focus on one pleasure at a time: the pleasure of taking what you want, the pleasure of somebody using you to turn themselves on, the pleasure of serving somebody, or the pleasure of someone focusing all their attention on getting you excited, for example.
Of course this may well be the reason why the wheel doesn’t work so well for some people. Perhaps they prefer sex that has all these things mixed up together, maybe because it feels more reciprocal and mutual that way. Perhaps sex for them flows naturally between doing and being done to, and between giving and receiving.
Fitting sexual preferences
Another helpful idea – Mosher’s sexual path preferences – might help us out with this. Mosher suggests that people’s sexual preferences can be about three things:
- Acting out roles,
- Engaging with partners, and/or
- Sexual trance.
Many of us enjoy two, or all three, of these things, but often one of them is dominant. So role-enactment people are particularly into bringing certain sides of themselves to sex (e.g. confident, shy, dominant, pleasing, cheeky). Partner-engagement folk are most focused on the connection with the other person or people during sex. And sexual-trance people like to spin off in their own minds and bodies from the sensations and rhythms of sex.
My rough working theory is perhaps the wheel works particularly well for role-enactment people, because sex for us is exciting if we get into a certain headspace or character. We like being the taker, the allower, the server, or the accepter. Some of us probably have a preference for certain of these quadrants, some like to mix it up. And I’m guessing that for many of us it’s easier to know which quadrant we’re in and to stay there. Being encouraged into a different quadrant by a partner could feel quite jolting once we’re in the zone.
Maybe people who’re more into partner engagement or sexual trance feel less need to remain in one quadrant, or even struggle if they’re restricted to one quadrant at a time – perhaps because it prevents them from the sense of flow or mutuality they’re looking for from sex.
Alternatively perhaps the wheel offers us a further dimension of sexuality to add to all of the others (what our sexual path preference is, what gender/s we’re attracted to, where we’re at on the asexual spectrum, etc.) This would be whether we’re somebody who likes to stick with a quadrant, or somebody who likes to mix it up.
I also appreciate the wheel of consent because it helps us to practice consent: both consent with ourselves and consent with others. In Betty’s own depiction of the wheel she includes how consent works in the dynamics between taking and allowing (the taker asks ‘may I…?’) and accepting and serving (the accepter asks ‘will you…?’) – as I illustrated with the kiss example.
Betty’s three minute game suggests trying out the wheel in pairs. Basically during the game you each spend three minutes in each quadrant (with your partner taking the opposite quadrant to the one you’re in). This gives you an opportunity to experience what it’s like to be taker, allower, server, and accepter. If you like the game you can keep going round and round of course, and it can be good to each reflect what it was like for you after each round.
One of the things many people find challenging about the three minute game is that when they are in the taker and accepter quadrants, they have to figure out what – if anything – they want to do to the other person, and what – if anything – they want done to them. For those (many) of us who’ve learnt in their lives to focus on pleasing others this can be pretty challenging, but it’s a great practice for tuning into yourself and figuring out what you want.
Additionally, in the allower and server quadrants you must only allow, and do, things that you consent to. So there’s a great opportunity in the game to tune into your body and to whether it’s responding ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’ to the suggestion the other person makes when they say ‘may I…?’ or ‘will you…’ It’s a good opportunity to practice refusing suggestions that you don’t consent to with a strong permission to do so: something which we know can be difficult during sex.
In Betty’s version of the wheel she also includes the non-consensual ‘shadow sides’ that each quadrant can turn into if not done consensually – in other words if you’re doing a thing, or letting it be done, without checking that everyone is fully up for it, and establishing the conditions under which people can honestly say where they’re at. These shadow sides can be helpful to check out whether we’re really engaging with other people consensually. So…
- If somebody takes non-consensually they’re being a perpetrator or groper
- If somebody allows non-consensually they’re being a doormat or pushover
- If somebody accepts non-consensually they’re being entitled and freeloading
- If somebody serves non-consensually they’re being a martyr or rescuer
Again, it seems like the three minute game could be a useful one for figuring out which quadrants you feel comfortable in, and which leave you quite uncomfortable. Is it because that ‘shadow side’ is one you’re familiar with, either in yourself or others? Do you maybe need to practice self and/or other consent more than you have been doing in that area?
This gets us to another reason why the wheel might be challenging for people. Given that we live in a highly non-consensual culture we all tend towards some – or all – of these shadow sides at times. Perhaps the three minute game is a painful reminder of this. It certainly has the potential to take us into some deep and troubling territory, so it’s worth doing a whole load of self-care around it if we are going to try it out. However, not exploring our potentials for non-consent is probably even more concerning.
Find our more…
I hope you’ve found this a useful intro to Betty Martin’s ideas. Please do go over to her website and read more if so.
If you want to read and listen to more of my thoughts on sex and relationships, check out megjohnandjustin.com where Justin Hancock and I have our blog, podcast, and zines.