Consensual relationships

In the weeks leading up to #IDOConsent on 30th November I’m sharing a few posts dealing with consent and non-consent at all levels: in wider culture, in our communities, in our relationships, and with ourselves. You can check out more of this year’s #IDOConsent content and events here.

In this post I focus on consensual relationships. Many thanks to Justin Hancock for the podcast conversations which were the starting points for these posts. You can find those over on megjohnandjustin.com and on our Patreon. If you want to learn more about consent, there’s no better place to start than Justin’s new book Can We Talk About Consent? Available for pre-order now. 

You can listen to me and Justin discussing consent in romantic relationships, specifically here. In this post I want to open this out to consider all relationships. You can also see me talking about these topics on this consent culture video.

Non-consent in relationships

The current moment highlights the importance of turning our attention to consensual relationships in several ways. 

First, domestic abuse has gone up globally by 20% during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the UK calls for domestic abuse helplines jumped by a half in the first month or so and a further spike is predicted post lockdown. Boots pharmacies began offering safe spaces for people to go if they were in abusive situations, and legislation was put in place to help survivors to escape abusive homes during lockdown. All of this led to domestic abuse being called the ‘shadow pandemic’. So we see clearly the scale of non-consensual relationships, and just how important this is to address. Being stuck in together during lockdown has highlighted to many people the areas in their relationships which are not as consensual as they would like them to be.

Then the #BlackLivesMatter uprising highlighted massive flaws in the policing and criminal justice systems. Some people responded to calls to dismantle and abolish these systems by asking ‘what about’ survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault? However, others pointed out that the criminal justice system has never served survivors. Survivors often experience legal processes as retraumatising and gaslighting, given the minimising, denial, victim blame, and perpetrator defense which often happens in court cases – mirroring how survivors are treated in wider culture. Number of cases passed for charges is low, as rates continue to rise. 

Many have suggested that policing is ill-equipped to deal with sexual and relationship abuse, and that involving the police is actively dangerous when those involved are people of colour. For these reasons, people have turned to alternative models like funding other forms of support for survivors, building accountable communities, and transformative justice

Alex Iantaffi and I had a conversation with Deana Ayers on the Gender Stories podcast about how police feel necessary in communities where people keep themselves and their families separate and private – a particularly white western middle class heteronormative model. Alternative models include building relationships and support systems in community, and learning how to open the windows on our relationships and support each other when our dynamics have fallen into non-consensual or traumatic patterns.

Sexual non-consent and relationship non-consent

The #MeToo movement highlighted the commonality of sexual forms of abuse and assault. At least 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have had someone try to have sex with them against their will. In most cases when sex happens against someone’s will, it is with a known person, mostly a current or former intimate partner. 

This highlights the fact that we need far more focus on how to avoid and address sexual – and other forms of – abuse in the home and within known relationships. Instead, media focus tends to be on stranger sexual assault of women. This potentially puts women at more risk because fear of stranger danger constrains them to private home spaces. It also makes it harder to speak out about assault with known people when it occurs, and about assault in other gendered dynamics. 

Non-consensual sex often happens in contexts where other forms of non-consent are normalised, so we need to explore how to cultivate cultures of consent around all aspects of our relationships, not just sex. This is also important because emotional forms of non-consent can be just as damaging as more sexual and physical forms, but often harder to recognise and to open up about. 

With all forms of non-consent it’s rarely obviously present from the outset of a relationship but rather it gradually creeps into a relationship (like the foot in the door technique, or the boiling a frog fable). This makes it hard to recognise because it seems normal due to past experience, and because beginning to question it would mean recognising all the previous moments of non-consent when we didn’t say something about it.

It’s also important to consider these questions in all kinds of relationships, not just partner relationships, because non-consent in friendships, family relationships, colleague relationships, and so on are also very common, and often go unrecognised because of the focus on romantic/family relationships, and because terms like ‘bullying’ are used which downplay and normalise peer-to-peer or colleague-to-colleague non-consensual and abusive behaviour.

Cultural normalising of non-consent

The wider culture of relationships normalises non-consent, with common tropes like it being legitimate to pressurise or manipulate somebody into a particular kind of relationship with you, and to do particular things (e.g. go for a drink with you, eat the kind of food you enjoy, take the kind of holiday you prefer). 

It’s also presented as valid to attempt to shape a person into who you want them to be, to focus on that relationship to the exclusion of others, and to try to convince them to stay with you even if they don’t want to. 

Close relationships are often presented as private so we shouldn’t share what’s going on in them with anybody else, we should present them as perfect on social media and never talk about the difficult parts. 

These tropes are particularly prevalent for romantic relationships, but also often apply to best friendships, family relationships, and close collegiate relationships, for example.

Relationship researchers find that it is very common for people to engage in behaviours like shaming forms of criticism, mocking contempt, defensive blame, and stonewalling or shutting down in relationships which are struggling, all of which are examples of non-consensual behaviours, but are rarely framed in this way because it is so normalised in our culture to treat people in these ways within relationships.

Why a binary model of consent/non-consent is unhelpful

The common idea with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse is that the majority of relationships are ‘normal’ and non-abusive, and a minority are abusive which is a very specific issue and requires a completely different approach to ‘normal’ relationships. This division is unhelpful because it encourages us – as survivors and as a wider culture – to keep asking the binary question of whether a situation is ‘bad enough’ to count as abuse, and only counting it, and feeling able to address it, if it meets those criteria: often the legal criteria. 

Also, this binary perpetuates the idea that there are bad ‘abusers’ and then there is everyone else who is perfectly good and safe. This makes talking about consent in relationships really hard because we feel like we have to present ourselves as perfectly good and safe – and deny or defend any non-consensual behaviours – lest we be seen as an abuser and rejected, called out, or reported. 

We need to acknowledge that we’re all likely to behave non-consensually at times in such a non-consensual culture, when most of us were brought up with these relationship norms, rather than denying our capacity for non-consent, and focusing on policing and punishing others for it.

Spectrums of consent

The criteria for ‘abuse’ is a low bar for a relationship: the sense that if it doesn’t meet the legal criteria for abuse/assault then it is fine. Instead we should focus on how all relationships can be as consensual and beneficial for all involved as possible, recognising that the level of consent present is probably on a spectrum which goes up and down over time. 

We can define consent as the degree to which people feel safe-enough and free-enough in a relationship to be open about their needs and boundaries. This is inevitably going to change over time, impacted by outer circumstances, trauma, how well-supported we are, and more.

So we might ask ‘how can we maximise how consensual this relationship is for all involved?’ – as the people in that relationship, and as the supportive people around that relationship. Then, if we feel like the level of consent is not good enough – if someone starts feeling unsafe or their freedom constrained for example – we can know that that is enough reason to ask for that to be dealt with, or to step away if others aren’t up for that.

Thinking about all the following features of non/consent on spectrums rather than as legalistic abuse/non-abuse binaries can be helpful:

  • How consensual is physical touch in this relationship – how free and safe do we each feel to say what we want and don’t want in this area with no sense of pressure – (rather than does it count as physical abuse or not)?
  • How consensual is sex in this relationship – how free and safe do we each feel to say what we want and don’t want in this area with no sense of pressure – (rather than does it count as sexual abuse or not)?
  • How consensual is money in this relationship – how free and safe do we each feel to say what we want and don’t want in this area with no sense of pressure – (rather than whether someone is entirely controlling of the other’s personal finances)?
  • How kind are people in this relationship, and are they able to regulate their emotions and behaviours when not feeling kind (rather than do people actively put each other down or diminish each other)?
  • How safe do people in this relationship feel (rather than are active threats made)?
  • How free do people in this relationship feel to have other close relationships (not just whether they are explicitly isolated from friends or family)?
  • Is everyone in this relationship able to meet their basic needs and get support when they need it?
  • Does everyone in this relationship get the privacy and solitude they need, online and offline, without monitoring from the other person/people?
  • Is everyone free to decide where they go, who they see, what they wear, when they sleep, etc.?

Recognising non-consent in relationships

In addition to working our way through the previous questions, tuning into our body and feelings is an important way of identifying how consensual a relationship dynamic is. It can be difficult though, particularly for those with a history of trauma, and/or when gaslighting is present, to tune into – and trust – our feelings. Also it can be confusing when non-consensual dynamics coexist, for example, with strong love feelings, exciting sex, a close connection between you during the good times, and/or deep mutual understanding. 

Remember that non-consent is not always conscious on the part of the people involved. They may well not know they’re behaving in non-consensual ways, and/or these dynamics may be so familiar from their past that they don’t recognise that they are a problem. If everyone involved doesn’t feel free enough or safe enough to be themselves and to express their needs and boundaries, then it’s not a consensual dynamic.

Signs that a dynamic has become non-consensual to a concerning level include the following: 

  • Feeling frightened of another person or their reactions
  • Felling small or powerless
  • Your mind being foggy and confused
  • Inability to express yourself openly around the other person 
  • Sense that you’re losing things like your other close people, your passions, or your spark
  • Sense that you and/or the other person are treating each other very differently to the ways you treat other people in your lives (e.g. much more criticism, comparison, aggression, or taking for granted)
  • Uneasiness or queasiness about things you’ve done or said in the relationship and whether they’re okay
  • Noticing that the other person seems frightened, placating, or unable to be honest around you
  • Feeling out of control around the other person 
  • Struggling to allow the other person space, privacy, or time away from you
  • Feeling threatened by the other person’s relationships and interests outside of your relationship
  • Spending a lot of your time thinking about this relationship, particularly trying to tell if something might be wrong, or to figure out how to keep the other person happy
  • Editing what you tell your close people about the other person or things that happen in the relationship

Addressing non-consent in relationships

Unless there are clear sexual or physical violations going on, it can be hard in relationships to know whether you are overriding your own consent (perhaps because this was the way of relating you learnt in the past), or whether the other person is overriding your consent, or whether it’s more of a mutual non-consensual dynamic between you. 

It can be helpful to remember that it doesn’t matter whether this dynamic is 95% down to them and 5% you, or vice versa, or 50/50. The thing to do when it feels non-consensual remains the same: 

  • Pull back from the relationship as much as you need to to find a sense of clarity and ‘having yourself’ again
  • Press pause or slow down in order to do so
  • Get all the support you need from others around the relationship and your role in it. This might be friend, community support, trauma-informed therapy, and/or support groups, for example

Once you are feeling clearer, calmer, and stronger you can get a sense of whether a more consensual dynamic is possible in this relationship, and what kind of relationship container would be necessary for that. For example, it may require rethinking whether you cohabit, or whether you see each other as often, whether you share finances, or how you name the relationship.

It’s also useful to think about what systems and structures of support you’d need in order to keep an eye on the dynamic and to keep moving towards greater consent. Some form of individual work for each person around their patterns is helpful, as well as ensuring that everyone has a network of support around them so you aren’t each other’s main support while you’re going through this together. Forms of mediation, transformative justice, or therapy together can also help address the dynamics between you.

The other person should be up for you doing what you need if you articulate it this way and if they are committed to having a consensual relationship with you. If they’re not hearing you, or meeting you there, then it may be necessary to pull back further or to step away.

If you struggle to do this, it’s worth remembering that remaining in a situation where someone is getting hurt – whether that is somebody else or whether it is you – doesn’t help anybody, including those who are behaving non-consensually. It often keeps them stuck behaving in habitual ways which are often very painful and shameful for them, whether or not they’re able to acknowledge that. Remaining in such situations also tends to take so much of our energy that we’re not much good for ourselves, for the things we find meaningful, or for anybody else in our lives. Taking yourself out of the dynamic enables everyone – if they’re up for it – to look at their part in it, and hopefully to address that. 

There’s more from Justin about signs of non-consensual relationships and how to address them here, including how to access support if it is difficult or dangerous to leave.

A culture of consensual relationships

Ideally we would change the whole culture to depict relationships far more consensually – so that we have models for this – and to support everyone to relate more consensually. In the meantime hopefully we can try to shift the consent cultures in our communities and networks. If it takes a village to raise a child, perhaps it also takes a village to support a consensual relationship.

Moving towards a culture of more consensual relationships could involve things like:

  • At a micro level learning how to notice what non-consent feels like in our body: both when we are at risk of doing it to another person, and when it is done to us. This requires getting enough solitude and privacy to be with our feelings and to check in with ourselves regularly about our needs and boundaries.
  • Addressing our stuck patterns which make us more likely to behave reactively or non-consensually, and being up for getting support with this when needed. Again some time alone is necessary for doing this work, as is the capacity to take ourselves away to a safe-enough place when we become reactive.
  • Practising addressing micro moments of non-consent in relationship so it becomes everyday and normalised to do so.
  • Cultivating systems of support, and consensual relating within those systems, so that it becomes normalised and so that we have people to support us in this. 
  • Committing to keeping the windows on our relationship open with our close people and community so we can be alerted if people have concerns, and supported to maximise consent. Check out Mia Mingus‘s work on pod mapping to think more about the support structures around your relationships.

Key relationship consent criteria

Taking the key ideas about sexual consent and applying them to relationships, we might consider the following:

  • Make consent the aim. With sex making consent the aim, rather than getting sex, enables consensual sex to happen. With relationships we could make mutual consent the aim of the whole relationship, and each encounter: not getting what you want from the other person, or being what they want. This might look like wanting the maximum freedom and safety for you and the other person, regardless of what the relationship needs to look like in order for this to be possible.
  • Everyone knows that they don’t have to do it (now or ever). Sex can’t be consensual unless we know that we absolutely don’t have to do it, and that no kind of punishment will occur if we don’t do it. With relationships the same is true for the whole relationship. We need to know that we are free to not be in this relationship, or in this particular way, without fearing that we will be punished or suffer significant loss. Here it can be useful to keep affirming with each other that our whole relationship (and our home, community, security, etc.) isn’t contingent on, for example: having sex regularly, continuing to cohabit, feeling romantic towards this person, our body staying the same, doing certain things together, earning a certain amount, etc. 
  • Consent is informed. In sex this means knowing what’s on the cards before the encounter rather than being surprised with activities we weren’t expecting. In relationships this means having enough information to be able to make a decision about whether this kind of relationship with this person is a good idea for you. It’s important not to hide vital information that you know might make a person think twice or want to go slower. With each step in a relationship people need enough information in advance in order to make a consensual choice. For example it’s good to be clear about your feelings about having kids and childrearing long before you’ve committed to a relationship that would preclude people doing that elsewhere, or not doing it if it’s not what you want. It’s good to be clear about your financial situation and relationship with money long before sharing/borrowing/lending finances in any way. Considering speed of relationships can be helpful for having long enough to ensure informed consent before each step. It’s also important to explore shame and how we cover over shame in presenting ourselves to others.
  • Consent is ongoing. In sex this means checking in verbally and/or non-verbally during the encounter that everyone is enjoying it, and pausing or stopping if not. In relationships this means also continuing to check in whether it is working well for everyone, and taking whatever kinds of pauses, breaks, or step-backs are necessary on aspects of the relationship – or the whole relationship – if it isn’t working (if it’s not working for everyone, it’s not working for anyone). The cultural idea of specific vows, promises, duties or commitments – particularly in romantic and family relationships – can make ongoing consent difficult because they suggest that it’s possible to agree to share your money, body or home in a certain way for the rest of your life, whatever happens in relation to money, health or feelings.
  • There is no default script, but multiple options. In sex there is the default script of first to fourth base (or similar). In relationships there is a similar cultural ‘escalator’ model where it is seen as good to get closer, more entwined, and happier in a relationship over time, checking the points on the relationship checklist (e.g. for romantic relationships dating, having sex, becoming exclusive, moving in together, getting married, having a family, etc.) For consent it’s vital to know that all erotic, sensual or sexual activities – and none – are equally valid, so you can choose what works best for everyone. In a relationship all ways of doing relationships – and all aspects of relationships – need to be affirmed as equally valid. Then you can find what works – and doesn’t work – for this particular relationship. It’s important that the person or people whose ways of doing things are the closest to the normative script maximise the agency of those whose ways of doing things are further away to articulate their preferences and have them respected.
  • We’re all mindful of power imbalances and how they constrain consent. Sexual consent is way harder when one person has a lot of power over the other. For example it is hard to say ‘no’ if you feel at risk in some way if you don’t respond to another person’s sexual advances (career, money, care, safety, etc.) Similarly those with more power in a relationship in various ways need to recognise those with less may feel far less able to say what they need and where their boundaries are. It’s good to be open about the power imbalances, and to do what you can to enable those with less power in each area to identify and articulate their needs and boundaries and have them respected.
  • We try to be accountable. It’s important to recognise that we won’t always be perfectly consensual and to recognise – as soon as possible – when this hasn’t happened, and to be accountable for that. Micro moments of non-consent can be fairly easy to repair, and the more we make a habit of doing that the more easy it can become. Bigger moments can be much harder, and this is where it’s really good to have a network of support around you to help each person to process what has happened, to enable them to take as much space as they need in order to be ready to address it, and to support them coming together to hear and be heard, and repair if possible.

Further resources

You can find more of my resources about consent on my consent work page.

You can check out more of this year’s #IDOConsent content and events here.

Patreon link: If you found this useful, please feel free to support my Patreon.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Sophia

    10 November

    I noticed that the first part of your suggestion for addressing non consensual dynamics in relationships is about withdrawing. I wonder about the barriers to withdrawal, especially where there is a non consensual power dynamic – like with a boss, someone you’re financially dependent on etc. It seems like a really great plan in many dynamics, if you can, but so hard in others. I’m reading a book at the moment about STAIR narrative therapy for cPTSD and it has specific education suggestions around recognizing relationships with power differentials and the different relationship patterns that might come up. I think recognizing and responding to those pattens can differ and the barriers to self consent can differ depending on power.
    Personally, relying on a single employer felt crushing to my ability to have a consensual relationship with work. I feel much safer and much more able to manage demands on my time as a self employed person. I know others feel the opposite way around, being self employed feels overwhelming and they can’t put work down, but they are able to manage reasonable boundaries with a single workplace. It seems like at least part of that is how folks relate to someone having power over them and how they relate to uncertainty.
    I wonder whether unearthing our own patterns when we have power over others, when others have power over us and when power is neutral is an exercise worth doing? I think it might be.

    • Meg-John Barker

      11 November

      I agree so much with all of this – and I need to read that book – sounds highly relevant.

      Yes absolutely power imbalances of all kinds can make it extremely difficult to extricate from non-consensual dynamics. I guess, for me, the first step in those cases is to put in any kind of spaciousness that is possible – e.g. getting away for a week without the other person, or a vacation from a non-consensual work situation, or giving myself a little time alone every morning to journal about what’s happening, or getting weekly therapy or peer-support to talk with someone about it. Then it might be about slowly considering options, and getting to a place where I can allow that it would be okay to do those things, and figure out which might be practically possible – or what support I might draw on to make them practically possible. In both work and personal relationship situations that phase from recognising that non-consensual dynamics are happening in ways that can’t be dealt with within the system/relationship, and extricating fully, can be months or even years.

      My hope would also be that recognising our own patterns, and building systems of support and consensual communities, might mean that these things are both easier to notice, and easier to withdraw from – the more aware and resourced we are, and the more we have people around us to help us to notice and to affirm that it’s important to do what we need. I completely agree with you that it’s so important for us all to get more and more familiar with the way these patterns show up in us and our relationships, so we can name that with people, and keep an eye on it, rather than the more common situation of trying hard to avoid seeing what we’re doing, and encouraging others to be complict in that avoidance.

      I love your points about work. I’m another one where self-employment has been the way for a more consensual relationship with it. But it’s an excellent point that different kind of work, and relationship, containers make it easier – and more difficult – for different people to maintain boundaries and self-consent.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and helping me think a bit more about these elements.

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