Thoughts On Explicit Verbal Consent

The explicit verbal request is often held up as a gold standard in establishing consent. I have held it up this way myself. Generally speaking, it is still the type I prefer in a majority of situations. That said, I’m realizing that “gold standard” is a bit too absolute a way of thinking about it.

First off, verbally asking for consent to do something with someone does not guarantee that you aren’t pressuring them. Occasionally, you’ll see scripts illustrating verbal consent using phrases like, “It would be so hot if we could X!” This is not a low-pressure way to ask permission for something — it can easily feel like the corollary to “God, I want to do this so much!” is “Man, it would kind of suck if we couldn’t do this.” This wording can carry a sense of the weight of really wanting a specific answer to this question. Alternately, I hope it’ s not necessary to go into the reasons why asking for consent for the same thing repeatedly after being told no is a shitty way of going about it. There are plenty of ways of asking for consent explicitly that can create a situation that is pretty unpleasant for the propositionee.

Second off, there are scenarios where denying or withdrawing consent is easier for someone to do nonverbally than verbally. I am still fairly well convinced that the not-explicitly-consented-to kiss from the second snippets story I wrote was a less pressure-y way of asking for consent than verbally asking would have been, given the specific social context in which it was taking place. In certain situations, saying ” no” out loud can be more difficult than communicating it with body language. In group social situations in particular, there can be a certain “Out here, in front of everyone” quality to a consent conversation that can make it easier to have in a subtler, less verbal, not-as-obvious-to-everyone-else-around way.

Third, even independent of social context, there are people who find giving an implicit ” no” a lot easier than an explicit ” no”. An asexual friend of mine, for example, hates having to explicitly verbally deny consent for things, even when she knows her wishes will be respected. For her, having to deny consent out loud invokes a more visceral feeling of disappointing people than doing it implicitly does.

In short, there are people and contexts for which the explicit verbal request for consent may actually be less ideal than an implicit request for consent delivered in other ways.

This is not to say that explicit verbal communication about consent isn’t awesome, or isn’t important, or even that it shouldn’t be the default. Explicit verbal consent is, I believe, the best way of doing it the vast majority of the time.

Explicit verbal consent is like stating your thesis in an essay: it is a standard way of doing something that gets you on the right track. You have to understand why stating your thesis is important in order to know when it’s okay to break the “Always explicitly state your thesis” rule.

In high school, I remember always being taught to state my thesis, explicitly, at the beginning of essays. I don’t always do this when writing persuasively nowadays, but even when I don’t, having practiced clear thesis statements for so long taught me an important lesson: you don’t always have to explicitly state your thesis at the beginning of a piece of writing, but one way or another, your thesis must always be obvious to the reader.

The gold standard in asking for consent isn’t explicit verbal consent in the same sense that the gold standard for persuasive writing isn’t an explicitly stated thesis. Part of the gold standard for writing persuasively, though, is making your thesis clear, whether explicitly or implicitly. In that same sense, the gold standard in asking for consent, in my view, is asking in a way where the request is clear and specific, and also where the subject of the request feels able to give any answer (affirmative, negative, or complicated) with as little discomfort as possible. Explicit verbal requests are a format where this is much more likely to be the case, just like an explicitly stated thesis should guarantee that everyone knows what your thesis is. It’s not an absolute guarantee, and there are scenarios in which other ways of asking for consent are, in fact, closer to the ideal combination of clear, specific, and comfortable than explicit verbal requests are.

Explicit verbal consent is an incredibly useful default, and one that should be relied on fairly religiously up to the point that a finer sense of when other means of communication might be better is developed. Even at that point, I think it’s worthwhile, the majority of the time, to practice explicit verbal consent, and to work to create situations that are as enabling of the practice of explicit verbal consent as possible.

But consent is a little bit more complicated than that. The ideal, at the end of the day, is asking for consent in a way that is clear, specific, and enables the propositionee to say yes, no, or “other” safely and comfortably. There are a variety of tools, including but not limited to the explicit verbal request, for reaching that ideal.