What sexual consent looks like in intimate relationships

Understanding consent in relationships is crucial for a healthy relationship. Learn what consent means, what it looks like, and what it doesn't look like.

On this page

Consent is an important part of any kind of intimate relationship. It is a way to ensure that both parties are respecting each other’s boundaries and decisions.

In this article, we’ll explore what sexual consent looks like in intimate relationships. We’ll cover the basics of consent, what it looks like, and what it does not look like.

Learn more about the importance of physical and emotional intimacy in relationships with our comprehensive guide!

Consent is a form of sexual communication that involves making sure that all parties involved are on the same page and comfortable with any activities. 1 The concept of sexual consent involves two key components:

  1. Knowledge: Before agreeing to anything, both people involved must fully understand and be aware of what they are agreeing to. In the context of sexual consent, this means knowing what kind of sexual behavior is expected and agreed upon. Without this understanding, there’s no consent. 2
  2. Willingness: Both parties must give their active, voluntary agreement to any sexual activity. This agreement should be enthusiastic and freely given. If someone is feeling pressured or coerced into having sex, then it is not consensual. 2

Discover how communication can save your sex life!

Research shows that the history of a relationship influences how we perceive the need for clear consent. In other words, how long a couple has been together and how sexually involved they are can affect our views on consent. 1

A study has shown that when a couple is portrayed as having more experience together - such as they’ve been in a relationship for a while and are comfortable with each other sexually - people tend to see their actions as more obvious in terms of sexual intent. They also view these actions as more acceptable and consensual. In such cases, people may not think explicit verbal consent at every stage of intimacy is as necessary because they assume the couple understands each other’s boundaries. 1

The longer a couple has been together, the more people tend to assume that they understand each other’s boundaries and don’t need to ask for explicit verbal consent at every step. 1

On the other hand, when a couple is depicted as having little or no history together, such as going on a first date, there is more doubt. In these situations, people are more likely to think that explicit verbal consent is important because they might not know each other’s boundaries well yet. 1

On the flip side, when a couple has minimal or no history together — like out on a first date — people tend to be more likely to think that explicit verbal consent is crucial. 1

Still, no matter how long a couple has been together or what the context is, consent should never be assumed. It should always be actively discussed and communicated.

Consent is not a one-time thing, and it should be an ongoing conversation between partners. A healthy relationship involves communication about boundaries, desires, and limits.

Here’s what sexual consent looks like:

1. Open and honest communication

Open sexual communication is essential for consent. 3 This involves talking about what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not, and respecting your partner’s boundaries as well.

This open dialogue should extend to all aspects of your relationship—not just the physical ones. The more you communicate, the more you’ll understand your partner’s comfort levels, preferences, and boundaries.

Consent isn’t just the absence of a “no”; it’s the presence of an enthusiastic “yes.” Both parties should feel excited and comfortable about what’s happening.

“Enthusiastic consent requires all participants to be articulating a clear ‘yes’ before sex takes place.” 4

If your partner hesitates or seems uncertain, it’s crucial to pause and re-evaluate. Sometimes, a simple question like, “You seem unsure; do you want to talk about it?” can pave the way for a more comfortable and consensual experience for both of you.

3. Respecting boundaries

Respect is a cornerstone of any healthy relationship and is integral to establishing consent. Being respectful means honoring your partner’s articulated boundaries without question or pushback.

If your partner says they are not comfortable with a specific activity, that boundary should be accepted without negotiations or attempts to change their mind. Respecting boundaries fosters trust, a critical element in maintaining a consent-focused relationship.

4. Ongoing dialogue

Consent is not a one-time agreement but a continuous process that should be revisited frequently. As people grow and evolve, so do their preferences and comfort zones.

Keep the lines of communication open, seek enthusiastic consent, and update each other on any changes in feelings or boundaries. Regular “check-ins” can help keep the relationship consensual, respectful, and enjoyable for both parties.

As important as it is to know what consent looks like, it’s equally important to understand what it does not look like. While some signs can be quite obvious, others might not be as easy to recognize.

Here’s what sexual consent does not look like:

1. Coercion or pressure

Any form of pressure, manipulation, or coercion negates consent. Manipulative tactics like emotional blackmail (“If you loved me, you would…”) or making someone feel obligated indicate a lack of authentic consent.

If you ever feel rushed or pressured into agreeing to something, remember that true consent is free of coercion and entirely voluntary. 2

2. Silence or lack of resistance

Silence is not consent. A lack of verbal or physical resistance should not be mistaken for agreement. Authentic consent involves a clear, enthusiastic “yes” from both parties.

If your partner is silent, it’s your responsibility to check in and explicitly ask for their consent before proceeding with any activity.

Assumptions are the enemies of consent. While people in a relationship may have some familiarity with each other’s boundaries, they should never be assumed.

Boundaries can change over time, and it’s important to keep the dialogue open and avoid making assumptions about what your partner is or is not comfortable with.

Consent is not a one-time event or a box to check off; it’s an ongoing conversation. Establishing a culture of consent requires open communication, understanding, and, most importantly, respect for each other’s boundaries and comfort zones.

Here are some tips for fostering consent in your relationship:

1. Talk about sex openly

Being upfront about your sexual needs and boundaries is key to a healthy relationship. Clear communication about sex sets the stage for experiences that both of you are comfortable with. In simple terms, talking about sex makes sure that both you and your partner know what’s okay and what’s not.

Talking about sex might feel a bit awkward at first, but it’s crucial. Open conversations help clear up any confusion and make it easier to understand what each of you wants and doesn’t want. Over time, you’ll find that being open about sex not only makes your intimate life better but also strengthens your emotional connection.

Research has shown that open sexual communication enhances both sexual and relationship satisfaction. 5

If you’re not sure how to start the conversation, you can use these tips for talking about sex with your partner.

2. Respect boundaries

Respecting boundaries is essential for creating a space where both you and your partner feel safe and respected. If your partner ever expresses discomfort about an activity, don’t push them to do it, even if you think they’ll eventually be okay with it.

Respecting boundaries means listening carefully when your partner says “no” or indicates discomfort and not pressuring them to change their mind. Remember, boundaries can change over time or even within the same encounter. You’re allowed to change your mind, and so is your partner.

Discover helpful tips on respecting your partner’s boundaries.

3. Create a safe space

Make sure that both you and your partner feel safe enough to say “no” without fear of judgment or reprisal. The best way to create a safe space is by setting ground rules and making sure that both of you stick to them.

If either of you breaks the agreed-upon boundaries, it’s important to talk about how each of you can do better and create a more comfortable atmosphere for further encounters.

Respectful, non-judgmental dialogue is key here - remember, it takes two people to build and maintain a consensual relationship.

Learn how to create a safe space in your relationship!

4. Be mindful of non-verbal cues

Studies have shown that those in long-term relationships often rely more on non-verbal and indirect cues to express their boundaries and desires. 3 So the longer you’re with someone, the less likely it is that they will use direct verbal cues to express their consent.

That’s why it’s important to always be mindful of your partner’s non-verbal cues as well as their words. Pay close attention to body language, facial expressions - these subtle hints can tell you a lot about how someone is feeling.

Another reason why non-verbal cues are so important is that some people might not feel comfortable giving explicit verbal consent. Sharing one’s sexual likes and dislikes requires being comfortable with sexual communication. 6 If an individual is not comfortable talking about sex with their partner openly, they most likely won’t express explicit verbal consent either.

However, relying solely on non-verbal cues to gauge consent can be tricky. A study has found that men tend to overestimate women’s enthusiasm and sexual interest based on body language cues alone. 2 This highlights the importance of verbal communication when it comes to consent.

Discover how to get better at reading your partner’s body language!

5. Regular check-ins

Make it a habit to check in with your partner regularly. Asking questions like “How are you feeling?” or “Are you still comfortable with this?” throughout an encounter can help ensure that both of you feel respected and safe.

Regular check-ins also give your partner a chance to express their boundaries, feelings, and desires more openly. Not only will this increase trust between the two of you, but it will also help you both feel more secure in knowing that your partner is comfortable.

Effective communication is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. Check out our complete guide on communication in relationships for tips on how to improve your relationship with open communication.

  1. Humphreys, T. (2007). Perceptions of Sexual Consent: The Impact of Relationship History and Gender. Journal of Sex Research, 44(4), 307–315. doi.org ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Humphreys, T. P., & Herold, E. (2007). Sexual consent in heterosexual relationships: Development of a new measure. Sex Roles, 57(3–4), 305–315. doi.org ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. Newstrom, N. P., Harris, S. M., & Miner, M. H. (2020). Sexual Consent: How Relationships, Gender, and Sexual Self-Disclosure Affect Signaling and Interpreting Cues for Sexual Consent in a Hypothetical Heterosexual Sexual Situation. Sex Roles. doi.org ↩︎ ↩︎

  4. Barker, M., Gill, R., & Harvey, L. (2018). Mediated intimacy: Sex advice in media culture. Sexualities, 21(8), 1337–1345. doi.org ↩︎

  5. Montesi, J. L., Fauber, R. L., Gordon, E. A., & Heimberg, R. G. (2010). The specific importance of communicating about sex to couples’ sexual and overall relationship satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(5), 591–609. doi.org ↩︎

  6. Beres, M., Herold, E. S., & Maitland, S. B. (2004). Sexual Consent Behaviors in Same-Sex Relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33(5), 475–486. doi.org ↩︎

Author picture of Janet Smith
Dating Expert

Janet Smith

Janet Smith is a freelance writer who writes about psychology, relationships, and dating. She has always been interested in understanding the human brain and how it affects our …

Read full bio

Get the official app 😍

PumPum® app icon


For iPhone & Android
Browse all articles