Embodied Consent

How do you know what you really want in bed? When you’re in a sexual situation, what tells you what you want to do, from moment to moment?

This is a really important question to think about because that internal sense of your own wants and attractions is where it all begins. It’s the first step towards asking for and getting what you want. And it turns out that it’s a lot trickier than most people realize.

There are a lot of reasons why you might find it difficult to do. There are so many messages about how sex is supposed to work, and if your fantasies or interests diverge from that, speaking your erotic truth is hard. You could be caught up in performing a sex role, rather than doing what you genuinely want. You might not have the language to tell a partner what turns you on. You might be carrying shame for your sexual interests, whether that came from your childhood or from relationships as an adult. Maybe you expect your partner to react badly if you tell them what would turn you on. You might have experienced sexual injury or trauma. As a sex and relationship coach, I’ve helped plenty of people overcome these hurdles so they can give a voice to their sexual interests. I can promise you that if you’re in one of these situations, you aren’t alone.

But underneath all of these kinds of challenges, there’s a key question that often gets ignored. Can you tune into your body and pay attention to where your desire really is? Can you listen to it so that you can give it a voice?

You might be surprised at how hard that can be. Of course, all of the difficulties I just mentioned can get in the way. But even more than that, listening to your desire is sometimes like trying to hear a whisper in the middle of a noisy party. When the energy is high, you might not notice what your body is trying to tell you. And that’s a place where we can get into trouble because when we can’t hear the messages from our internal experience, we’re much more likely to go along with something that we don’t really want to do.

In some ways, it’s a bit like the situation of eating so quickly that you don’t notice that you’re full. By the time you register that you’ve had enough, you’ve actually gone too far and might feel queasy or uncomfortably stuffed. And just as slowing down and noticing when your body says you’re full can help you avoid eating more than is good for you, slowing down and noticing when your body tells you what would feel good can help you have the sex you want.

This is important because being able to feel your desire is the foundation to being able to give meaningful consent. The more you can tune into your arousal, the more you can make your consent reflect what you really want. And when ideas about what you think you should want to do get in the way, or when sexual shame keeps you from acknowledging where your pleasure leads, or when you use alcohol or drugs or the excitement from sexual stimulation to distract yourself from those internal voices, it becomes a lot harder to pay attention what you want.

Of course, being able to hear those messages is essential, but it’s not enough. You also need to have the language to put them into words so you can share them with a partner. You need to believe that you deserve to give them a voice, and to trust that your partner will respond with care and without anger or shame or disconnecting from you. You need to be able to make room for your partner’s response and talk about each of your desires and boundaries so you can look for the overlap. And you need to track that all from moment to moment, throughout a constantly shifting sexual experience. It’s no wonder that consent can be so tricky!

When I work with my clients, there are some different ways I help them build these skills. We might do some exercises to create a shared language of consent. We might do a guided touch practice, in which they tell me how they’d like me to touch their arm. We might try pleasure mapping, in which we experiment with different kinds of touch so they can rate how pleasurable each one feels. And we might practice having them stop and tune into their internal sensations so they can do it more easily with a partner. The amazing thing about all of these tools is that they really aren’t complex. But then, I often find that simple isn’t the same thing as easy.

While I’m really glad to see the cultural increase in awareness about consent, especially affirmative consent, I’m not sure that it will have much of an impact if we don’t also take a look how we navigate the internal experience of our desires and talk about the connections between embodiment and communication. It’s not enough to talk about gender politics, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, though those are absolutely part of the equation. We also need to create room for people to build the embodiment skills that make consent truly valid. That’s where somatic sex education has the potential to change the world, one body at a time.

If you’re looking for help connecting with your desire, check out my hands-on coaching page. I offer a free Get Acquainted call to talk about what you’re looking for and how I can help you, so get in touch!