A Prelude to Consent

Believing it's YOUR Life and Knowing When to Say No, AND Yes

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A man with Down Syndrome smiling. There are words that say, “Your Life, Your Mind, Your Body, You Decide Yes or No.”As sexuality educator, I teach people how to say no, but it’s also my job to teach people how to say yes. To be able to say yes to the things you really want and no to the things you don’t.

Focusing on teaching people to say no almost implies that it’s more important to say no than to say yes. I want to be sure everyone knows what they want to say yes to and no to and have the skills to carry out their decisions.

When teaching people with I/DD, or anyone, how to say yes or no, to give consent or not, we first have to find out if the person knows and believes it is their life to make decisions about. If the person doesn’t believe this all the skills and definitions will not make a difference in their ability to consent, to say yes or no.

I offer this lesson to help you navigate the conversation with the people you work with.

Step One

Ask the person: “Do you believe that your life, mind, and body are yours? Yours to make decisions about?”

If they answer, “Yes,” validate the response, and then you can ask, are there times when you don’t feel like it’s your life, mind, or body? If they tell you they sometimes don’t feel their life is theirs, ask how they can change that, and explore options together. If they feel in charge and completely believe the statement, you can move to Step Two. 

If they say, no, I don’t believe my life is my own then you need to ask, “why don’t you believe that?” There are many possibilities such as my parents won’t let me make my own decisions or I feel bad when I hurt others so I don’t tell people what I really want or don’t want in my life. 

You can then ask, “what would it take for you to be in charge of your life? How could you make that happen?” Some responses to explore could be: I can talk with my parents about making my own decisions or I can remind myself that I need to speak up for myself in a kind way and if people get hurt, it is okay because I have to think of my needs first. You can also make sure the person has lots of opportunities to make decisions about their life and keep reminding them that it is their life and they get to decide what is right for them. 

Step Two

Since you truly believe that your life, mind, and body are yours and you get to decide what is right for you, let’s explore what you want to say yes and no to. 

“What do you want in a sexual/romantic relationship?” “How do you want to be treated?”

Lily wants:

To be treated kindly.

To be respected and listened to.

To always feel safe to say no and my no will be accepted.

Ryan wants:

To have fun and laugh a lot. 

To be able to communicate about all topics. 

Jordan wants:

To share interests like sports or listening to music

To be able to be myself around this person

Then you can ask: “How about you? What do you want to say yes or no to?” You can then take the conversation deeper. 

“What sexual acts are you ok with?”

Lily is:

Ok with kissing, hugging, and touching each other’s bodies.

Ok with vaginal or oral sex after we have been together for 3 months.

Ryan is:

Ok with kissing after the third date.

Ok with sex after we are married.

Jordan is:

Ok with having sex before marriage as long as I am treated with respect.

Then you can ask: “How about you? What do you want to say yes or no to?”

Step Three

Now that you believe it is your life, you know what you want and don’t want, it is time to practice. 

Let’s take Lily as an example. Lily is in a relationship that she feels respected, is listened to, treated kindly, and she feels safe. She has been with her partner for 2 months. Her partner asks her to have sex. 

What can Lily say? According to what she wants, she doesn’t want to have sex until she is with a partner 3 months. So, she will say no based on what she wants in her life. She says, “no.” Her partner says, “How come, I thought you cared about me?” She can say, “I do care about you and I care about myself too and I am not ready. I would like to wait a bit longer in our relationship.” Her partner says, “I understand.” Now, Lily has said what she wants and she also feels like her partner is kind, respectful, and listened to her AND she felt safe saying what she wanted for her life. She can say, “thanks for listening to me and respecting my decision.” 

But let’s say that Lily’s partner says, “you are selfish and only think about yourself. I am ready and you need to do it with me or I will break up with you.” Now, Lily will see her relationship differently. She will see that her partner isn’t being respectful, is treating her unkindly, and is not listening to her. And, she isn’t feeling safe to say what she wants in her relationship. This would be a really good time to get out of there. This is a sign that this isn’t what she wants in a relationship. She can say to herself, this is my life, mind, and body and I get to make decisions for myself and I am choosing to leave this situation. She can say, “no, I will not and I am leaving right now.” 

The bottom line is, in order to consent, you have to know and believe that you are in charge of your life, and know what you want and what you don’t want. If you don’t believe that, you really aren’t able to consent. Just knowing what consent means really isn’t enough. You have to KNOW you are in charge and take control of your life. 


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