How to Do It

I’m Wondering: Can a “No” Become a “Yes” During Sex?

And do I need consent before changing positions?

Two people under the covers with a question mark over them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Marharyta Marko/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.

Dear How to Do It,

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to practice consent during partnered intimacy. I’ve read some useful materials about enthusiastic/active consent—like Scarleteen’s resources, or the “Learning Good Consent” zine —but I am still unsure about some of how consent actually works. For what it’s worth, I’m also on the autism spectrum, so interpersonal interaction isn’t always very intuitive for me. I’m a queer, non-binary person. Here are a few of my questions:

Should conversations about boundaries happen right before sex, or earlier? After all, when people are “just” making out, you’re still often touching various parts of their bodies which they might (not) want touched. How early is too early to discuss this once you’ve started kissing someone?

Say you’re doing the same sex act (for example, strap-on vaginal sex), but you want to change position. Should you ask for consent every time you change position? What if someone has particular positions that they don’t like or have negative associations with?

How do you navigate people changing their minds during a hookup—specifically, when they first say that they don’t want to have sex, but then later they say that they do want it after all? How much should you check that they genuinely want it, that that wasn’t a hard boundary when they initially set it, and that they’re not feeling pressured?

—Avid Learner

Stoya: I think it’s always a good time to have a conversation about sexual boundaries, if there’s sexual interest.

Rich: Yeah, I’d say before tongues caress is ideal, but I understand apprehension about having it too early—introducing the subject could make you seem presumptuous.

Stoya: There’s a middle step between silence and just touching someone while you’re kissing, which is: “I’m feeling sexually attracted toward you, and I am wondering how you feel.”

Rich: For sure. If for whatever the reason it gets to a makeout before the discussion, you can always dismount and interrupt the makeout to ask about boundaries.

Stoya: And enthusiastic consent is a sex-act-long process. So you can stop to say “Can I touch your breasts?” and again to say “I’d like to go down on you.” It doesn’t have to be a certain script of “May I have permission to ___?” You can express desire and wait for a, “Yes, more please.”

Rich: “Do you like this?” “Are you into that?” These are all useful ways to discuss consent during sex, especially the first time, without sounding like you’re reading out of a manual.

Stoya: “How does this feel?” To explicitly address the question about changing positions … it isn’t so much that you require permission for each new arrangement as it is that you want to express what you’re trying to achieve so your partner can collaborate.

Rich: “Do you want to switch things up?” “How about we do doggy?” I think there are really natural ways to check in while playing, allowing plenty of space for someone to say, “I’m not into that,” or, “That’s not comfortable for me.” I have had more or less a running dialogue throughout all of my hook-ups, and I’ve never had an awkward experience in that realm.

Stoya: I’m not much of a dirty talker, so I tend to err on the side of clinical language, but there’s tons of communication going on the whole time, even if it’s just the tone of the moans at points.

Rich: In general, healthy collaborative communication means sharing what you have in mind and being ready to honor your partner’s reaction.

Stoya: Yes! What’s your take on the ability to change a “no” to a “yes” mid-hookup?

Rich: I take people at their word. I don’t consciously pressure or coerce, and I don’t believe that I do so unconsciously, either, so I trust people when they say they want something. I think in general, their most recent answer applies. But if I am ever unsure, I circle back: “Yeah?” “Are you sure?”

Stoya: I think it’s one thing if everyone is sober, and another if there’s alcohol or some other substance involved. Other exceptions include people who aren’t good with boundaries, and who deeply want to impress the other partner. The shortcut is to only play with people you know have good boundaries and express them easily. And to only play sober.

Rich: Yes, a certain level of trust makes all of this easier to navigate, which probably requires getting to know your partner more than an average anonymous hookup.

Stoya: I’m not sure if this is appropriate, but one of my adult videos with Mickey Mod shows a first hookup, and he’s really great with flirting/consent establishment. I don’t know if his other work is like that though. Also, queer porn like Shine Louise Houston’s work tends to show active consent and might be a good place to find examples for how to establish it.

Rich: Great. One thing I want to emphasize is that enthusiastic consent makes sex more pleasurable. Getting the process down may seem daunting, but having this stuff out in the open is an inroad to mutual satisfaction and eliminates the stress of guess work. So it really behooves you to engage directly with consent.

More How to Do It

My husband and I married young and have been together for 15 years. We have two small children together. I’ve never been intimate with another man. The sex has always been … fine. He’s average size and has never been a marathon man, but lately he’s had a hard time, well, getting hard, and if he does, he can only handle a minute or maybe two of intercourse before he comes. In contrast, as I’ve gotten older, my tastes have started to run less vanilla, and all I want lately is really rough sex with a big, hard dick operated by someone who really knows how to use it. I’ve recently started chatting online with a sexy, well-endowed man in a similar marriage situation, and that initially very innocent friendship has gotten increasingly inappropriate. It is now pretty much just sexting, and it’s so tempting to have an in-person affair. I don’t want to blow up an otherwise comfortable life over my desire for a big dick. What can I do to fix this?

To learn about the importance of friendship and fancying, listen to Thirst Aid Kit.