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Spectrum of Consent


Image description: Pink rectangle containing four differently sized purple moons. From left to right the moons are waxing: starting with a small dark purple crescent moon and ending with a large pinky purple full moon. From the left to right the moons are labelled Enduring, Tolerating, Willing, Wanting.


Some models of consent present the idea that Person A is asking permission to do something to Person B. If Person B wants Person A to do that thing, they will enthusiastically say “Yes” and if they do not, they will say “No.” But it’s common for there to be feelings that don’t fit neatly within the enthusiastic yes/no binary. 


Kai Cheng Thom is a somatic coach and author who created the diagram above to explain a more nuanced approach to consent. Check out her Instagram for lots of other useful infographics. 


Before making a request of your own or agreeing to someone else’s, it’s probably useful to take a sacred pause so you can tune into what’s going on for you. The pause can give you a moment to notice where you fall on the spectrum of consent. 


If you are receiving a request and find yourself in the full moon of Wanting, it might feel quite straightforward that you want to consent to the proposal - this is something that is going to feel good for you. This state correlates most closely with the “enthusiastic yes” model of consent and is perhaps what we associate most with desire. 


But can you consent to something when you don’t actively want it? If you are Willing, then the answer is yes. There are lots of reasons why you might be Willing to do something that you don’t want to do:

  • It’s a sexual practice that your partner really enjoys but it’s not something that is especially hot for you.

  • It’s something you’ve never tried before. You have some scepticism about it but you’re Willing to give it a go.

  • Your partner is requesting touch but you don’t feel particularly horny. You are Willing to touch your partner for their pleasure.

  • You’re a sex worker and your client respects your boundaries and pays you handsomely for providing them with services that you feel okay about. 


Some people have a lot of experience in Willingness and much less in Wanting. Wanting can feel scary because it comes with the risk that your desires might not be fulfilled. Willingness can also feel scary if you have a history of being subject to boundary violations or of being overly self-sacrificing. For folks with such experiences, Willingness might easily slip unnoticed into Tolerating, bringing up feelings of failure for having not been self-protective enough. 


If we are aiming to treat each other consensually, we want to avoid states of Tolerating and Enduring as much as possible. That said, it’s fairly common for people to spend quite a bit of time in both of them. We all exist within systems of inequality which value some lives more highly than others. Whiteness, wealth and other forms of social power often give people greater access to choice about how their bodies are treated. 


Increasing our understanding of how consent feels in our bodies has the capacity to make all our interactions more consensual for everyone involved. The more we can make consent practices habitual in all areas of our lives, not just sex, the more we can work towards relationships of collective solidarity and away from dynamics of domination. 


Practice exercise


Keep a journal for a week. You want to make notes in real time so choose a format that works well for you - perhaps recording yourself voice memos or writing notes on your phone. Spend some time getting to know each of the four states on the spectrum.


When you are doing different activities in your week, take a sacred pause to see how each one feels. Try to find one example of each of the states and note down what happens in your body that signals to you which state you are in. For example:


  • Wanting - receiving an erotic massage from my partner. Moving between feelings of deep relaxation and excitement. Alive, tingly feeling across my chest. Pleasurable feeling of swelling and throbbing in my genitals. 

  • Willing - giving a massage to my partner. I felt relaxed, aware of sensations that I was experiencing and connected to my partner, my breath was normal, no physical pain, tension or numbness. 

  • Tolerating - sitting in a long traffic jam on the bus. Boredom, restlessness in my legs and hands, tension in my shoulders and jaw, distracted from reading my book, shallow breath. 

  • Enduring - needing to meet a deadline to complete some work on my computer. Lower back pain from not taking a break, tension in other areas of my body, difficulty focussing.

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