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How radical consent gave me back my sex life after trauma

This simple practice helped me date again

Four years ago, I decided never to have sex again. I was healing from trauma and felt overwhelmed even by friend hugs or a date grabbing my hand. I didn’t want to be touched, ever, because it felt impossible to know what might escalate or who could be a secret creep.

Shortly after this bleak, defensive decision, loneliness (and horniness) got me searching for safer ways to date and connect. I had been burned, but hope (and hormones) spring eternal.

Socially, I asked my friends to practice radical consent: the simple practice of using a verbal ask and answer before every touch. It was liberating and illuminating. Almost everyone began asking before hugs or complimenting my awesome sweater verbally instead of touching. Those who wouldn’t stood out. Asking people not to touch me without permission was a helpful test that led me to deepen some friendships and add distance in others. The hugs felt exactly the same, but I felt differently about the people I was hugging. When my friends met me where I was and normalized my verbal ask and answer, they earned more of my trust and proved that they cared about my boundaries.

I began to wonder if radical consent could work in my dating life to help me feel safe enough to have the love and sex that felt so out of reach. But would radical consent kill the spontaneity that my dates might be looking for? Would all that talking be too awkward, too cumbersome?

To test the idea, I did what any slutty queer in a populous city would do: I posted an ad.* It said I was healing from trauma and wanted to try casual sex where we’d verbally ask and consent to every touch. I listed a few sex things I liked, added a few adjectives about myself, pointedly did not include a photo, and posted it. I got about ten responses, none of them creepy, and responded to the most enthusiastic one. They were healing from trauma too, and thought my idea sounded potentially awkward and potentially amazing.

Our first date felt different because our hopes and motives were already out in the open. After a little small talk, I asked if they’d like to try kissing. We kept our hands still for that first kiss. Someone asked if they could tug the other’s hair. One touch at a time, we started suggesting the elements of a make out that usually happened all at once. It felt brave and awkward for about two minutes, and then it felt easy, obvious, and hot. It felt nice to hear that they wanted to touch me. It felt weird and amazing to ask myself if I wanted to say yes.

We had (really fun) sex on that first date and regularly for a few months before parting as friends. Radical consent became intuitive and helped us to touch each other in just the right places, getting things exactly right, instead of guessing. I learned how good I could feel when I could trust the other person and just relax.

After a bit of practice, I returned to regular internet dating with gusto, adding “I practice radical consent” to my dating profiles. The dates who struggled with the concept got skipped over for the surprising number of folks who thought it sounded great or who already practiced radical consent. It made casual dating and sex a lot easier because the clear communication kept our expectations aligned. Parting ways became easier too—we discovered incompatibilities faster, with fewer hurt feelings.

Seven months after that initial sex ad, I met the love of my life. Five minutes into our first date, we pinky swore to be brave and hit on each other if we felt the chemistry develop. An hour later, in an overgrown garden, midway through a conversation about movie spoilers, I honored that pinky promise, told them I was having a great time, and asked if I could bump my knee with theirs. They considered for a second and said, “yes please!” It wasn’t long before we were asking for hand holding, then kissing, and then we were speed-walking to my apartment to invite each other to get naked as fast as possible.

That clear communication made it seem less scary when, two weeks later, I shared that I was feeling big romantic potential and asked if they felt that way too. This was an unexpected benefit of radical consent—it felt easy and natural to name feelings right away. Talking about feelings felt like a natural extension of talking about touch. The same skills and self-knowledge that led to asking for kisses and touch were the exact skills I needed for articulating when I was having a good time or feeling really connected. And just as radical consent for touch meant that things grew one step at a time, from hand holding to kissing to more, verbalizing feelings the same way meant that we didn’t need to know everything about our feelings all at once. It was not only enough, but actually ideal to say, “Hey, I’m noticing crush feelings coming up for me, beyond the fun sex. How about you?” instead of waiting to share feelings when they were bigger and clearer, or agonizing about whether they felt the same way. I felt certain that I could handle rejection gracefully, but wanted to know sooner, rather than later, so I didn’t accidentally get carried away with a one-sided crush.

Weeks later, we said “I love you” for the first time, which was the fastest I’d ever reached that point. Other relationship milestones and commitments unfolded at a slower, organic pace, and the shine hasn’t faded at all in our nearly three years together. This is the kind of abundant, easy, and trustworthy love and sex that I had thought impossible when I gave up on dating a year before we met. We still practice radical consent for every single hug, kiss, and touch. It’s both effortless and intimate.

There have been a lot of nice surprises in practicing radical consent: it was easier than I thought to get started, and it quickly became second nature. I’ve become more attentive to the expectations and goals of others while learning how to listen to my needs, wants, and instincts. It helps other people feel heard and seen, because radical consent is a two-way street. It also allows for people to voice fantasies without turning them into action right away, because nothing happens without verbal ask and answer. For example, if you and your sweetie practice radical consent, and you mention that hair pulling is a turn on, they might ask you if they can pull your hair (or you might request it) during your next make-out, but they won’t just grab a fistful of hair and yank, surprising you and hoping they got it right. And if, during that make-out, hair pulling comes up and one of you isn’t ready, there’s space to say, “No thank you, but I’m excited to try that another time” or just to say, “No thanks” and carry on. One of the best things about radical consent is that mentioning something aloud is not the same as requesting it or giving future consent. So you and your partner can have easy, open dialogue about things you might like to do without overcommitting or pressuring each other.

Radical consent requires more directness, and that’s a good thing. Read the room, go one step at a time, and only ask when you’re ready to hear a “yes” or a “no.” Be grateful and gracious toward refusals, because a person’s “yes” is only as trustworthy as their ability to say “no” when they want to. It’s not foolproof, and it’s not perfect, but it’s helped me to turn down things that would waste my time and energy and to take boundaried risks to ask for what I wanted.

Radical consent helped me safely access sex again after trauma. Even better, the communication tools it gave me allowed me to meet and fall in love with my partner. I hope that it can help you get where you’re going, too.

*RIP to Craigslist personals, but I highly recommend using the LEX mobile app, which serves everyone but cis-men, if you’d like to find a highly specific date.

Lou Forrester is a transgender health activist and advocate. Lou’s background includes accompanying transgender patients to the emergency room to help navigate care and coordinating medical care and community support for transgender, intersex, and HIV positive prisoners. He’s a member of an all-trans collective that hosts DIY sex parties and writes sex trivia for a weekly pubquiz.

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