Giving Gray Consent

       Gray consent goes by many names (e.g., “unwanted, wanted sex,” “murky consent,” “non-consensual consent.”)  However, the experience is all the same: the person didn’t really want to have sex, but agreed to anyway.  Additionally, the person may or may not see the experience as sexual assault.  Either way, they don’t see the experience as satisfying in regards to their sexual boundaries.  If you find yourself having these experiences, this article is for you.  Specifically, this article will help you stop giving gray consent.


Why Giving Gray Consent Happens


         Before discussing ways to limit gray consent, it’s important to talk about why it happens in the first place.  One reason for gray consent is the complexity of human sexuality in general.  Biology, psychology, and society all influence a person’s experience and expectations of sex.  For instance, having a body type smaller than the people you have sex with influences consent.  Agreeing to sex may feel safer than telling the person “no.”  After all, there may be the fear that the person would become violent upon hearing a rejection.  Social expectations also influence sexual consent (e.g., “If it’s the third date and you want to keep the person around, you better have sex with them tonight.”).  Here are other examples of why gray consent can happen.


  •         Feeling that you “owe” your partner sex.
  •         You feel that expressing your boundaries would be too awkward
  •         Not wanting to hurt your date’s feelings
  •         Thinking that sex should happen because you began making out with them
  •         You feel that it’s too late to go home alone, but you also feel that sex is required to spend the night


         Of course, an “enthusiastic yes” (i.e., the individual genuinely and actively wants sex to occur) is still crucial for consent.  Unfortunately, this gold standard has its limits.  As stated earlier, people can agree to sex for reasons independent of an enthusiastic yes.  The inability to read minds exacerbates this issue.  Essentially, gray consent can occur for multiple reasons, all of which may be invisible to your sexual partner.  Though advocating for your sexual boundaries may feel scary or inconvenient, doing so also ensures that you have the sexual experiences that you truly desire.


Create Filters for Your Potential Sexual Partners


         Advocating for your sexual boundaries can be difficult right before sex occurs.  Therefore, one way to limit gray consent is to prevent yourself from even being in the situation.  More specifically, assess and filter your potential sexual partners.  Whether these are people you’ve seen on dating apps or at your office, try asking yourself the following questions.


  •         Does this person respect my non-sexual boundaries (e.g., time, space, communication)?
  •         Do I feel comfortable being completely honest about my boundaries with this person?
  •         Would I feel safe being alone with this person?
  •         Does this person have a good reputation?
  •         Are they and I on the same page regarding expectations?
  •         If my best friend were to have sex with this person instead of me, would I be confident about their safety?


If you find yourself answering “no” to most of these questions, then you may not be in the best position to avoid giving gray consent.  Be aware that this list isn’t exhaustive; these are simply some questions that would be important to ask yourself.  When it comes to having a satisfying, sexual experience, reflect on any additional factors that would necessitate it.


Write Down Your Sexual Boundaries Before Seeing the Person


         Now that you have done some work to weed out potentially untrustworthy sexual partners (people can still blindside you after you’ve known them), you may feel more confident for your next sexual experience.  Use that assurance for your next activity.  Before you see your potential sex partner in person, use your phone or a sheet of paper to list your sexual boundaries.  Simply write down what you want the sexual interaction to be.  Don’t worry about the other person; only focus on your needs.  Here’s an example of how it can look.


My Sexual Boundaries for Tonight


-Kissing would be great                                      -I want to do hand stuff

-Oral sex is okay, but only with a condom      -I don’t want anal sex

-I don’t want vaginal sex                                      -If they spend the night, I don’t want morning sex


Once again, it can be difficult to assert one’s boundaries when it seems like sex is about to happen.  Suddenly, it could become difficult to remember what your boundaries were to begin with. Writing out your sexual boundaries beforehand can help with this problem.  Your premade list is a reminder of what your desires are, which can then aid in articulating them in person.


Tell the Person Your Boundaries Before Sex Happens


         Another way to minimize giving gray consent is to tell the person your boundaries before sex even occurs.  Not only would the other person know exactly what your boundaries are, telling the person beforehand can circumvent the pressure of having to assert your boundaries right before sex happens.  This is still easier said than done; however, there are ways to have the conversation that aren’t completely awkward.  Tone, wording, and the mode of communication are all important factors in making the conversation smooth.  For instance, a person could quickly express their sexual boundaries through a text message as date plans are being made.  Here are some prompts to make the conversation less awkward.


“I’m pretty excited for tonight!  I just wanted you to know that I want to take things slowly.  I’m down with ___, but I’m not ready for ____ right now.  Are you cool with that?”


“It’s going to be late after the show, so I was hoping that I could spend the night.  I forgot to buy condoms, though.  Do you have any?”


“My friend was telling me about this really awkward date that they just had.  Their expectations for sex were all over the place.  Haha, let’s make sure it’s not the same for us.  So, here’s what I’m hoping for tonight ______.   How about you?”


You can, of course, tailor your message to whatever makes you the most comfortable.  For this activity, the most important aspect is that you express your boundaries before sex starts to happen.  When it comes to your sexual boundaries, it’s crucial to be proactive, not reactive. 


         Giving gray consent occurs for many reasons.  Expressing needs is difficult, so it’s only understandable that the same goes for sexual needs.  Fortunately, there are ways to minimize giving gray consent.  Filter out the people who aren’t going to respect your boundaries, write down what your sexual boundaries actually are, and try to express those boundaries sooner rather than later.  If you’re still struggling to stop giving gray consent, it’s okay.  It can be especially difficult to manage if the person has a history of sexual trauma, which is never the survivor’s fault.  If you need additional help with dealing with gray consent, therapy can help.  Speaking with a therapist can unearth any difficulties that you may be facing.  Schedule a session online at