Recognizing Gray Consent

Sexual consent is the clear, mutual agreement to engage in specific sexual activities.  Though this definition makes sexual consent seem easy to give and receive, it can still be difficult, even if the person is acting in good faith.  Recognizing gray consent can be challenging, yet it is also so important for sexual health and satisfaction.  If you’re unsure of how consensual your sexual experiences have been, this article will help you recognize gray consent. 


Signs of Gray Consent

Gray consent is ambiguous communication and permission regarding one or more sexual activities.  However, gray consent is more than the absence of explicit, verbal agreement.  A person can agree to something sexual, but only do so out of fear or obligation.  Motivations, feelings, and clear communication are all crucial for sexual consent.  Because these aspects are so important, let’s go through each one.  

Motivations are the personal reasons for engaging in sexual activities.  Pleasure, external expectations, and sexual education can influence one’s motivations.  Regarding sexual education, a person might engage in gray consent due to sexual misconceptions and misinformation.  For instance, they might begrudgingly have sex in order to prevent their partner’s “blue balls” (which is a myth, by the way).    

Concerning sex, feelings are the emotions that we experience before, during, and after sexual activity.  Similar to sexual motivations, emotions concerning sex have multiple influencers (e.g., religious upbringing, societal messages, sex ed).  Though emotions regarding sex are subjective, they can also help the person recognize gray consent.  Feelings of guilt, disappointment, or embarrassment can indicate sexual activity that was not ideal.  

Clear communication leaves little room for confusion or assumptions.  The person is expressing their message in an easy to understand manner.  Regarding sex, the people involved are aware of the boundaries, wants, and needs of each other.  Once again, sexual education plays a role in this.  It’s difficult to give clear consent when the person is unaware of effective forms of contraception, for instance.  Though it is difficult to know/express every single sexual desire, the more clarity of sexual boundaries, the less room there is for gray consent.

Motivation, feelings, and communication can all help you recognize gray consent.  Here are some examples.

  • Motivations
    • “I want to have sex to prevent my partner from getting angry.”
    • “I don’t want to hurt my date’s feelings, so I want to have sex.”
  • Feelings
    • “I felt disappointed in myself afterwards.”
    • “I was focused more on the other person’s feelings than my own.”
  • Communication
    • “We just assumed that certain sexual acts were okay.”
    • “We never talked about protection.”

To be clear, these examples are not exhaustive nor infallible.  It’s possible to feel disappointed after having sex, despite being in a healthy, loving relationship with explicit consent.  Conversely, it’s possible to feel elated with a sexual encounter where consent was ambiguous.  That’s why it’s important to look at your sexual experiences through multiple lenses. 


Reflect on Your Sexual Experiences

Take a moment to think about your sexual experiences, specifically with how you and sexual partners approached consent.  To make it easier, reflect on the last five times you engaged in partnered sex.  Grab a sheet of paper and write down the motivations, feelings, and communication surrounding the sexual experiences.  Think about what your recent reasons were for having partnered sex, as well as how well they were honored.  Reflect on your emotions before, during, and after the experience.  Finally, think about how you communicated your desires, needs, and concerns.  If you need more help, here are some questions to ask yourself.

  • Have I ever just “went along” with the sexual activity?
  • Were there times where I had sex to avoid disappointing the other person?
  • What were my desires?
  • What were the other person(s) desires?
  • How did we express our desires?
  • Have I always made it clear that I wanted to engage in sex?
  • How positively did I feel before, during, and after the sexual experience?
  • Were there times where I felt more comfortable saying “yes” than “no”?
  • Were there unspoken assumptions?


Next, take some time to analyze your answers.  Regarding motivation, communication, and feelings, which category tends to be the most susceptible to gray consent?  If it’s your sexual motivations, take a short break from sex to determine what they are.  During this brief time of conscious abstinence, write down the reasons why you would want to have sex again.  Next, ask yourself whether your prospective sexual activity will align with your motivations.  If your feelings tend to be susceptible to gray consent, check in with yourself before, during, and after the sexual activity.  If at any point you start to feel uncomfortable emotions (e.g., guilt, anxiety, self-loathing), take a break.  Reflect on what’s going on, and what you would need to feel better.  Never forget that you are always allowed to stop the sexual activity: you are entitled to your sexual comfort.  If your communication tends to be vulnerable to gray consent, try practicing what you want to say beforehand.  Practice in front of a mirror, or write down what you would want to say.  Though it may feel unnatural at first, repetition will make your sexual communication more natural.  In addition to these strategies, here are more than you can use.

To be clear, giving gray consent does not make you a horrible person or anything like that.  There’s no need to apply judgment on your past actions.  Instead, reflecting on whether you have given gray consent allows you to shape the type of sexual experiences that you want.  If you are still struggling to recognize gray consent in your sexual relationships, that’s okay.  There are therapists at the Center for Growth who can help you.  Schedule a session today at