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My girlfriend isn’t verbal during sex – how do we navigate consent?

Dear Roe: Some people need alternate frameworks of consent, and they shouldn’t be left unacknowledged

Dear Roe,

I am a queer woman in a new but wonderful relationship. My girlfriend is thoughtful, caring, kind, beautiful, and I feel very lucky. One thing we’re trying to navigate is that she has some trauma which can make it difficult for her to verbally communicate during sex, and she can find it difficult to say “no” or “stop” (or similar) during sex if she needs to. She has said that she’s happy for us to find non-verbal ways of expressing consent, but I’m concerned about how effective non-verbal consent can be. I don’t know whether I should be trying to help her get more verbal during sex, or to try non-verbal? Any advice would be appreciated.

One side-effect of living in a culture where sexual violence is prevalent, sex education is still debated, and cultural conversations around consent are new and still overlooked is that consent discourse often must focus on the absolute basics for a long time, because so many people are still getting it dangerously wrong.

You’re right that consent discourse usually prioritises verbal consent practices. This is a way of shifting both individual and cultural attitudes; encouraging people to get comfortable talking about sex, clearly communicating with their partner, and acknowledging that consent is a communicative process, where consent must always be an enthusiastic, freely given, and ongoing. This basic understanding of consent is fundamental. Unfortunately, as a society we’re still working on our fundamentals, and so we’re trying to make consent as explicit and foolproof as possible.


But as your letter shows, there are people with trauma, people with disabilities, and people who find it difficult to verbally communicate during sex who need alternate frameworks of consent, and they shouldn’t be left unacknowledged and vulnerable.

I think therapy is always a good idea - for everyone generally, but particularly someone who has trauma that affects their sex life, so I think it would be a good idea for your girlfriend.

In the meantime, non-verbal consent practices do exist – but should never be confused or equated with a lack of communication. Non-verbal consent practices aren’t guesswork or silence; they involve a lot of vital, clear, ongoing communication before, during and after sex.

Before sex, you and your girlfriend can have conversations about how she likes to communicate when she needs to stop, or slow down, or change activity; and come up with concrete strategies. For example, you could have a tap system, where if she double taps you with her hand at any point, that means she wants to stop or slow down or check in. You could ask her to nod if she’s comfortable, and if she doesn’t nod, assume you don’t have enthusiastic consent. You could have the gesture version of a safe-word; a gesture that unequivocally means “stop immediately”. (Consider any scenarios or positions where this mightn’t work or need an alternative.) Talk about your needs and come up with some ideas together. You could also talk about whether she has any trauma responses that you need be aware of, like freezing or disassociating or having panic attacks, what that looks like for her, and how she would like you to respond in these instances.

Once you get a clear strategy in place, you can then very slowly start trying it, using a mix of verbal and non-verbal communication at first. Remember that you don’t both have to be non-verbal; you can continue verbally checking with her – more frequently, even – asking if things feel good, if she likes what you’re doing etc, and waiting for her to respond however she prefers.

As you slowly try out new strategies, be sure to have aftercare conversations following sex, where you discuss what worked, what felt comfortable, what needed adjustment. Keep this dialogue going even when you both begin to feel more comfortable, to ensure you both always feel safe, respected, and understood. Move slowly, be safe, and keep communicating.