A Brief Guide to Consenting with a Nonverbal Partner
Consent is extremely important and vital to all aspects of dating, relationships, sex and just about any kind of interpersonal interaction. Whether you want to cuddle, make out, or have or continue some kind of genital sex you will always need to seek and get enthusiastic consent in order to move forward. Consent is important to make sure you and your partner are on the same page, to help you both enjoy yourselves and have a pleasurable experience, and to avoid injury, harm or any mishaps that can happen with a lack of consent or communication.
But what if your partner is nonverbal due to a disability? Here are some tips on how to seek and obtain consent and how to generally communicate during sex with a nonverbal partner, so sex can be safe, satisfying and fun for everyone involved.
People with disabilities vary widely in terms of how they can and do communicate and otherwise express themselves. People with physical disabilities like Cerebral Palsy or ALS might have different body language than what you're used to with people who don’t have those conditions. Neurodivergent people often express themselves differently and may also interpret others differently than many neurotypical people do. Having open communication and asking questions about how your partner communicates is extremely important, especially given how diverse we all are.
The Basics of Nonverbal Consenting: Yes and No
Before even getting to the bedroom, you can start by having your partner show you how they gesture for “yes” and for “no.” Yes and no can get you a lot of information, and can be used for many parts of sex, including with consenting. It’s important to have a conversation both before you get to sex and outside of the bedroom about how your partner communicates or gestures “Yes” and “No." Outside the bedroom and without the pressure of being in the middle of sex, this conversation can be more relaxed. This is also a great time to ask other questions about how to best communicate. You can even ask questions like, “What do I do if I’m not sure what you are trying to communicate?” Since at this time, your partner should have their communication device, you two can openly talk about how to navigate those kinds of situations and anything else that comes up.
Some people nod and shake their head to gesture yes or no, but other people use blinking, or hand gestures to communicate yes or no, so be open to alternatives! Many nonverbal people use communication devices (such as computers that talk, letter boards, and other AAC devices) in their daily life to communicate, but these can be tricky to use during sex.
At first, it may feel like only asking mostly yes or no questions is a very limited way to get information, but really there is so much that can be communicated through this technique! If you are not sure if you are reading your partner’s signals correctly, you should ask again just to be sure!
Not a lot of people realize just how much information you can get by asking yes or no questions. The game 20 Questions is a good example of how to find out what your partner is thinking and how far just asking things where the answers are yes or no can get you. For those who aren’t familiar with 20 questions, it's a game where you ask a series of twenty yes or no questions to try and find out what someone is thinking of, like, “Is the object blue?” or “Are you thinking of an animal?” The idea of the game is to figure out what that person is thinking about by the end of only 20 yes or no questions.
You can apply this same concept to better communicate with a nonverbal partner.You can ask yes and no questions to narrow down what your partner is thinking about! For example, you could ask, “Do you need me to move your arm or leg?” or “Do you want the vibrator?” and if they say no to one suggestion, you can always keep narrowing your questions and offering up other options until you understand what each of you wants or needs and are both on the same page. Giving choices is another way to communicate with your partner, for example, you can lay out some toys on the bed, and point at each toy until your partner signals to you which toy they want.
Safewords are often very helpful during sex. A safeword is a designated word or gesture that you and your partner choose and agree on in advance to use during sex if either of you want to immediately stop any activity that someone isn’t okay with any more, or otherwise want to put the brakes on quickly. You can use safewords nonverbally in a few ways, including with sign language or a written sign. You can use a gesture as a safeword if you like or need to. This can be something like tapping your partner three times, having a call bell on your nightstand or within your reach that you ring, or specific facial gestures. For some people, facial gestures can be tricky, so make sure you and your partner talk about and agree upon a specific facial gesture and what it means when it's used. That way, if you need to stop you can without using a verbal safeword if those don’t work for you. One safeword — verbal or not — or way to communicate isn’t good for every nonverbal person, everyone is different! Again, discuss this before you get to the bedroom or intimate/sexual activities so you and your partner have a clear, predetermined way to communicate.
Remember, body language and facial gestures are not universal, even if it might feel like they are. Happy, for example, doesn’t look the same on everyone’s face: neither does scared. If you have experience with one nonverbal person’s facial and body language, that does not mean you will know how another nonverbal person communicates and expresses themselves without communicating with that person directly and finding out from them.
Checking in often is as important with a nonverbal partner as it is with a verbal one. Checking in does not necessarily have to be just, “Are you okay? Should we stop?” It can also be things like, “Does that feel good?” “Do you like that? How about that?” “Are you having fun?” “Do you want me to do anything for you?” and other ways to check in that support the mood instead of busting it. People can be overly cautious sometimes with people with disabilities, especially at first. But you don’t have to be afraid to make your check-ins fun and sexy! As you get to know your partner and what they like, check-ins will get easier and feel more naturally part of your sexual experiences together. If you feel nervous at first, you’ll probably get more comfortable over time. It’s okay to ask to take whatever time and for whatever pace you need: if you’re verbal and your partner isn’t, that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who get to slow the pace down if they want or need to.
During sex, if you are ever unsure if your partner is still into what’s going on, you can always check in. Sometimes while people are having sex, their bodies might make it harder for their gestures to be clear, which can make it a little harder to read and communicate with that person. So, it’s very important to continually check in if you are not sure how your partner is feeling, especially if they are nonverbal. Also, having an agreed-upon gesture that says “I am good - let’s keep going,” is a good way for a partner to quickly communicate when you are not sure about something. That way you or they don’t have to take a full stop unless anyone wants to.
Communication with a nonverbal person can seem daunting at first. But, as with anyone else, as you learn how that person uniquely communicates over time and create and refine ways to communicate together, it will become more fun and easy!