These steps are assuming that you're not a rapist and therefore would never deliberately push sex on someone regardless of their will, through drugging, physical force, threat, or power (such as an adult over a child or a boss over an employee). Those are not mistakes, those are crimes.
Step 1a: the STI, birth control, protection, and trauma conversation. Before starting sexual contact, if you want to have full consent you need to do these things:
- a) disclose your known STI status AND your risk factors (unprotected sex? sex with people whose status is positive or unknown?), and ask about theirs. If you are not okay with taking the risk or vice versa, don't have sex with them.
- b) if relevant, discuss what birth control measures are being taken and what to do in event of unplanned pregnancy or barrier-method fail. If you're not okay with how they'd respond to those things or vice versa, don't have sex with them.
- c) ask what methods of protection they want, tell what you want, and then go with whichever is more cautious. If you're not okay with how much protection they want or vice versa, don't have sex with them.
- d) ask about any trigger behaviors you should avoid, and disclose your own if you have them. Such a huge number of people have been sexually abused that you need to assume that anyone you have sex with may have triggers; if you don't want to give someone a PTSD flashback, ASK FIRST. If relevant to one or both of you, discuss carefully. If you still feel too scared of triggering them, don't have sex with them.
Step 1b: disclose any other information that you think they might want, given what you know of them. If they only have sex in the context of a committed relationship, and you're not committed to them, make sure they know that. If they're monogamous and you're poly, make sure they know that. If you only have sex with the same sex in a casual way that can never get serious and they aren't the same, make sure they know that. Deliberately having sex with someone when you KNOW they would NOT do it if they had relevant information is coercion, not consensual sex. If you hold back info you think they want in order to have sex with them, that's manipulative and coercive at best.
Step 2: ask about the specific occasion BEFORE starting sexual contact, without pressure in your language, attitude, or behavior. Asking a yes or no question in a culture where saying no to sex is taboo is NOT a no-pressure way of asking. A better way of asking is an open-ended question like, "I want to have sex with you right now. How do you feel about that?" Then,
- a) if they express that they do not want to have sex, ask for a time frame -- not now, not tonight, not ever? You don't want to ask again if they know they won't want to do it tonight or ever. Responses like "I don't feel very good" or "I'm really tired" or "I'm drunk" mean, at the very least, not now, and should be treated like a no -- ask for time frame and wait that long before asking again. DO NOT POUT: do not complain or whine or express upsetness: you NEVER have a right to expect a yes. If you can't avoid showing disappointment, ask for some time to compose yourself and go away until you can be happy to share non-sexual time. To make them deal with your negative emotional reaction to a "no" is pressure, both now and in the future. If they know they're going to have to deal with your crankiness or whinyness if they say no, they can't say a completely uncoerced yes.
- b) if they give a non-committal answer like "I don't know" or "I'm not sure," ask for clarification. Ask questions like, "Is there something you would rather be doing right now?" (if the answer is yes, do that before asking again or don't have sex.) or "what is your emotional response to my desire?" If they continue with non-committal answers or look uncomfortable/distant, that means no -- don't continue asking for sex. For me, at that point my sexual desire is gone, so I might say something like, "I no longer want to have sex but I very much want to understand your feelings and thoughts right now."
- c) if they express a clear desire to have sex, move to step 3!
Step 3: do not assume that any particular sex act or response will happen, including but not limited to:
- a) penetration of any kind (some people don't want or can't handle penetration every time)
- b) genital touch of any kind (some people don't want or can't handle genital touch every time)
- c) orgasm or climax of any kind (some people don't want or can't have orgasms every time)
- d) roleplay of any kind (including feminine/masculine, dominant/submissive, initiator/responder, etc! these must be discussed to be consensual)
- e) pain or sensation of any kind (some people may not be comfortable with the kind of sensation you want in sex, or don't want it this time)
Step 4: agree on safe words/signals
- a) there should be a word or signal that means "stop all things immediately, for a significant period of time, possibly ending the sex"
- b) if using bondage, there should be a word or signal that means "loose the bonds immediately"
- c) it's also useful to have a word/signal that means, "stop everything for a little while" and another that means "resume" I use the words 'pause' and 'unpause' -- this keeps me from getting overstimulated and going numb.
- d) it can be useful to have a word/signal that means "try something else" -- I prefer to be specific about what else, but I know people who like the indirect method better.
Step 5: check for sensitivities when touching and ask before penetration
- a) when touching anywhere you think might be especially sensitive (like nipples or genitals), pay attention. If you are sighted, you can do this by watching their body language -- ease towards their sensitive places and if they look uncomfortable, take that as a not yet, or if you'd rather not risk doing something that will feel bad, ASK FIRST. I always ask, either with words or by reaching for a spot, pausing with my hand near it, looking at them and continuing only if they nod. If they don't respond at all, that is a NO, and I do other things instead and then ask with words if I want to go to that spot. Be gradual in intensity or ask how intense they want it. I once was making out with someone who reached up and pinched my nipple so hard I thought it was a bee sting at first -- NOT OKAY, EVER. If you know they like super-hard pinches, that's different -- do not assume that you can guess the level of intensity they would like.
- b) when you want to penetrate them with fingers, you can ask with words or (IF you already got a yes for touching the area) lay your hand on the opening of the place you want to penetrate and wait for a response. Usually what happens for me at this point is that the person asks for penetration or does not respond. No response means NO, move on, then ask with words later if you still want to. If you want to penetrate with more than one finger, ask with words; more is NOT better for everyone.
- c) when you want to penetrate them with your penis, if you have agreed on barrier methods for penetration but not other sex acts, ask if they want penetration before putting the condom on; putting the condom on in that situation communicates an expectation of penetration which will be louder than any question that follows. When you ask, be specific: WHERE are you wanting to penetrate? Don't assume that penetration means penis-in-vagina to them just because they have a front orifice. Or that it means penis-in-anus just because they don't. If you have an agreement to not use barriers, you can try the "pausing outside the opening and waiting for a response" method and remember -- no response means NO. You can do other things and ask with words about penetration later.
- d) if you want to be penetrated by them, all the same requirements apply -- do NOT put their parts (including their toys or prosthetics) inside you without asking, or put a condom on them without asking.
- e) when you want to penetrate them with an object, ask first and ask specifically: "I want to put [object] in your [place] -- how do you feel about that idea?"
- f) Do not take a yes for one kind of penetration as a yes for any other kind, ever.
- g) with any kind of penetration, if they look uncomfortable and say non-committal things when you ask about penetration, drop the subject and if you still want to, talk about it when you are not in a sexual situation.
Something that makes consent easier is picking only highly-communicative partners who are good at stating their own boundaries. It's your responsibility to keep from violating or coercing them; if they are willing to help you that makes things much easier. If someone doesn't want to talk about sex or doesn't know their own boundaries, don't have sex with them because you will probably make a big mistake and hurt them, and yes, that will be YOUR FAULT because it is YOUR responsibility to keep from hurting others.
EVEN IF you follow ALL of these steps, you may STILL accidentally coerce or violate someone. We live in a rape culture that makes it very difficult for us to understand consent, to respect our own boundaries and the boundaries of others; so sex is dangerous. We need to go in knowing we can hurt each other, and being careful to minimize that risk.