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Wheel of Consent

 

The Wheel of Consent is a profound model of relating which brings greater clarity and authenticity to our relationships in all areas of life.  Its principles can be learned through a simple, clothed touch practice.

The Wheel really gets to the heart of consent by helping us slow down and notice what we actually want and where are boundaries are, and also provides a language for communicating these clearly with others.

wheel of consent UK
Betty Martin Wheel of Consent

Dr. Betty Martin, who developed the Wheel of Consent

Find out more about the Wheel of Consent workshops offered by the Art of Consent:

What is the Wheel of Consent?

 

The Wheel of Consent distinguishes between the ‘doing’ aspect of an interaction: who is doing? - and the ‘gift’ aspect: who is it for?  Asking these two questions together creates four possible dynamics, each of which has a different flavour, and requires a different type of consent agreement to be made. This is the central insight of the Wheel of Consent, from which many consequences and insights flow.

 

We can use a simple, clothed touch practice to experience each of the Wheel's four quadrants, discovering which of them feel comfortable and which feel unfamiliar, enabling us to clarify our desires, needs and boundaries, and shining a light on our blind-spots.  We see how our life experience may have limited our expression of these qualities, and we can use the Wheel as an embodied practice to open them up again.

 

 

 

Who is the Wheel of Consent for?

 

You're likely to find the Wheel of Consent helpful if you answer yes or sometimes to any of the following questions:

 

  • Do you find yourself giving resentfully, people-pleasing, or doing things for others without being sure if it’s really what they want?

  • Are you sometimes unsure about what you really want, and even when you are sure, do you struggle to ask for it?  Even if you get what you want, do you sometimes feel unworthy of receiving it?

  • Do you ever find yourself going along with things because it feels less awkward or safer than expressing a boundary? Do you struggle to know what your boundaries are – or perhaps only realise after the event that they’ve been crossed?

  • Do you find it difficult to respond gracefully when hearing a ‘no’ from another?  Do you sometimes cross other people’s boundaries unintentionally, perhaps without even realising it?

 

Establishing clear consent agreements can be challenging for all kinds of reasons, including peer pressure, social and cultural conditioning, personal trauma, and imbalances of power and privilege.  The Wheel of Consent is a powerful tool to help individuals, partners and communities co-create a culture of consent.


The Wheel of Consent

12-minute read

The Wheel of Consent was developed by Dr. Betty Martin, based on her experiences as a professional body-worker.  After three decades of touching people's bodies professionally, she noticed many things about people's relationship with touch, including:

 

  • most people struggled to communicate what kind of touch they wanted

  • many people didn't even know what kind of touch they wanted

  • many people struggled to say 'stop' or 'no' to touch they weren't enjoying

Betty therefore began to coach her clients to notice and communicate more clearly what kinds of touch they enjoyed and didn't enjoy.   A core part of this was supporting clients to relax deeply into the understanding that the touch was for them.

These insights led Betty to develop the Wheel of Consent, which is based around asking two key questions, which turn out to be relevant to all kinds of interactions:

who is doing?

and

who is it for?

Who Is It For?

 

Here is an example of what this means:  I ask John if I can place my hand on his knee, and he replies, “Yes, you can.”  On the face of it, we seem to have consent.  But the Wheel of Consent says our agreement is not complete until we have also answered the question, “Who is it for?”

This is because there are many reasons why I might ask to place my hand on John’s knee:

 

  • Perhaps I am feeling anxious and in need of physical contact with somebody, and John happens to be nearby (the touch is for me).

  • Perhaps I sense John is upset and in need of some physical reassurance, but I know he has difficulty asking for that himself, so I initiate the offer (the touch is for John).

  • Perhaps I feel drawn to the leggings John is wearing, and want to feel the texture of the fabric (the touch is for me).

  • Perhaps John has told me he’s feeling pain in his knee, and I am medically trained, so I offer to put my hand on his knee to see if I can find out what the problem is (the touch is for John).

  • Perhaps we are on a date, and I'm guessing we would both enjoy some sensual physical contact (the touch is for both of us)

  

The point is that John cannot meaningfully consent to my offer of touch unless he knows not just what I'm intending to do but also why - which means clarifying who it is for.

To understand the four different dynamics, or ‘quadrants’, created by asking these two questions (who is doing, and who is it for), we can draw a simple diagram with two axes:

wheel of consent

  • The vertical axis (labelled with orange text) shows who is doing - either I am doing, or you are doing. 

  • The horizontal axis (labelled with green text) shows who it is for - either it is for me, or it is for you. 

This creates the four quadrants, as shown, based on an exchange of touch.  You can create a very similar diagram for non-touch examples. 

 

Each quadrant can then be named according to which consensual activity it is describing:

  • I touch you the way you want = I am GIVING

  • I touch you the way I want   = I am TAKING

  • You touch me the way I want = I am RECEIVING

  • You touch me the way you want = I am ALLOWING

 

(NB - More recently, Betty has renamed two of the quadrants - Giving is now called 'Serving', and Receiving is now called 'Accepting'.  However, this would take further explanation, and for introductory purposes the names used here are I think clearer.)

 

Now our diagram looks like this:

 

wheel of consent

 

 

Notice that the four quadrants consist of two matching pairs.  If I am Giving, then you are Receiving, and vice versa.  Meanwhile if you are Taking, then I am Allowing, and vice versa.  To help familiarise yourself with the quadrants, you can also consider the questions which typically arise from each quadrant:

 

  • GIVING - “Would you like me to touch you?”  (I am doing and it's for you)

  • TAKING - “May I touch you?” (I am doing and it's for me)

  • RECEIVING - “Will you touch me?” (You are doing and it's for me)

  • ALLOWING - “Would you like to touch me?” (You are doing and it's for you)

 

In the example of John's knee, it was clear who was doing the touching - me - but it wasn't clear who it was for.  (Note there are also questions which aren't specific to any quadrant, e.g.  "Can we try something new?" or “Can we pause for a moment?”)

The Wheel of Consent in Everyday Life

The Wheel of Consent also applies to everyday non-touch situations.  Here’s an example:  I ask Sally to come with me to a friend’s party, and Sally replies, ‘Yes, I'm up for that’.  Let’s again consider ‘Who is this for?’  Here are four possibilities:

  • I really want to go to the party, but I know my ex- will be there which I feel anxious about, and I’m hoping Sally is willing to come along with me for moral support (it’s for me).

  • I'm not that bothered about the party, but I know that someone Sally is really keen to meet will be there, and so I suggest we go together (it’s for Sally).

  • It’s a party that I think we’ll both enjoy, and it’ll be even more fun for both of us if we go together (it’s for both of us).

  • I'm not bothered about the party but I'm assuming Sally really wants to go and would like my company.  Sally's not bothered about the party either, and is assuming I really want to go and want her company (it's not for either of us).

 

The last example can happen all too easily in life - and is surprisingly common during sex.  Having mutually consented to sex, people engage in a particular sexual activity which each assumes the other is really into, but neither person really is. In other words, it's not for either of them!   In the party example, Sally’s response to my question will almost certainly depend on her assumptions about which of the above scenarios she thinks is happening.  In both everyday life and during sex, clarifying 'who is it for' helps avoid misunderstandings and brings more clarity, authenticity and enjoyment to all our interactions with others.

 

The 'Shadows' of the Wheel of Consent

The Wheel of Consent also helps us notice and clarify when we are outside of an agreement and are interacting in non-consensual ways.  This can happen in differing degrees, and Betty Martin explains how each quadrant has its own, distinctive non-consensual 'shadow' dynamic.  Here are some examples:

 

  • GIVING without agreement could be people-pleasing or giving resentfully

  • TAKING without agreement could be stealing or perpetrating

  • RECEIVING without agreement could be entitled or exploiting

  • ALLOWING without agreement could be silently enduring, or a victim

As you become more familiar with these non-consensual ‘shadows’ of the Wheel, you might start to notice which ones you sometimes find yourself in.  This self-awareness is really powerful because once you’ve noticed it, you can often get out of the shadows by clarifying:  Who is this for?  And have we both consented to that? 

 

It’s helpful to remember that the shadows are adaptive survival mechanisms which all of us have used to try and get our needs met.  The Wheel of Consent offers tools for meeting our own and each other's needs in more skillful and consensual ways.  The shadows can be observed in mild forms in everyday interactions, and also in their extreme forms in highly abusive situations and global power imbalances.

'

'Want To’ versus ‘Willing To’

A question people often ask about the Wheel of Consent is “But if we are having sex, shouldn’t it be for both of us?  Why would it only be for one of us?”  And they are right - it is important that if two people are sharing physical intimacy, it should usually be ‘for’ both of them, i.e. it is something they both really want to do. 

One way of answering this question is to first consider the third scenario in the example of the party above.  This is where it's for both of us: Sally and I both want to go to the party, and feel we’ll enjoy it more if we go together. So far, so good.  But suppose three hours later I’m ready to go home, and I ask Sally if she’s also ready to go too, and share a taxi with me.  Sally replies that she’d like to stay another half hour.  In response, I say that although I’m ready to go, I’m willing to stay another half hour, as it makes sense to share a taxi together.  

 

So we make a consensual agreement to stay another half hour, and this is ‘for Sally’, because it’s what she wants to do, whereas is what I am willing to do.  Note, Sally might have said she wanted to stay another three hours and then share a taxi, and that might be something I was not willing to do.  At that point I might either go into the shadows of Allow, going along with something Sally wanted resentfully, or I might stay within the Wheel of Consent and make other arrangements.  Getting clarity on the difference between want to and willing to is another way of getting clear about the question ‘Who is it for?’ 

We can illustrate this as follows, with an example for each quadrant:

GIVING = Willing to do something for the other's benefit:

e.g. “Would you like some help with that?”

TAKING = Want to do something for your own benefit:

e.g  “Can I help myself to a slice of your pizza?”

RECEIVING = Want the other to do something for your own benefit:

e.g. “Will you scratch my back for me?”

ALLOWING = Willing to let the other do something for their own benefit

, e.g. “You can take my car if you like!”

The Wheel of Consent in Sex

 

And so it is with sex.  There are many different sexual activities you could potentially do with a partner, if you were both up for it.  There are probably some things you really want to do, some things which aren't top of your list, but you'd be willing to do if your partner was really into them, and other things you would not be willing to do, however much your partner wanted to.  Similarly your partner will have their own lists of things they want to do, things they are willing to do, and things they are not willing to do. 

A great practice, based on the Wheel of Consent, is to compare lists.  Where there are things that you both really want to do – great! – they are ‘for’ both of you, so go ahead!  Though, just like the party example, after a while one or other of you may have had enough and no longer be in your ‘want to’, though you might still be in your ‘willing to’ – or maybe not.  That’s a great time to check in! 

If there are things that one of you wants to do, whilst the other is willing to do it – great! – knowing who is in their want to and who is in their willing to makes your consent agreements much clearer.  You might also want to check – do you get into habits where one of you is nearly always in their ‘want to’ while the other is always in their ‘willing to’?  If so, you might want to remedy that - and you can use the Wheel of Consent to get clearer about which quadrant each of you tends to hang out in, and which quadrants you avoid.  Lastly of course, if either of you is ‘not willing’ to do something, then simply don’t go there.

An interesting side-note here is that, when asked, people often say they are mostly in Giving, or mostly in Allowing, during sex.  In other words, people often think what’s happening is mostly for the other person, which means that neither of them is experiencing what they really want.  Awareness of the Wheel of Consent helps people avoid these kinds of misunderstandings, and lets people know that they have an equal right to occupy all of the four quadrants.

 

The Wheel of Consent as an Embodied Practice

Another question people often ask about the Wheel of Consent is: "How can I tell whether I am feeling a ‘want to’, a ‘willing to’, or a ‘not willing to’?” 

This is a good question!  With all the emotions often associated with sex, such as excitement or awkwardness, it can sometimes be difficult for people to distinguish between what they want to do, what they are willing to do, and what they are not willing to do.  This is particularly true if they have got into the habit of ‘going along with’ certain kinds of touch - either because they think it’s what their partner wants, or because their cultural conditioning (e.g. related to privilege or gender socialisation) has trained them into doing that.

The Wheel of Consent helps out again, because is not just a conceptual map – it is also a somatic practice, designed to help us slow down and tune into a deeper awareness of our own inner impulses in response to shared touch.

Betty Martin developed a simple exercise called the 'May I / Will You Game' (based on a previous game by Harry Faddis, called the ‘Three Minute Game’).  This simple, non-sexual touch practice offers a direct physical experience of each of the Wheel of Consent’s four quadrants.  This experience helps many people ‘get’ the quadrants at much a deeper level than just having a conceptual understanding.

The 'May I / Will You Game' is the core practice you will learn if you attend an in-person Wheel of Consent workshop.  Instructions on how to play the game are included in a free pdf download, with an accompanying image of the Wheel of Consent - see below.

What Next?

 

This has been a brief introduction to the Wheel of Consent, which is about so much more than just saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.  Rather, it is a conceptual map and an embodied experience which can fundamentally change the way we relate to ourselves and each other in all areas of our lives; from friends to family, to work colleagues, to our most intimate relationships.  Contact us to find out more about our upcoming Wheel of Consent workshops.

We also introduce the Wheel of Consent in our consent workshops for students, which we have delivered to hundreds of students.  Contact us if you would like to hear more about that.

For more detailed explanations of the Wheel of Consent, I highly recommend getting a copy of Betty Martin's book, The Art of Receiving and Giving: The Wheel of Consent.   You can also view Betty Martin’s website where there are many free videos to watch, and also the School of Consent website for details of Wheel of Consent workshops, teachers and classes all over the world.

Rupert James Alison

with thanks to Pete and Thalia Wallis, Michael Dresser, Rose Jiggens  

and Betty Martin, whose input inspired and informed this article.

 

 

You can access two free pdf downloads HERE

  1. A simple diagram of  the Wheel of Consent

  2. Instructions for the May I / Will You Game, a touch-based exercise to experience each of the Wheels' four quadrants

Wheel of Consent and

Consent for Students

Wheel of Consent and

Consent for Students

Wheel of Consent and

Consent for Students

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