The Wheel of Consent Explained in 15 Minutes
Dr. Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent is a model of relating which brings clarity and greater authenticity to all areas of life: with work colleagues, with friends and family, and in our most intimate relationships. It 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.
Here is a simple example: I ask John if I can place my hand on his knee, and he replies, “Sure, that’s fine”. 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’m attracted to John, and would enjoy touching his leg for that reason (the touch is for me).
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).
Without establishing who the touch is for, all kinds of misunderstandings can arise. John might agree to me placing my hand on his knee because he thinks it’s for me (e.g. he thinks I am in need of reassuring physical contact, and he’s OK with providing that) but meanwhile I might think I’m doing it for John’s benefit to reassure him!
The Wheel of Consent also applies to non-touch situations. Here’s an example: I ask Sally to come with me to a friend’s party, and Sally replies, ‘Yes, I will’. Now let’s consider ‘Who is this for?’ Here are four possibilities:
I really want to go to the party, but I know my ex-partner 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 am assuming Sally really wants to go. Sally's not bothered about the party either, but assumes I really want to go (it's not for either of us).
The last example can happen all too easily in life! Notice also that in the third example, it’s neither just for me, nor just for Sally, but for both of us. But without asking the question ‘Who is it for?’ we might not both realise this. And Sally’s response to my question will almost certainly depend on her assumptions about which of the above scenarios she thinks is happening.
The Wheel of Consent as a Conceptual Map
To help clarify the four dynamics, or ‘quadrants’ created by these two questions, we can draw a simple diagram of the Wheel of Consent. The vertical axis (using orange text) shows who is doing - either I am doing, or you are doing. The horizontal axis (using green text) shows who it is for - either it is for me, or it is for you. First, we'll illustrate the example where shared touch is happening:
This creates the four quadrants, as shown, based on an exchange of touch. (It is possible to 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 - In the more in-depth Wheel of Consent analyses, slightly different names are assigned to the quadrants - Giving is called 'Serving', and Receiving is called 'Accepting' - but this would take a couple of further pages of explanation, and so for our introductory purposes here, the names above are sufficient.)
Now our diagram looks like this:
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 questions people might ask when they are sharing touch, and which quadrant it originates from. Here are a few examples:
GIVING - e.g. “Would you like me to touch you?” (It's for you)
TAKING - e.g. “May I touch you?” (It's for me)
RECEIVING - e.g. “Will you touch me?” (Its for me)
ALLOWING - e.g. “Would you like to touch me?” (It's for you)
There are also some questions which might originate from any of quadrants, e.g. "Can we try something new?" or “Can we stop now?”
These four quadrant names, Giving, Taking, Receiving and Allowing can be applied to non-touch interactions as well as touch-based ones. For example, you could Give me a massage, you could Give me a birthday present, or you could Give me some advice. Notice that I may or may not have asked for your advice! In this last case, we would not have made an agreement and would therefore be outside the Wheel of Consent.
The dynamics shown above so far are those which have the full, informed consent of both people - i.e. with awareness of both who is doing, and who it is for. But the Wheel of Consent can also describe what happens in these same dynamics without consent:
If somebody GIVES without agreement, they may be people-pleasing or giving-to-get
If somebody TAKES without agreement, they may be stealing or perpetrating
If somebody RECEIVES without agreement, they may be entitled or exploiting
If somebody ALLOWS without agreement, they may be 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 can be helpful, because once you’ve noticed it, the way to get out of the shadows is to establish clear agreements based on asking, “Who is Doing?” and “Who is it For?”, and have we both consented to that? It’s also 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 these needs in a more skillful and consensual ways.
‘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 be ‘for’ both of them, i.e. it is something they both really want to do.
One way of answering this question is to consider the example of the party, and specifically the third scenario, where it’s for both people. This is where Sally and I each 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, 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 staying on 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, i.e. it was outside the limits of what I would consent to. 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, e.g. “Would you like a hand with that?”
TAKING = Want to do something, e.g “Can I borrow your car?”
RECEIVING = Want to have the other person do something, e.g. “Will you scratch my back?”
ALLOWING = Willing to let the other person do something, e.g. “You can touch me there if you like!”
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 you’re not massively into, but would 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, if you ask heterosexual men and women which quadrant they feel they are mostly in during sex, men often say they are mostly in Giving, whilst women often say they are mostly in Allowing. In other words, both partners think what’s happening is mostly for the other person, which means that neither of them is getting 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. It also emphasises that ongoing communication during intimacy is usually a good idea, and provides a really clear language for doing that.
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 anxiety to please the other, 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 social conditioning (e.g. related to power imbalance, or their gender) has trained them to do that.
This question is addressed by the second major teaching of the Wheel of Consent. For the Wheel is not just a conceptual map – it is also a somatic practice, designed specifically to help us tune into a deeper awareness of our own bodily impulses in response to shared touch.
Dr. Betty Martin has adapted a simple exercise (from a game originally invented by Harry Faddis, which he called the ‘Three Minute Game’ ) in which we can practice having a direct physical experience of each of the Wheel of Consent’s quadrants in turn. This game helps many people really ‘get’ the quadrants at a deeper level than just having a conceptual understanding of them. However, the practice of sharing touch with others is not always possible or preferred, in which case there is still a great deal that can be learned through the conceptual understanding alone.
This embodied game is something you can do in pairs. The idea is that each of you takes a turn to spend a few minutes practising being in each of the quadrants with your partner. You might start with the Take/Allow dynamic. The Taker asks the Allower, ‘May I touch your hand, in the way I want, for a few minutes?’ If the Allower is willing, they say ‘yes’ and mention any boundaries they have (e.g. ‘please avoid my little finger’, or ‘please don’t scratch’). The Taker then touches the Allower in the way they want to. The Taker should not be trying to please the Allower, or give them a massage. Rather, this is an exercise entirely for the Taker to touch in the way they want to, within the boundaries the Allower set. At any point, either person can ask to pause, or stop the practice. Then after the agreed time the Taker says ‘Thank you’ and the Allower says ‘You’re welcome’ - and you can switch roles.
Many people struggle with the Take quadrant. They might feel it is somehow ‘selfish’ to touch for their own enjoyment, or simply not be familiar with touching someone, or something, for their own pleasure. Betty Martin has therefore developed a solo practice called ‘Waking the Hands’, to help people practice Taking. To do this you simply pick up an inanimate object, then lean back and make yourself comfortable. Begin exploring the object with your hands, and simply notice - what does it feel like? Is it hard or soft? Warm or cool? See if you can find a way of touching or stroking the object which feels pleasant or enjoyable. Maybe the heaviness is satisfying, or perhaps the softness is nice to press into. This is practising Taking, because you are doing something, and it is for you. Part of getting the Take quadrant somatically is giving yourself permission to feel pleasure, which for some people can go against a lifetime of conditioning. But when it happens it can be an incredibly rich and moving experience – and sometimes other emotions may arise.
Back to the game, and the job of the person Allowing is to communicate their boundaries to their partner. Then the Allower can simply relax into the sensation of being touched, without needing to ‘do’ anything to please their partner, and without the need to communicate any instructions to them. This can feel really good! Equally, some people find Allowing challenging, especially if they have difficulty trusting their partner to stay within their stated limits, or trusting themselves to speak out if their boundary is crossed. This may be especially true for people who have got used to having their boundaries crossed many times in their life. Repeated practice of this simple game can be a great way of undoing this kind of conditioning.
Give / Receive
After you have practiced Take/Allow and switched roles, you could then move on to the Give/Receive dynamic. Now, the Receiver asks the Giver ‘Will you touch my hand in the way I want, for a few minutes?’ If the Giver is willing, they say ‘Yes, how would you like to be touched?’ This is an opportunity for the Receiver to ask for exactly the kind of touch they want, which may not be easy for them, but can feel amazing when it happens. A challenge for the Receiver is that they need to feel they are really worthy of receiving the touch they want. The Giver’s role is to not overstep their own boundaries. They should also only give what has been asked for, and not add anything on. It can be hugely rewarding to Give another person exactly the touch they want to Receive. Either person can ask to pause or stop at any point. Then after a few minutes, the Receiver says ‘Thank you’ and the Giver says ‘You’re welcome’ - and you can switch roles.
This game can be practiced with anyone you feel comfortable sharing simple touch with, such as a friend or family member. Equally, you may wish to explore it with a partner or lover, in which case you might want to extend the touch to include other parts of the body.
As you practice this game, you may notice times when you slip into the ‘shadows’ of the quadrants. For example, perhaps you were Allowing, but now you’ve gone into the shadow and are simply enduring: longing for the touch to be over, but not saying anything because you don’t want to hurt your partner’s feelings. Alternatively, you may also notice when you slip from one quadrant into another, without meaning to – for example, perhaps you are in Giving, but you zone out from what your partner is asking for and start touching them for your own pleasure (shadow Taking). As you become more aware of slipping into the ‘shadows’, you can learn more quickly how to get out of them again. This noticing can be incredibly rich, as we start to undo old, habitual patterns around the non-consensual or semi-consensual touch many of us have spent a lifetime putting up with or adapting to.
The Wheel of Consent suggests a four-step path to help us do this:
Notice our internal responses to what is happening (or might be about to happen);
Trust what we have noticed (which really means learning to trust ourselves);
Value what we have noticed – in other words, recognising that this process of establishing ownership over our own body is important;
Communicate whatever needs to be said to our partner about all of this.
The embodied game is a way of practising each of these four steps, over and over, until they form the bedrock of our ability to make clear, consensual agreements with others.
This has been a very short introduction to the Wheel of Consent, which is about so much more than just saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Rather, it is both a conceptual map, and an embodied experience, which can fundamentally change the way we experience and relate to ourselves, and each other, in all areas of our lives; from friends, to family, to work colleagues, to our most intimate relationships.
This is the basis of our consent workshops for students, which we have now delivered several times at Cambridge University. Contact us if you would like to hear more about what we can offer your organisation. To learn more about the Wheel you could also attend one of our in-person weekend workshops.
For more detail, please see Betty Martin’s website where there are many free videos to watch, and also the School of Consent website for details of ongoing 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 ideas and input have inspired and informed this article.)