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Desire Smuggling and consent

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Being able to clearly ask for what we want is essential to consent. When we can’t ask for what we want, we do something called “desire smuggling”.

In the past we have talked about consent with mottos such as “No Means No!”, and “Yes Means Yes.”, and “Only an Enthusiastic Yes is Consent.” These are all examples of what we call the permissive model of consent, in which consent is about one person asking for something and another person saying yes or no.

We would like to see the conversation around consent shift to a collaborative model, where everyone is able to ask for what they want, and everyone is able to say yes or no. Together people can go back and forth until they figure out something that works for everyone involved. If only one person is asking for what they want, those interactions will be off balance. If no one is asking for what they want, it’s a guessing game!

Many people have a hard time asking for what they want. There are two stages to this:

  • First we need to be able to notice what we want in any given moment.

  • Then we need to be able to feel safe to express what we want.

Many factors may make it hard for us to notice what we really want. The way we were raised or the relationships we saw when we were young may have taught us that we should not even have desires or wants, or that there is no point in having them because they will not be met. We may have even learned that it can be dangerous to want things. Systemic inequities may have left us with the internalized belief that our wants or desires are so unimportant that there is no point investigating them.

Similarly, societal forces may make us feel that even if we can notice what we want, that it will never be safe for us to express them to others. Something most of us do when we want something but feel unsafe to ask for it is called “desire smuggling”, a term that my co-author Marcia Baczynski coined back in 2014.

Desire smuggling can look like hinting at what you want, or offering something instead of asking for it because you hope that the offer will be reciprocated. There are endless ways we can desire smuggle. The ways we do this can range from very sublet and harmless to quite toxic when it becomes very manipulative.

In our book we give more examples of desire smuggling and talk more about how we all need to be able to clearly ask for what we want in order to collaborate for consent.

It’s important for people to know that it’s a common experience for people to not know what they want. A lot of us have this feeling when we try to figure out what we want for dinner. It becomes more frustrating when the uncertainty is about more intimate decisions.

There are many reasons why we may be unsure of what we want. It’s easy to be confused. Many people have been socialized to doubt themselves. There are also different ways of wanting things, which I’ll go into in more detail in another blog post.

For people who really struggle to notice or ask for what they want, we have a simple exercise that can help you to practice. If you would like your partner to be more clear about what they want, this exercise can help them to practice noticing and expressing their desires.

In the Consent Culture Intro workshop, featured in our upcoming book Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook For Educators, my co-author Marcia Baczynski and I share a fun and interactive exercise that helps students to experience and practice noticing and asking for what they want in a safer environment.

To learn more about the workshop and the book, visit

Order the book here!

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