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The Wheel of Consent

My journey into Tantra began initially as a desire to experience more sexual fulfilment (for more on this see my article Female Sexual Dysfunction? Healing Yoni Massage >>). Back in 2003 Neo Tantra was the only thing speaking to my experiences of anorgasmia and vaginal numbness – it proved to be profoundly transformative.

Tantra also catalysed in me a spiritual enquiry and meditative practice, which continues to unfold creatively and playfully throughout my life. But someone seeking more sexual pleasure may not necessarily want to take on a meditation practice to get there. And indeed the purpose of meditation isn’t to get us anywhere other than who we truly are, so aims can be a real impediment.

Luckily nowadays there exists many inspiring contemporary sex positive teachings, and this evolving field is the subject of my new programme Awakening Eros >> Recently I have had the pleasure of two weekends learning with the pioneering Betty Martin>> and have been particularly inspired by her Wheel of Consent. Here is something of what this teaching catalysed in my own experience.

The Wheel of Consent

The wheel is divided into 4 quadrants and the keys that unlock the gifts of each are:

  1. Agreement: an exchange is taking place between two people, what do those people agree is happening within that exchange? This is the contract or agreement for what is taking place.
  2. Wholehearted consent: having defined an agreement for what is happening, both parties take responsibility for checking that they wholeheartedly consent to the exchange agreed upon.

The four quadrants of the Wheel of Consent (and their dynamic in pairs) are:

To give & receive: 

The Wheel of Consent: Betty Martin

The Wheel of Consent: Betty Martin

Give: this quadrant defines truly giving in terms of hearing precisely the wants, desires or needs of the receiver – and wholeheartedly giving the gift of exactly what has been requested.

Receive: the receiving quadrant is when we get really clear on our wants, needs or desires and make them known. They are delivered to us (by the giver above) and we receive this gift. For example, we describe and then receive, exactly the kind of touch we have identified that we would like.

To take & allow

Take: in this context, to take means to get really clear on our wants, needs and desires that are active and occur in relation to the allowing or permission of another. For instance my desire might be to run my fingers playfully through your hair, because it looks so lusciously soft and alluring to me.

Allow: in this context to allow means to receive an energy or action (the ‘take’) which may not be of our own personal preference, but that we wholeheartedly consent to experiencing. For instance we might not actively desire to have our hair ruffled, but wholeheartedly consent to the other following their impulse to do so. In doing so we give the other the gift of our permission, or allowing.

NB in the giving and allowing quadrants, we set aside our own personal preferences. At the same time Betty explains wholehearted consent means we stay responsible for our own limits, and don’t abandon ourselves – and musn’t – in order to truly give or allow.

The elegant surface simplicity of the wheel belies its vast depth and breadth. If you don’t believe me then watch the 7 hours for which Betty talks about it, available for free on her website. Then go immerse yourself the ‘Three Minute Practice’ Betty Martin videos>>

You won’t really know the Wheel of Consent until you have done these steps.

The intention of the wheel is not to rigidly divide up all human interactions into neat parcels for all time. When we flow in an interaction with another, often we will dance moment by moment through each of the quadrants. However, when we are unable to fully express one or other quadrant of the wheel, this will cumulatively impact on our ability to relate in truthful and congruent ways.

For this reason, it is of immense value to engage with the Three Minute Practice, to develop an embodied clarity encompassing all quadrants of the wheel. This way we can recognise what we are good at, and what we might need to practice. For many people, the reveal of the wheel is taking and allowing. To illustrate this, here is a sample of my own personal learning from practicing the wheel these past few months!

Giving, receiving & allowing in Tantric Massage:

When I am receiving tantric massage, sometimes I am “allowing” and things just click with little instruction on my part. The person giving follows their own skills and impulses and the result for me is blissful surrender. Other times I can be really articulate about what I kind of touch I would like to receive, and someone else delivers my wants, needs and desires perfectly.

As a practitioner and in my own intimate relationships, I also occupy the role of giving. This giving might be serving the wants, needs and desires for touch, expressed by a person receiving. Or touch might spring from my own intuition and skills, about what might be beneficial and serve the stated intents of the person receiving.

Interrogating the tantric massage which has been such a huge part of my own healing journey, I saw in retrospect that through it, I mostly occupy the quadrants of receiving, allowing or giving. The quadrant of the wheel I have been the least clear about occupying in my Tantra practice is that of taking.

There are structures for play in Neo Tantra that explore consent (such as the “Yes, No, Maybe, Please” game). Because “to take” is not explicitly expressed as an ok and desirable thing to do, I saw looking back that in these games I would still largely hang out in the zones of receiving, allowing or giving.

It seems retrospectively that I have needed explicit permission to explore the segment of taking. The place I have mostly found this is in Kink related activity. BDSM I realised is very good at creating conditions for exploring the themes of take and allow. Some of my Tantra teachers have dismissed an enjoyment of this area as dysfunctional. I am grateful to my primary Tantra teacher John Hawken and his Dark Eros>> teachings, that first opened the door to this very rich arena for me.

Through the wheel of consent I have been able to interrogate a long path of play, creativity and transformation that has opened out much for me. Still some changes  I would like to create elude and perplex me, and I notice that these can often be boiled down to a simple imbalance on the wheel.

For instance sometimes I go out of balance around receiving and this will express in a broad range of ways across my life. Rather than trying to figure any of it out, I just notice “hmmmm receiving imbalance alert!” and bring my attention to this moment by moment. Receiving potential may express itself in the moment in many ways, from the rays of sunshine to a delicious taste.

This kind of practice is familiar to me from Tantra, what is new in the wheel is how it brings into my meditative and contemplative awareness the themes of the quadrant “take”. I began to wonder how can I truly claim to know my own desires and what they are, if I am so infrequently occupying this quadrant?

The Ancestral Shadows of taking:

I began to wonder how can I truly claim to know my own desires and what they are, if I am so infrequently occupying this quadrant?

I questioned why I might have so overlooked this segment, and the first obvious answers lie in religious and social conditioning. In Catholic mores such as I experienced in my teens, girls who initiate sex receive appellations intended to shame, such as slut.

But beyond this I observe a wider collective shadow around taking, in which my own Catholic education seems just one strand of many. I have become curious about noticing this, for instance there is a column in the free daily Metro newspaper where people post things like:

sexy with glasses on the central line at lunchtime, fancy a coffee sometime? Cute redhead who you smiled at!

In an ideal world where everyone is well versed in the principles of the wheel, an alternative to this column might look something like this, on the central line at lunchtime:

  • Person A (redhead) enjoys the smile of person B (with glasses) feels attraction to them and a desire to follow that up
  • Person A assesses the context with an awareness of power dynamics that maybe at play (this is a wider topic, but in essence how does the physical and social architecture of this moment interplay with our desire to approach?)
  • Person A approaches B and says “I have something I want to ask you, and wondered if you are available to hear what that is right now?”
  • B responds in the affirmative (if a no here, then A simply says thank you and returns to seat)
  • A: “I noticed really enjoying your smile, and felt I would like to take you for a coffee some time so we can talk, is that something you feel available to? If you would like to clarify or ask questions please do!”

This column I see as a litany of missed moments to speak desires in simple non threatening ways, without manipulation or attachment. And indeed for why these moments do pass by, sublimated to a pointless newspaper column, we need to look into the shadows of the take quadrant which lie outside the boundaries of consent.

For there are “pick up artists” who coach how to pick up strangers. And the ways this is taught has attracted criticism and outrage, for the manipulative and predatory techniques used e.g.>>.

In my tantric practices, I explore the embodiment of my inner woman and inner man (i.e. as an imprint from parents, as archetypes, as qualities I can notice and grow, perhaps as past lives …), both in a raw earthly sense, and as a subtle energy union – the God / Goddess within. Through these practices I found my fear and resistance to taking, boiled down to the dynamic of these ancestral memories within me:

  • my inner man deeply feared his own predatory nature, and the ‘memory’ of what he was capable of should he take without heart or consent. The resonance of this expanded all the way through from rape to the taking of earth’s resources. I saw the degree to which he was capable of self castrating in fear of his own shadow.
  • my inner woman recalled the pain and humiliation she had suffered through her ancestry as punishment for following her sexual desire. I felt her rage, and also the bindings handed down through generations, to keep daughters safe by locking away their desires. Thus repressed, her desires I saw would exercise in manipulative ways including stealing from and castrating (metaphorically) the men she met.

Sometimes I almost feel the Wheel of Consent could save the world. Ok, maybe that’s overstating it a bit! But it is the most practical method I have found for mapping complex dynamics of human interaction, in ways that can facilitate profound change if we allow it.

Tantric Full Marriage by Geoglyphiks

Tantric Full Marriage by Geoglyphiks

Although the realisations above, spiralling out from the wheel are binary gendered, I enjoy that the wheel in essence is blissfully gender free. Not a yin or yang in sight – and trying to overlay M/F or yin/yang dynamics directly onto the wheel, muddies its diamond like clarity.

In that respect, some days I see the wheel as the engineers flow chart version, of images of shiva shakti union such as this one from Geoglyphiks>>. The cross, circle, interior and exterior of the wheel appears to me as a concise poem, distilling some essential universal truths, shown here in a more narrative or archetypal fashion.

By cultivating the capacity to freely inhabit as is natural to each moment, all quadrants of the wheel, I notice how much more of life rests without tension, centered in ease and beingness.

How can we learn then to take with Integrity?

How then can we learn to take with integrity? And by taking in terms of sensual touch or sexual expression I mean:

Touching or interacting with our partners body in ways that are  purely for our own delight and pleasure: because we desire to do so, and they have consented wholeheartedly to allowing or surrendering to this.

I invite you to read that sentence again, and see if it makes you feel in anyway even slightly uncomfortable. It did me at first, having picked up somewhere along the way on my tantric journey, that it was generally bad form to touch another person without the express purpose of giving to them. And yet I know from playing kink related games (where consent has been clearly negotiated) how hot it is sometimes to have someone just take me, or to totally take them.

Recently I was with some friends, and initiated a practice where we all took turns to state our desires for what we would like to receive from the group and the individuals within it. I used this opportunity to speak to each person individually (witnessed by the group) any fantasies or desires I noticed arising in relation them.

No matter how odd, unspeakable or random a desire seemed, I wanted simply to honour its existence through speaking it. It was not about initiating or doing anything, just acknowledging what was there. The process was both terrifying and utterly liberating, to be that open and clear with my desires.

Intimate massage offers another arena where we might cultivate integrity. When not fully owning our own desires and needs, we might feed off our partners responses to our touch through our eyes, self gratifying under the guise of giving – i.e we feel great because they are responding to our touch.

The trouble with this is it creates a covert pressure for a response from our partner, which is about satisfying our own need. This pressure can prevent our partner from finding their own true and beautiful experience, it may tip them into a performance to keep the “giver” happy.

Integrity here could come by noticing our attachment to our partner’s responses. Acknowledging and putting this attachment to one side, we could take time to get really clear on the kind of touch or experience they would like to receive, and then give this wholeheartedly to them. Then at another time, we could wholeheartedly own our enjoyment of their pleasure responses, in clear and consensual ways mutually agreed upon.

Our pleasure watching our partner’s responses is not inherently wrong. It’s simply about cultivating a clarity of knowing of when we are taking, and when we are truly giving. And noticing what the balance of these exchanges are within our intimate relationships and life in general. And then noticing how well we are creating conditions for clear agreements and wholehearted consent to occur, so that we can wholly own and celebrate the gifts of each quadrant.

The take quadrant is fundamental to our integrity:

Betty Martin teaches that as we learn to take we also cultivate integrity. Because we can own what we want in simple and uncomplicated ways, this makes us a trustworthy person.

I feel I am growing in and through this lesson, and at times it has felt tough seeing just how out of integrity I have been in some areas of my life. For instance I recognise where I might have unconsciously sought validating client responses, when ‘giving’ touch in my Tantric practice.

But I have noticed since practicing the wheel (in particular the take quadrant) how more people are saying to me “I really trust and feel safe with you” very early on in relationships of all kinds. One week I had three people say this to me in quick succession, so it really stood out!

The work of Betty Martin has made explicit and deepened the revelations, of huge areas of my own intuitively garnered experience. Her teachings take vast and often fuzzy areas of human interaction and dynamics, and drop them onto a map so elegantly simple and concise, it radiates with the clarity and beauty of a diamond.

I hope you enjoy the teachings – here’s the link>>

And if you would like to experience these teachings in my own one to one and group session work, have a browse around my website>>



  1. […] About Cathryn: Cathryn has a passion for supporting people in practical ways to deepen their ecstatic potential. She has studied in depth for many years with the world’s best teachers of tantra, shamanism and bioenergetics. She continues to test and evolve the latest sexuality and relationship teachings, in response to questions brought to her thriving session practice. To read more on her own journey through the wheel of consent visit her website: […]

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