Three Handshakes – An activity for learning how consent feels

A consent workshop activity using handshakes as a way of learning about sexual consent.

This is an activity that Meg John Barker and I have been working on together over the last couple of years. I’ve used it in sex education with young people and adults, Meg John has used it in training courses with therapists and we’ve both used it at seminars. We’ve found it a really useful exercise as it opens up lots of discussion about how we ask for our needs to be met as well as understanding some of the barriers for this. It works as an analogy for sexual consent, but it’s also interesting to think about how we do and don’t consent to greetings in everyday life.

We also really enjoy using this as we learn from it every time we facilitate it – we hope you like it too. We’ve also massively improved our greetings whenever we meet up (a good firm hug, lasting for about 2 seconds).

Below is how I’ve been using it, I’ve written it up as a lesson plan. There are also images which I use as slides – feel free to download those and use if you wish. Meg John may write about how they’ve been using it at their blog soon.

If you would like me to come to your school or college or youth club to teach this you can book me here. You might also be interested in my new training course about it here.


30/60 minutes – over 14 possibly works better for an older group or a group who are more likely to be sexually active (or considering being sexually active)


To explore what consent may feel like and exploring what makes getting and giving consent easier and harder.


It takes teaching about consent beyond a very simple legalistic message such as ‘no means no’ and gives people the opportunity to experience the barriers and opportunities for experiencing consent in a safer environment.

This is a simple sounding activity but it is potentially quite a powerful one and a tricky one to get right. It can open up a lot of discussion so it may need a bit of guidance to take it to where you need it to go. I’ve provided wording which I’ve found works for me. If you direct the discussion quite firmly you can do this in 30 minutes. If you allow the discussion to roam a little it can take longer (which might be good to do in a training course).


Experience and practice negotiation and agreement

Develop communication skills around boundaries, wants and needs

Understand how competing narratives around sex (and handshakes) can make consent harder to experience


This involves asking everyone to shake hands and there will a total of three rounds of handshakes! Although people may feel like they should take part in the handshakes (which might be one of the learning points of the activity) please don’t explicitly force people to do so.

Handshake One

Consent Talk 4 handshakeExplain to the group “This is a lesson about consent and what that means. First of all I’d like everyone to shake hands, if you want to.”

Give enough time for as many people to shake hands with as many people as they like. Once everyone has settled back down …

Ask the group the following questions and try to make sure different views are heard. At this point the participants will still be a bit wary of what’s going on, so you might want to keep this part of the discussion a bit shorter.

“how was that?” (answers here may be quite short “ok” “all right”)

“how was it to other handshakes you’ve had?”

“what’s the secret to a great handshake?” (people might talk about firmness, or the context – eg who’s doing the handshake and when)

“on a scale of one to ten how was it?” (usually this gets between 4 and 7)

Then explain that you would like them to shake hands again …

Handshake Two

Consent Talk 5 handshakeExplain the following …

“This time I’d like you to shake hands again but I’d like you negotiate it.”

“Do you want to shake hands with left or right hand?” [you might want to ask if there are any left handed people in the room and which hand they shake with]

“Do you want to go up and down or side to side?”

“How firm do you want it to be? Negotiate this on a scale of 1 to 10”

“How long would you like it to go on for, or how many shakes would you like?”

“Do you want to dry your hands first?”

“Do you want to do something else altogether? A fist bump? A shoulder bump? A hug? A kiss on the cheek (no tongues)?”

Then allow everyone who wants to to shake hands again, notice what happens in the room (there’s often more laughter and smiling, it also takes longer). Then ask the following questions …

“how was that?” (answers here may a bit longer than the first time round, generally speaking lots of people prefer it)

“how was it to other handshakes you’ve had?”

“on a scale of one to ten how was it?” (usually this gets between 6 and 9)

“how did it compare to the first handshake?” (people often say “it was more mutual,” “we knew what was going to happen,” “it was more fun” “there was more eye contact”)

“did anyone prefer the first handshake?” (try to convince people that this isn’t a trick question – it’s important that people feel they can say they did. They might say “it was less awkward,” “it was over more quickly,” “it was more fun,” “it was more exciting not knowing how it was going to be.”)

“So neither ‘first handshake’ or ‘second handshake’ is ideal. Instead we could try being more ‘third handshake.’

Third Handshake

Consent Talk 6 handshakeTo explore how people can incorporate the best of both handshakes and to think of how they do this. So explain

“I’d like you to shake hands for one last time, but this time I’d like you to try and get a balance between first handshake and second handshake. Try to keep it fun and spontaneous but also try to find ways of communicating with the other person to make sure that you and they are both into it (and can stop if you want). Really pay attention to them. Look for body language, eye contact, facial expressions that kind of thing”

Notice what happens in the room and then ask some of these questions

“How was that handshake?”

“How did it compare with the first two?”

“On a scale of one to ten how was it?”

“Think about how you communicated to each other about the handshake. What did you do or say? Play it back in your head in super slow motion. What happened?”

People might think about

  • how they stood
  • how they looked at each other
  • how ‘in tune’ they were with the other person
  • whether they copied or mirrored what the other person was doing
  • how the moments of connection and disconnection felt
  • what kind of words they might have used
  • the noises they made
  • how the facial expressions were

Often the ‘third handshake’ was the preferred handshake of the group. Ask the group to think of why this is. Usually they say that they really felt a connection this time.

I sometimes then ask people to do another ‘third handshake’ but this time with someone they haven’t shook hands with yet. This is to test whether we can have a really good mutually enjoyable handshake with someone that we have never shaken hands with before.

The sub-text

Consent Talk 8 HANDSHAKE“So this is all about consent. You might know that consent means agreeing to do something. Sex without consent is rape or sexual assault. Also someone has to be able to give their capacity to consent. This means that if someone is drunk or nearly unconscious or felt they weren’t able to say ‘no’ then it’s not consensual. Also, just because someone hasn’t said ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘yes.’ So if someone says ‘no’ you should stop.”

“However what does consent feel like and how do we have sex we actually might want to have? You’ve all been able to practice how good consent feels.”

Consent Talk 9 handshake“So when people have the first kind of handshake they are shaking hands in the way that they are expected to, or they just take part in someone else’s handshake. Often when people have sex they take a ‘first handshake’ approach. They often don’t (or can’t) negotiate or say what they want but rely on the script for what counts as sex. Sex in this case might mean ‘one thing leads to another.’ ‘Foreplay’ and then ‘intercourse’ (like penis or toys in vagina or anus).”

“This approach works for some people and some people like that kind of sex because it can be spontaneous and exciting. However sometimes it can lead to rubbish sex because people aren’t able to talk about what they actually like or they don’t have bodies that can enjoy that kind of sex. Sometimes it can result in sex that isn’t consenting: either like feeling forced to take part in someone else’s handshake, or doing it because it’s expected, or one thing leading to another without anyone checking in that this is what you wanted.”

That’s quite a lot so make sure people have understood that. Then explain …

Consent Talk 10 handshake“However if people were more ‘second handshake’ about sex then it would be really difficult to have sex because everything would have to be negotiated. There might be so much negotiation about every single thing (kissing, touching, words, taking clothes off etc) that it would take away a lot of the fun and spontaneity. Sometimes being a bit ‘second handshake’ is important and some people are able to talk about sex like this. There are ways to be second handshake when we’re planning sex with someone – such as texting what we like, or talking together about different kinds of sex we might want to try. However a lot of people find this really difficult.”

Consent Talk 11 handshake“So, the key is to be more ‘third handshake.’ This means really paying attention to what each other wants and trying to make it mutually pleasurable. So focus on the tiny micro-communications of the other person: eye contact, nodding or shaking heads, facial expressions, noises, short words or phrases like “oh yeah” or “bit softer,” how bodies move towards or against each other, moving hands etc.”


Are there times when you feel like you can’t say no to a handshake? Did that happen in this lesson? Why?

How might how we feel about ourselves affect how much we feel we can have the sex (or handshakes) that we actually want to have?

Think about the words used to describe different people who have sex – what difference would that make? For instance, what are sexually active men called compared with what sexually active women are called?

What makes asking for the sex you want (or don’t want) more difficult? What makes it easier?

Are there times when it’s better to talk more than others?


© Justin Hancock and Meg John Barker 2015