What is consent?
Consent is an informed, knowledgeable, and freely-given agreement between participants to engage in an activity. Consent is not only sexual, but applies to all parts of our lives. However, here, we'll be talking about consent in a sexual context.
While the legal definitions of consent may vary by location and circumstance, we must understand that the general, underlying definition is always the same. Legal definitions of consent unfortunately sometimes do not reflect what researchers know to be true about consent. The generally-accepted definition of consent (found above) should be the one accept as a society rather than always going by legal definitions. Consent only exists when it is clear, enthusiastic and certain.
Remember, if it's not a fully-informed, freely-given, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic yes, then it's a no!
Let’s get to the nitty gritty about how consent works and what it looks like in real life.
Consent should be clearly and freely communicated by all parties.
Examples of giving verbal consent include:
“That sounds great”
“That feels awesome”
“Let’s do that more”
“I’d like to . . .”
“It feels good when you . . .”
“Would you please . . .”
“I want to keep doing this”
Note here, though, that context matters. A "yes," or other form of consent, given without capacity, without knowledge, under duress, threat, coercion, pressure, etc. is NOT consent.
Everyone also needs to have the freedom and capacity to make the choice. Below are some examples of circumstances in which someone doesn’t have the freedom and capacity to agree to sexual activity:
They are asleep or unconscious.
They are drunk or ‘on’ drugs.
They are too young as dictated by law.
They have a mental health disorder or illness which makes them unable to make a choice.
They are being pressured, bullied, manipulated, tricked or scared into saying yes.
The other person is using physical force against them.
How do you give or get consent?
Always ask before any type of touch and before escalating things. Checking in early on — like before holding hands — builds a foundation of trust and open communication.
If someone is not sure whether you are giving your consent for something sexual, they should check with you. If they can see or suspect you're not 100% comfortable or happy with what is happening between you, they should stop. If you are safe and comfortable communicating clearly that you do not consent, this can also help someone understand where you are at.
Anyone has the right to change their mind at any time. For example, agreeing to kiss someone doesn’t give that person permission to remove your clothes. If you want to obtain consent for an activity, it is a good idea to discuss boundaries and expectations with your partner prior to engaging in any sexual behavior.
If someone seems unsure, stays quiet, moves away or doesn’t respond, they are not agreeing to sexual activity. In fact, it is common for people who feel threatened, pressured, nervous, or scared, or who have experienced sexual violence in the past to find they are unable to move or speak.
If a person doesn’t consent to sexual activity of any kind, then it is always sexual violence. If someone says ‘no’ to any kind of sexual activity, they are not agreeing to it. But, if someone doesn't say ‘no’ out loud, that doesn’t automatically mean that they have agreed to it either.
Consent does NOT look like this:
Refusing to acknowledge “no”
A partner who is disengaged, nonresponsive, or visibly upset
Assuming that wearing certain clothes, flirting, or kissing is an invitation for anything more
Someone being under the legal age of consent, as defined by the state
Someone being incapacitated because of drugs or alcohol
Pressuring someone into sexual activity by using fear or intimidation
Assuming you have permission to engage in a sexual act because you’ve done it in the past
If they didn't scream, try to run away, or fight back
If the victim and perpetrator are in a relationship or know each other
When there is no consent, 100% of the blame lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators. Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault.
As we share and educate each other on the importance of understanding consent, we can be better equipped with tools to educate ourselves and others regarding how to avoid becoming a sexual assault perpetrator, and understanding what sexual violence looks like if it happens to us or someone we love.
If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.
Sources: RAINN, RAPECRISIS.ORG.UK, ASHA, NSVRC, CARE.ECR.EDU