In recent years, the issue of sexual consent has been pushed into the forefront of public consciousness and debate across the world. The sudden focus on consent can be attributed to the #MeToo movement and a mass reckoning of the scale with which consent is breached. While the legal definition of consent varies by state, region, and circumstance, the general concept remains the same — an ongoing discussion of boundaries.
Below, we provide a basic guide to understanding consent, how it works, and what it does or doesn’t look like.
What is Consent?
Consent is a voluntary, clear, and enthusiastic agreement between individuals to engage in sexual activities. Furthermore, consent is an ongoing process and negotiation, the terms of which can be changed or withdrawn at any point. The individual giving consent must also have the capacity to give consent at any given moment, i.e., they shouldn’t be a minor or incapacitated with drugs or alcohol.
Nonconsensual sex falling outside these parameters is rape.
The Core Aspects of Consent
#1. Clearly Expressed
Consent must be clearly expressed and unambiguous. Your partner must have clearly expressed their desire for sex with verbal permission. Consent can’t be assumed — it’s freely and clearly given, and silence isn’t consent. If your partner is hesitant, that’s not consent.
#2. Constant and Ongoing Negotiation
Consent isn’t a one-time thing but rather a constant negotiation of boundaries and interests. Just because your partner has consented to sex doesn’t mean they’ve consented to every stage of sex. Consent must be renegotiated at every stage of the sexual encounter.
#3. Temporary and Reversible
Consent is only given for one particular activity in one particular moment. It shouldn’t be taken for granted based on past experience. Consent, once given, can be withdrawn at any point. Furthermore, even those in relationships can withdraw consent anytime.
#4. Voluntary and Enthusiastic
Consent must be given freely without emotional, financial, or physical duress. If someone agrees to sex under intimidation, threat, or abuse, their consent isn’t considered free, and thus it’s not consent at all. Consent should be enthusiastically stated with complete freedom.
#5. Capacity and Coherence
The participants in the sexual encounter must be capable of consenting. If someone is asleep, intoxicated, incapacitated with alcohol or drugs, or a minor, they’re not capable of consent. Failure to recognize when someone is incapacitated isn’t an excuse for assault.
Understanding Enthusiastic Consent
Enthusiastic consent is a recently-formulated model for understanding positive consent. Basically, enthusiastic consent asks the individuals involved in the sexual activity to look for a clear and verbal “yes” rather than the absence of a “no.” Enthusiastic consent can be bolstered by positive affirmations through body language, in the form of smiling, laughing, nodding, and maintaining eye contact. However, verbal consent is essential, followed by a constant discussion of boundaries — the sexual partners should constantly check in with each other to ensure they’re on the same page.
Physiological Responses Are NOT Consent
Physiological responses, such as lubrication, erection, and orgasm, are involuntary responses. They can happen with or without consent, and are what we call arousal non-concordance. Abusers and perpetrators often say things like, “you know you liked it,” or “but you had an erection,” to indicate that your body consented to their activities. However, you can’t control your body’s response, so these involuntary physiological responses don’t count as consent.
Asking for Consent
It should go without saying (but it must be said, anyway) that you must ask for consent before initiating sexual activity. You must talk openly with each other and set clear boundaries for what you want, regardless of the nature of your relationship, i.e., whether you’re casual sexual partners, engaging in a one-time hookup, or in a long-term relationship.
In healthy sexual encounters, all parties involved should feel comfortable stating their consent without fear of censure, rebuke, or other factors that may influence their consent. For example, you can’t draw out your partner’s consent by getting angry, making threats, or through emotional abuse. Consent can’t be forced out of a partner.
If you’re in the middle of sexual intercourse and want to try something different, you should pause for a second and ask if that’s okay. If your partner seems hesitant or stops going further, you should stop and ask what they want or if they want a break. It’s also important to clarify that you’re 100% comfortable taking things slow, waiting, or stopping altogether.
Consent is Sexy
There’s a pervasive argument that consent is a mood killer. Most people have come across articles or statements that asking for consent kills the mood and interrupts the exciting spontaneity of sex. Some even parody consent as individuals sitting down for a clinical discussion and signing forms. In actuality, consent doesn’t and can’t include forms because consent can change at any moment, even after the forms are signed and agreed upon.
The following are some ways in which you can maintain consent without letting it interrupt the mood:
- Before you try some new sexual activity, ask, “Is this OK?” If your partner is interested, they’ll nod vigorously in assent or say an enthusiastic yes, and you can move forward. If they’re hesitant or silent, you should probably stop.
- Periodically check in with your partner by asking things like, “Is this alright?”
- Before initiating a new activity, ask things like — “Can I kiss you?”, “Can I take this off?,” etc.
- When you’re comfortable with something your partner is doing, encourage them verbally or non-verbally.
- You can also make consent a part of your foreplay, using language like, “I love it when you do [the activity].”
Remember that consent is ongoing, so you must maintain verbal communication throughout the activity to ensure your partner wants to continue. Consent is sexy.