What is Consent?
Being young is about figuring out what you do and don’t like in many new settings. If and when we choose to have intimate relationships with others, it’s important that everyone is on the same page. This is all part of creating a culture of consent.
You may have heard the phrase ‘‘Rape Culture’ in the news. A Rape Culture is one that prizes sex over people’s freedom and safety. Every day the stream of sexual assault accusations and vicious retaliation against assault survivors seems to grow. And it’s easy for us to feel defeated as a result. But there’s something every one of us can do to help—work hard to build a ‘Consent Culture’’. A Consent Culture is a culture of bodily respect, freedom, and security, and it stands in opposition to Rape Culture. The first step toward a Consent Culture is getting informed and teaching others.
Understanding Sexual Consent
Sexual consent is a special kind of permission that people give freely, knowingly, on a case by case basis, and with the understanding that they can take it back at any time. Most importantly, consent is a shared decision. This means people reaching a conclusion together. It’s not a transaction or a deal, and there’s nothing binding or mandatory about it. But it isn’t always easy to make sure you and your partners are on the same wavelength. Really, the only way to be sure is to talk about it! Here are four principles of consent to consider when having these conversations.
Four Principles of Consent
- Consent is Needed Every Time, In Every Place. Let’s say your friend let you borrow their favorite sweatshirt last week. The permission they gave you last week has nothing to do with letting you wear their sweatshirt this week. So you wouldn’t take the sweatshirt this week before asking again. The same is true for sexual behavior. Previous consent doesn’t speak for sexual decisions in the present and future! This means that even if you’ve been sexual before with the same person, they may not always want to do the same kinds of things with you—or even be sexual at all.
- Consent can be Taken Back. Now say this week the same friend lets you borrow their sweatshirt but midway through the day, they ask for it back. Though their reasoning for wanting it back may be unclear, you return the sweatshirt. The same is true for sexual behavior. At any time and for any reason, your partner may no longer want to be sexual with you. That’s their right—and your responsibility to stop when they say so!
- Consent is Informed. Let’s say you ask your friend to lend you their new sweatshirt, and they say yes. But your friend doesn’t know that next week you’re going camping, and the sweatshirt could get stained or ripped. Your friend cannot consent to what they do not know about. So until they know that you’re taking the sweatshirt camping, they can’t knowingly consent. The same is true for sexual behavior. Your partner may be more sexually naïve than you and not understand what they’re being asked. Meaning, consent can’t happen until you both clearly know what you’re agreeing to.
- Consent is Freely Given. Say you ask your friend to borrow their new sweatshirt today, and your friend doesn’t want to part with it. But you say, “We’re friends, so you should share with me!” And even though your friend really wanted to hang on to the sweatshirt, they give in and say, “Okay.” Because you pressured your friend to get the sweatshirt, they didn’t freely consent. The same is true for sexual behavior. An initially unwilling partner may feel forced to say, “Yes,” when pressured. For example, someone might struggle to keep saying, “No,” when their partner says something like, “But we’ve been dating a while now, so don’t you think it’s time we have sex?” Meaning, it’s not just the, “Yes,” that matters—how you get there is just as important.
How to Talk about Consent
Talk about consent and sex when you and your partner are both comfortable and able to make good, shared decisions. The less either of you has to guess, the better! But this isn’t always easy. Sometimes the kinds of relationships you have may affect how easy it is for each of you to consent. Sometimes the spaces you’re in can complicate things, too. It may require some careful thought before consenting.
When Do I Need Consent?
Sex isn’t the only thing we consent for. Sexual behaviors like intimate touching, entering someone’s personal space and sexting are all things that call for permission. Flirtatious touches, like putting your arm around someone’s shoulders or hugging, can be very uncomfortable when you haven’t indicated any interest or permission. Sexting too, requires even more explicit consent– to the point that there’s slang for unasked for sexts. Generally, touches and messages that carry some seductive or sexual intent require careful consideration of consent– including paying attention to nonverbal cues of discomfort and/or lack of response.
Consent and Behavior
Sometimes we think we can make a good guess about consent by the way someone acts. This isn’t true. Without a person’s word for it, we just don’t know! What this means is:
- You can’t assume someone’s willingness to be sexual based on their appearance or body language. Someone’s clothing, behavior or drunkenness never implies consent. So you ask, even if you think the likelihood of consent is high.
- Someone’s consent to one sensual and/or sexual behavior doesn’t mean they consent to another. For example, you don’t assume someone you’re dancing with wants to kiss. So you ask—even if kissing seems like the next step.
Consent and Power
Consent in a word is: “Yes”. It’s not silence. It’s not “maybe” or “hmm…I don’t know.” But, there’s more to consent than the words. Sometimes people say, “Yes,” to things they don’t want when they’re scared, don’t understand the situation at hand, or are under pressure. This can happen when one person is in a more powerful position than another. For example, it may be tougher to say, “No,” to your boss than a peer. Similarly, if a person offers you something you really need in exchange for sex, it can feel hard to say no, even if you don’t want to be sexual with them. This kind of pressure is commonly used against vulnerable people such as children, people in poverty, people with disabilities and noncitizens with little legal protection. Finally, it’s difficult to knowingly consent with a language barrier. Pronounced regional accents, slang terms, differences in education, and differences in native languages can interfere with knowing consent, too.
There are also situations when the ability to consent can change quickly. For example, you and a peer from work go to a party together, and your peer — who you normally have no particular influence over — gets drunk. Here, without either of you doing anything wrong, your peer is more vulnerable to suggestion than usual. Because of this, they may be unable to freely consent. In situations like these, it’s up to you and your partner to do your best to:
- Ask each other specific, easy to understand questions.
- “Can I do _____?”
- “How do you want _____?”
- “How do you feel about _____?”
- Take into account any differences in status or behavior between you. Ask yourselves:
- “Are they in an altered state of mind?”
- “Are they making eye contact?”
- “Are they significantly younger than me?”
- “Are they my junior at work or school?”
- “Do I carry greater power than them for any reason?”
- Avoid putting each other in situations in which either of you may feel pressured to consent. For example:
- Asking for sex from someone who feels they owe you something
- Asking for sex from someone while they are emotionally vulnerable
- Making public sensual/sexual advances that would, if rejected, result in embarrassment
Part of a Consent Culture is always considering your peers’ freedom and safety. Sometimes that means clearly asking permission to get close. Sometimes that means standing up for people who are unable to consent, and sometimes that means choosing not to engage with someone who appears uncomfortable or uninterested in the first place. Most of all, it means treating your partners with care and attention and leading by example.
This article was written by CPTC student research assistant Paul Cinicola.