The issue of consent has been pushed to the forefront of public discussion over the past year — not just in the United States, but around the world.
Following numerous reports of high-profile incidents of sexual assault and the development of the #MeToo movement, one thing has become increasingly clear: We urgently need more education and discussion about consent.
While celebrities like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Kevin Spacey may have kick-started the conversation about consent, the reality is that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men in the United States experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
What this recent dialogue has revealed, however, is that there are conflicting understandings of consent and what constitutes sexual assault or rape.
It’s time to get everyone on the same page when it comes to consent.
To help advance the conversation surrounding consent, Healthline has collaborated with NO MORE to create a guide to consent. Check out what we have to say below.
What is consent?
Consent is a voluntary, enthusiastic, and clear agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity. Period.
There is no room for different views on what consent is. People incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot consent.
If clear, voluntary, coherent, and ongoing consent is not given by all participants, it’s sexual assault. There’s no room for ambiguity or assumptions when it comes to consent, and there aren’t different rules for people who’ve hooked up before.
Nonconsensual sex is rape.
Consent is clear and unambiguous. Is your partner enthusiastically engaging in sexual activity? Have they given verbal permission for each sexual activity? Then you have clear consent.
Silence is not consent. Never assume you have consent — you should clarify by asking.
You should have permission for every activity at every stage of a sexual encounter. It’s also important to note that consent can be removed at any time — after all, people do change their minds!
Every participant in sexual activity must be capable of granting their consent. If someone is too intoxicated or incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, or is either not awake or fully awake, they’re incapable of giving consent.
Failure to recognize that the other person was too impaired to consent is not “drunk sex.” It’s sexual assault.
Consent should be given freely and willingly. Repeatedly asking someone to engage in a sexual act until they eventually say yes is not consent, it’s coercion.
Consent is required for everyone, including people who are in a committed relationship or married. No one is obliged to do anything they don’t want to do, and being in a relationship doesn’t obligate a person to engage in any type of sexual activity.
It’s important to understand that any type of sexual activity without consent, including touching, fondling, kissing, and intercourse, is a form of sexual assault and may be considered a crime.
When and how to ask for consent
It’s crucial to ask for consent before engaging in sexual activity. Talking openly about what you both want and setting boundaries is important in any relationship, regardless of whether it’s casual or long term.
In a healthy sexual encounter, both parties should feel comfortable communicating their needs without feeling fearful. If you’re initiating sex, and you become angry, frustrated, or insistent when your partner declines any sexual activity, this is not okay.
Sexual or nonsexual activity that occurs because of fear, guilt, or pressure is coercion — and it’s a form of sexual assault. If you’re engaging in sexual activity and the person declines to go further or seems hesitant, stop for a moment and ask them if they’re comfortable doing that activity or if they want to take a break.
Let them know you don’t want to do anything they don’t feel 100 percent comfortable with, and that there’s no harm in waiting and doing something else.
In any sexual encounter, it’s the responsibility of the person initiating sexual activity to ensure that the other person feels comfortable and safe.
You might worry that asking for consent is going to be a total mood killer, but the alternative — not asking for consent and potentially sexually assaulting someone — is unacceptable.
Consent is necessary and serious, but it doesn’t mean having to sit down for a clinical discussion or signing forms! There are ways to ask for consent that aren’t a total buzzkill.
Besides, if you’re comfortable enough to want to get closer, then talking openly about what you both want and need is perfectly fine, and sexy!
WAYS TO TALK ABOUT CONSENT:
You could get right to the point and ask:
- Can I kiss you?
- Can I take this off? What about these?
- Do you want to have sex, or would you like to wait?
- Can I [fill in the blank]?
You can also take the opportunity to use open communication about sex and boundaries as foreplay. Here are some ideas:
- I think it’s hot when we [fill in the blank], do you want to do this?
- It feels so good when you [fill in the blank], do you want to do this?
- Can I take your clothes off?
- Can I kiss you here?
If you’re already in the heat of the moment, you could say:
- Are you comfortable with me doing this?
- Do you want me to stop?
- How far are you comfortable going tonight?
Remember that consent needs to be ongoing. This means even if you’re in the throes of a heavy make out session or foreplay, your partner needs to consent before you take things to the next level.
Asking if they’re comfortable, if they want it, and if they want to keep going is important, so keep communicating and don’t just make assumptions.
Consent under the influence
Consenting under the influence is a tricky subject. It’s unrealistic (and not legally accurate) to say consent isn’t possible if the parties have been drinking. Plenty of people drink and remain coherent enough to consent.
However, studies show a direct relationship between excessive alcohol consumption and the risk for committing sexual assault. Approximately one half of sexual assaults involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the person who’s been assaulted, or both.
Sexual assault, even if it involves alcohol consumption, is never the victim’s fault. If you and others are under the influence, you should understand the risks when assessing whether you have consent to engage in sexual activity.
If either party is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it’s even more important to communicate your own boundaries and be extra sensitive to your partner’s boundaries.
Here are some good guidelines to follow:
- If you’re initiating sexual activity, you’re responsible for obtaining consent. In the case that either person is under the influence, the definition of consent — clear, ongoing, coherent, and voluntary — is just as important as ever.
- If someone is stumbling or can’t stand without leaning on something, slurring their words, falling asleep, or has vomited, they’re incapacitated and cannot consent.
- If someone doesn’t exhibit any of the above signs, but you know that they’ve been drinking or taking drugs, The Good Men Project recommends asking something like, “Do you feel clear enough to be making decisions about sex?” And regardless of what your partner says in response to that, if YOU feel they’re not clear enough, then just stop.
What consent sounds and looks like
You know you have consent when the other person has clearly said yes — without being pressured — and has given you permission to do something.
Here are examples of what consent looks like:
- Each person is engaging in sexual activity enthusiastically, after agreeing to have sex.
- There’s continuous communication every step of the way while sexting, hooking up, or while in a committed relationship.
- Respecting the other person when they say no or are unsure about anything — from sending photos while sexting to engaging in sexual activity.
- The other person is capable of making informed decisions, and isn’t intoxicated or incapacitated, or being coerced. Consent needs to be demonstrated freely and clearly.
- The absence of a “no” does not mean a “yes.” The same goes for “maybe,” silence, or not responding.
You do not have consent from another person if:
- they’re sleeping or unconscious
- you use threats or intimidation to coerce someone into something
- they’re incapacitated by drugs or alcohol
- you use a position of authority or trust, such as a teacher or employer
- they change their mind — earlier consent doesn’t count as consent later
- you ignore their wishes or nonverbal cues to stop, like pushing away
- you have consent for one sexual act, but not another sexual act
- you pressure them to say yes
Verbal and nonverbal cues
People communicate using words and actions, while some people are more comfortable with one than the other. This can cause some confusion when it comes to consent.
Verbal cues are when the person uses words to express what they want or don’t want, while nonverbal cues are given using their body language or actions to express themselves.
Here are examples of words and phrases that indicate verbal consent:
- I’m sure
- I want to
- Don’t stop
- I still want to
- I want you to
Some examples of words and phrases that indicate that you do NOT have consent are:
- I don’t want to
- I don’t know
- I’m not sure
- I don’t think so
- I want to, but…
- This makes me uncomfortable
- I don’t want to do this anymore
- This feels wrong
- Maybe we should wait
- Changing the subject
A person might communicate that they don’t consent by using actions and body language. These are possible nonverbal cues that indicate that you don’t have consent:
- pushing away
- pulling away
- avoiding eye contact
- shaking their head no
- not responding physically — just lying there motionless
- looking scared or sad
- not removing their own clothing
Even if a person appears to be giving nonverbal cues that make it seem like they’re into it and want to have sex, make sure you get verbal consent before continuing. Be sure and don’t just assume.
Often times, people who’ve experienced sexual assault are silent and appear to “give in” to the sexual act for fear of harm or wanting the incident to be over, NOT because they’re consenting to the act.
General guidelines for consent
Here are quick guidelines for engaging in consensual sex:
- Consent can be withdrawn at any time, even if you’ve already started getting intimate. All sexual activity must stop when consent is withdrawn.
- Being in a relationship doesn’t oblige anyone to do anything. Consent should never be implied or assumed, even if you’re in a relationship or have had sex before.
- You don’t have consent if you use guilt, intimidation, or threats to coerce someone into sex, even if that person says “yes.” Saying yes out of fear is not consent.
- Silence or a lack of a response is not consent.
- Be clear and concise when getting consent. Consenting to go back to your place doesn’t mean they’re consenting to sexual activity.
- If you’re initiating sex with someone who’s under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you’re responsible for obtaining ongoing, clear consent. If someone is stumbling or can’t stand without leaning on someone or something, slurring their words, falling asleep, or has vomited, they’re incapacitated and cannot consent.
- There’s no consent when you use your power, trust, or authority to coerce someone into sex.
Understanding sexual assault
The definition of sexual assault isn’t always clear, depending on the source.
Sexual assault is any type of unwanted sexual, physical, verbal, or visual act that forces a person to have sexual contact against their will. There are different forms of sexual assault.
Some examples include:
- unwanted fondling or touching under or above clothing
- exposing or flashing without consent
- forcing someone to pose for sexual pictures or videos
- sharing naked photos without consent (even if they were given to you with consent)
What to do if you’ve been sexually assaulted
If you’ve been sexually assaulted, it can be hard to know where to turn or what steps to take next. Know that you’re not alone and what happened to you isn’t your fault.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’VE BEEN SEXUALLY ASSAULTED:
- Call 911 if you’re in immediate danger or are injured.
- Reach out to someone you trust. You don’t have to go through this alone.
- Contact the police to report the sexual assault. What happened to you is a crime.
- If you’re raped, get a “rape kit” completed immediately. This can be administered at a hospital or clinic and will be useful to collect evidence, regardless of whether or not you’ve decided to report the sexual assault to the police.
- Contact your local sexual assault center to seek counseling.
- Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
There are also many resources available to help you.
10 questions about sexual assault you were too embarrassed to ask. (2015).
Abbey A. (2002). Alcohol-related sexual assault: A common problem among college students.
James SE, et al. (2016). The report of the 2015 U.S. transgender survey.
National intimate partner and sexual violence survey 2010 summary report. (2011).
NISVS: An overview of 2010 findings on victimization by sexual orientation. (2010).
What is consent? (n.d.).
Written by Adrienne Santos-Longhurst — Updated on February 12, 2019