As April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I figured it would be a fitting time to have a little talk about consent. I work for a sexual assault prevention organization, and spend most of my billable hours talking with teens about sexual violence, consent, healthy relationships and more. I recently had a conversation with a friend about sexual assault and consent. “I think part of the problem is that people don’t know what consent is, but I think a big problem is that a lot of people for the most part know what it is, but they don’t know how to get consent”, they said. That is one hundred percent true. Many of us have a pretty hazy understanding of what consent is, but we also lack the tools needed to put consent into action. So welcome to Consent 101. And trust me, if my middle schoolers can get it, so can you.
What is consent?
Here is the definition of consent I use when educating:
“At the time of the act there are words and physical actions that indicate everyone involved freely agrees and really wants to do the same thing”
Lengthy and wordy, I know. So let’s break this down.
At the time of the act…
This obviously means when it is happening. It is important (read necessary) to get consent beforehand, but consent is also ongoing. You need to make sure you have your partner’s consent all the way through your *~experience~*. Keep in mind that consent can be given and taken away at any time. Just because you agree at first does not mean you aren’t allowed to change your mind. People, if at any point you feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or you’re just not into it, you 100% have right to vocalize this. If your partner isn’t into it, or asks you to slow down or stop, then you need to respect that. If someone continues to pressure their partner, pushes their boundaries, and ignores their “no” (read further for more on what that may look like) then that is assault. Period.
We tend to focus a lot on what consent is not, you know the whole “no means no” thing. While this is important, I think we need to start talking about what consent is, what real consent looks like, or what it means to say yes.
Okay we should probably take a second to acknowledge that asking for consent can be awkward. Like “oh hello would you like to do the sex with me?” But sorry you aren’t off the hook. I’m here to tell you that there are ways of starting conversations about consent and asking for consent that can be kind of hot, dare I say even sexy. Here are a few:
(Feel free to fill in the blanks *winky face*)
I really want to ____, do you want to too?
Can I ____?
Do you want me to ____?
Will you tell me what you like?
Do you like it when I ____?
I’m into ____, what about you?
Would you be comfortable with ____?
Do you want to try ____?
I love it when you ____, what do you like?
Now that we’ve established how to ask without being totally awkward, let’s talk about how to give your consent (also without being awkward). Keep in mind that consent has to be some version of the word yes! If it’s not a yes, then it’s a no.
I want to ____
I want you
Will you please ____
I love it when you ____
Please, come here ;)
Okay we’ll leave it there…
To be clear consent is not:
Silence (the absence of a no is not a yes)
I don’t know
I’m not sure
Think about it this way… If someone offered you free front-row Beyonce tickets would you say, “maybe” or “I don’t know”? No of course you you wouldn’t. It’s fucking BEYONCE. You would be like “OMG OF COURSE I CAN’T WAIT CAN WE GO RIGHT NOW?!?!?!”. Consent should be ENTHUSIASTIC! Okay maybe not that enthusiastic (there’s no way I’m ever going to be as excited about sex as I would be about free Bey tickets), but you get it.
This is body language. You can’t always rely on words alone, so you need both. Because sometimes people’s words don’t always match their actions, and there are plenty of reasons why. Maybe they are nervous or unsure. Maybe they are afraid of disappointing their partner. Maybe they are being coerced or pressured (more on that in a minute). Maybe they even feel a little threatened.
So what does consensual body language look like? If someone is consenting they might be:
Making eye contact
If someone is not consenting they will be:
Not making eye contact (looking around nervously, eyes shut the whole time, or staring off blankly)
Disassociated (not present)
Lying still/not participating
Consent Must be Freely Given
So what does it mean to freely give your consent? This means that you are not being influenced by anyone or anything else. It is purely your choice. Someone can’t consent if there is force, fear, or coercion. Freely consenting means the person always has the option to stop at any point without feeling threatened, pressured, or unsafe.
If someone is physically forcing them. Holding them down, trapping them, using a weapon.
If someone is threatening them. Threatening to harm them, blackmailing them, threatening to expose pictures or personal info.
This is when someone is being pressured, talked into, or convinced. Asking repeatedly after they say no is coercion. Trying to break them down or make them give in is coercion. Guilting or pressuring someone into saying yes is coercion.
Other examples of Coercion:
“if you love me you would do this”
“You can’t just say no when you’ve already said yes!”
“You’re going to give me blue balls!” (eye roll)
“I thought you liked me”
“I know you want me, just say yes”
“A real man would do this”
“Why don’t you want me?”
“If you don’t do it maybe I should just find someone else who will”.
These are all really shitty ways of getting someone to sleep with you. If saying one or more of the above is the only way you can get someone to sleep with you, then please just do the world a favor by gently easing yourself into the nearest dumpster. Moving on.
Someone cannot consent if…
They are under the age of consent. Ages of consent differ from state to state. Look that shit up.
They are under the influence of drugs and alcohol. So, I often get pushback on this one. And I mean let’s be honest, I get it, a lot of us have had drunk or *not completely sober* sex, and that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve all been raped, or that we are all rapists.
The reason we include this is because a lot of perpetrators will actually use alcohol or drugs as a tool to facilitate a sexual assault or to make their victim a more vulnerable, easy target. This is because someone who is under the influence may be more susceptible to suggestion or coercion. Also, it’s a lot harder for someone to fight back or run away.
All of this being said, I cannot artes enough: If someone has been drinking and another person tries to assault them, it is 100% under NO circumstance the victims fault. Drunk, sober, anywhere in between, your body belongs to you. Nobody else.
Look at it this way: Perps are consciously predatory. They will intentionally get their victim drunk so they are easier to assault. They will find and single out that one already really drunk person and make them their target. Pay attention to this predatory behavior when you are out in public. If you see a person who seems like they may be taking advantage of someone who is too intoxicated to consent, step in!
My guidelines around alcohol and sex are as follows:
If your partner is significantly more intoxicated than you, save it for the morning. If you can’t tell whether or not your partner is too drunk, go ahead and assume they are, and save it for the morning. Unless they are majorly hungover, then just let them sleep. Go get them a coffee and some Advil. Plus let’s be real, drunk sex isn’t all that enjoyable anyway. It’s usually sloppy, unimpressive, and mutually unsatisfying. Save yourself the disappointment.
So let’s recap
Consent is a clear, enthusiastic, counscious, freely given, YES, given between adults. Anything other than a yes is a no.
Alright everyone, get out there and put this knowledge to use ;)
P.S. I’d like to know your thoughts! What does consent mean to you? What do you need to have in order to consent? When would you not consent? Share below.