April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and while sexual assault happens all year long — every 73 seconds, in fact — this month gives us an opportunity to tackle a subject that should be simple, yet, is still something that people have trouble understanding: Consent.
Lessons about consent are an essential part of any modern, comprehensive sex education curriculum, but far too many of us weren’t taught them. Even today, many schools don’t offer Sex Ed beyond the basics of baby making and STI prevention, if that. So now is your chance to go “back to school” so to speak, for a lesson that’s crucially important for people of every age, gender, and relationship status.
How Consent is Defined
For years, many people heard the rallying cries of “No Means No,” and yes, that is certainly important, but it doesn’t begin to really present the whole picture of what consent should be, so let’s start with a clear definition.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, consent is: “to give assent or approval” and “compliance in or approval of what is done or proposed by another.” If we apply those definitions specifically to sexual activity, it means that any and all sexual acts have to have all partners’ approval. And in case it’s not abundantly clear already, nonconsensual sexual behaviors are criminal. It’s not a suggestion; it’s the law.
In the sexuality education world, we talk about consent as being something that should be clear, freely given, enthusiastic, mutual, ongoing and something that you get and give before sexual activity even starts.
- Clear: You should be certain that a person is saying “yes” to whatever you are proposing to do. By whatever, I mean “any type of sexual behavior,” not just forms of intercourse. If you are unsure, ask again. Sure, fine, maybe, etc. are NOT the same as hearing, “YES.” So check in: “I just want make sure you want this, too. Is this okay?” If the answer still is unclear, cease whatever it is that you are doing. Don’t pressure and don’t keep asking. There are lots of nonverbal cues of interest or discomfort, too, but I’ll be honest, those may be very difficult to interpret (and if you are with a new partner, body language alone definitely isn’t going to cut it). We need more clarity than that.
- Freely given: Partner(s) should never feel coerced, pressured, threatened, or bullied into giving a particular answer or engaging in any sexual behavior.
- Enthusiastic: Partners are excited about saying “yes.” Let me ask you to think about something for a moment: Why on earth would we want to be intimate with someone who wasn’t all that excited about being with us? Enthusiastic participation in sex (of all kinds) is the gold standard!
- Mutual: All partners involved agree to be doing whatever it is that they are doing.
- Ongoing: It is important to check in with your partners. Just because someone was into it when you started doesn’t mean they are into at every stage of the experience. At any time, even if you’re in the middle of a sex act, someone has the right to stop (and partners have to respect that).
How to Talk About Consent
If you’d like examples of language to use to initiate this dialogue or respond during the moment, here are some you can try:
I’d really like to _________ you. Are you okay with that?
It’s so hot when we ___________, are you comfortable with that?
Does this feel good?
Would you like me to stop?
I’m really into you, could we just slow down a bit?
This feels really good.
I really like you but I’m not ready for that right now.
Capacity to Consent
In some situations, even if you hear a “yes,” there are some factors that can complicate and even negate someone’s ability to consent.
Capacity to consent can impacted by a number of factors, including age, the ability to make informed, rational judgments, physical, intellectual or developmental disability, physical or emotional vulnerability, the relationship between parties, and drug and alcohol usage. States have different laws regarding these issues so it is critical to know the laws where you live — but, legalities aside, there are big ethical reasons to be certain a partner is capable of giving true consent.
There are also work (or other) relationships where there are inequities between parties, meaning one partner is in a position of power over the other, that impact a person’s ability to consent. While that may seem obvious given sexual harassment laws and media attention, it is critical that we are thoughtful about partnerships or experiences where there are other more vague, yet unequal, power dynamics. If there are discrepancies in age, popularity, power, or wealth (just to name a few), we need to make extra-certain that there is enthusiastic consent from all parties.
Consent Beyond Physical Intimacy
Consent isn’t simply about sharing physical bodies, it is about how bodies are represented. If you are going to post a photo of someone online, you should get their consent. If you are going to send someone nudes, you should get their consent first. And it should go without saying that you should NEVER post a nude of a current or past sex partner without their consent. That is revenge porn; there are laws to prevent this.
I think that we have done a disservice to people by suggesting the word consent applies only to sexual behaviors, as opposed to considering consent conversations part of our general human being skill set. We model the scripts of asking for permission all the time. As children, in school, we ask permission to go to the bathroom, as teens, we ask permission to use our devices; we should recognize that we already have all the building blocks we need, we just need to apply them to our intimate lives.
Look, rejection happens. It may happen more than once. (I don’t know a single adult who has never experienced some type of rejection.) And yes, rejection can be emotionally painful. It’s okay to feel bad that someone wasn’t into you. It’s okay to be in your feelings. However, it is never acceptable to vilify someone because they rejected you. (I hope that didn’t need to be said.) But rejection also builds emotional resilience and it’s not necessarily a bad experience to have.
The Bottom Line
Good partners ask for consent. Good partners give feedback to let someone know that they’re “into it.” Good partners don’t care if it doesn’t sound “cool.” They don’t care if it (for a millisecond) impacts spontaneity. If a partner is turned off by your desire to affirm their consent, or is unwilling to be an engaged, enthusiastic partner, then they are not the right partner for you. Sexual behaviors should be mutually pleasurable, exciting, and fulfilling to all partners, not just one.
*It would be remiss of me to ignore the fact that many of us are at home due to COVID-19 and not all of us are in safe, healthy, equitable relationships. If you are unsafe at home, here are some resources you can turn to:
- National Domestic Hotline | (800) 799-7233
- Crisis Text Line | Text HOME to 741741
- Intimate Partner Violence
About the Author
An internationally recognized expert on sexuality and relationships, Dr. Logan Levkoff is an author and educator dedicated to perpetuating healthy and positive messages about sexuality and relationships and encouraging honest conversation about sexuality and the role it plays in our culture. As a thought leader in the field of human sexuality and personal relationships, Logan frequently appears on television including Good Morning America, The Today Show, and CNN. Logan is an AASECT Certified Sex Educator and Sex Educator Supervisor and served on the AASECT Board of Directors. She received her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Life Education from New York University and holds an M.S. in Human Sexuality Education.
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