TW: This article may contain triggering information regarding sexual violence, sexual assault, and abuse.
Over the past few years, we have begun emphasizing the importance of sexual consent more than ever before in U.S. history. But we often leave out what consent means. And as important as consent is, we don’t talk about it nearly enough.
Sexual consent is an agreement to participate in any sexual activity.
Consenting and asking for consent is all about setting personal boundaries and respecting those of your partner. Both people must agree to sexual activities, every single time, for it to be consensual.
There are so many different kinds of consent, including implied, informed, and expressed. Still, no matter the type, consent is always a choice you make without manipulation, pressure, or any influence of drugs and alcohol.
“You get the final say over what happens with your body, whether you’ve been intimate before or if you said yes and then changed your mind. You’re always allowed to say “stop” at any given time, and your partner needs to respect that.”
Under no condition is consent implied through past behaviors, what you wear, or where you go. There should never be any question about whether or not you’ve received consent. Sexual consent should always be clearly communicated, and not just for the first time you’re intimate with someone; always, no matter how long you’ve been with your partner, consent should be communicated every time, before every activity. No matter their gender identity, anyone needs to express consent to all sexual activities just as much as anyone else.
And it’s important to note that consent is always reversible. Anyone can change their mind at any point in time, even if you’ve done it before and even if you’re both naked in bed.
Communicating to your partner that you wish to stop and are no longer comfortable is an excellent example of withdrawing consent. And since verbally withdrawing consent can sometimes be challenging, enthusiastic consent is a great way to convey this.
Enthusiastic consent can be expressed verbally or through nonverbal cues, such as positive body language like smiling, maintaining eye contact, and nodding. While enthusiastic consent is great, these cues alone don’t represent consent; you should always seek verbal confirmation. Talking about consent is the best way to ensure you and your partner are on the same page.
It’s also necessary to talk about what consent isn’t.
“Physiological responses do not equal consent.”
Responses like erection, lubrication, arousal, or orgasm are involuntary, meaning your body might react one way, even when you are not consenting to the activity. Sexual offenders often use these responses to minimize a survivor’s experience, saying things like, “you know you liked it.” Physiological responses are by no means a form of consent. If you have been sexually assaulted or abused, it is never your fault.
“Men expect that they control both partners’ narratives about desire and consent.”
In 2016, researchers at Confi, an online resource dedicated to women’s health issues, asked 1,200 college students and recent graduates nationwide what they would “expect to happen next” if they went home with someone they’d met and danced with at a party. 45% of the men considered vaginal intercourse “likely”; only 30 percent of the women did. Additionally, one in four men believed women “usually have to be convinced” for sex to happen; only about a tenth of the women agreed.
These perception gaps are a setup for assault and men’s consequential denials of responsibility.
The same survey found that the actions of a “tipsy” man were “much more acceptable” than a sober one. Simply put, men often over-perceive a woman’s interest in having sex with them, even more so if they have been drinking, and so, they let themselves off the hook for sexual aggression, even though women are blamed for having a drink if sexual assault or abuse occurs.
We must still do more despite new standards, calls for change, and increased coverage regarding sexual consent. We can start by fully educating boys about the importance of consensual, ethical, mutually pleasurable sexuality and about the ways their sense of entitlement may blind them to those values, leading them to cause harm, whether or not they choose to see it.
If you have ever been sexually assaulted or abused, it’s not your fault, and you are not alone.
We encourage you to call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.