The Ins and Outs of Sexual Consent

A Conversation We Need to Have
Part 1 of 2

Sexual consent is the free, full and active agreement to engage in sexual activity. This includes everything from kissing and touching to sex itself. Consent is not something that is given once and then assumed from thereon out; it needs to be renewed and reconfirmed continuously. That means that every step of the way – whether continuing an activity, moving from one kind of activity to another (e.g. kissing to touching) or having a brand new encounter – requires renewed consent. It can’t be assumed based on previous experiences.

It’s also important to note that consent cannot be coerced – it can’t be obtained through manipulation or pressuring on another’s part. It must come freely from the individual doing the consenting. Consent is given, freely, fully and enthusiastically, not achieved. It is not the object of conquest, nor is a potential sexual partner. It’s the conscious and whole-hearted “Yes” from within one human being to another.

In our series on Healthy Sexual Choices, we encouraged readers to develop values around sex to help them determine when and if they want to have sex. But it’s not only important to understand when you are ready and willing, it’s your responsibility to be sure of your partner’s readiness and willingness as well. This is a topic we need to have a clear understanding about. Many individuals are unaware of what consent really looks like and when it is lacking. 

Why You Need to Learn About Consent

Sexual coercion – the act of manipulating another in an attempt to obtain sex – and sexual assault – the performance of a physical activity without the other person’s consent – are frighteningly prevalent, particularly on college campuses. And, sadly, rape (penetration performed without consent) is not uncommon.

According to the organization Band Back Together, 70% of college students report experiencing sexual coercion on some level, and 33% admit to practicing it. The actual numbers are likely higher, since many people don’t fully understand what constitutes consent, and therefore aren’t aware of when they are being coerced or when they are practicing coercion.

Rape and sexual assault statistics vary widely depending on the definitions used – some people consider rape to occur if the person advanced upon has been drinking, for example, while others don’t necessarily. Besides, not everyone involved in such incidents reports them, sometimes out of fear, shame or unawareness that what happened was assault or rape. One thing is for sure: Even one incident is too many.

Youth attitudes around sexual coercion are alarming, tending toward a lack of appreciation for the importance of obtaining consent before performing a sexual act. One survey of young people aged 11 to 14 (reported by the Campus Advocacy Network) provided the following results:

  • 51% of boys and 41% of girls said that forced sex is acceptable if a male spends lots of money on a female
  • 31% said that rape is acceptable when a woman has past sexual experience
  • 65% of boys and 47% of girls said that rape is acceptable if the couple has been dating for more than half a year
  • 87% of boys and 79% of girls said that sexual assault is acceptable if a man and woman are married

These results are alarming because they show that youths think not only coercion, but full-blown assault and rape are acceptable in certain circumstances. But the importance of consent is not situational; it applies to every act between any two people. The prevalence of sexual activity without consent, along with youth attitudes that dismiss the importance of consent, highlight the need for us to think, talk and learn about responsible sexual conduct. That starts with your own choices and actions.

Shifting Focus to Potential Perpetrators

None of us likes to think of ourselves as potential perpetrators of sexual coercion or assault, but the sad truth is, if we don’t think and learn about consent, we’re at risk for doing something irresponsible and immoral at some point in our lives.

In recent years, a movement against sexual violence has begun that emphasizes the importance of shifting the focus away from teaching people how to avoid being the victims of sexual violence to teaching people to avoid being the perpetrators thereof. This method was popularized in 2010 by the ad campaign, “Don’t Be That Guy,” in Vancouver, Canada. Several posters were put up in men’s bathrooms encouraging young men not to take advantage of women who are intoxicated. The Vancouver Police attributed a 10% reduction in reported sexual assaults afterward to the impacts of the ad campaign.

(Note: Women can also practice sexual coercion, assault and rape; women also need to learn about and verify consent.)

Not everyone who performs a sexual action without consent intends to or realizes they have done so. In the heat of the moment, one might assume, based on past experiences with the person or a lack of the person saying “No,” that the other is ready and willing. There are many subtle ways in which “No” can manifest, and that’s something we need to think about and learn. For many years, the popular slogan “no means no” summed up the extent of consent education. But this line of thinking is lacking, because “no” isn’t always expressed verbally. This article series will help you learn a more thorough and accurate way of verifying consent

We believe it’s every person’s responsibility to work to limit the amount of immorality, cruelty and violence in the world. One of the most basic ways we do this is by not becoming a perpetrator ourselves. It’s not all up to your partner – there are several reasons a person may not be comfortable or able to fully and clearly express a lack of consent. It’s your responsibility to make sure it’s there.

We’ll begin by looking at the morality and legality around sexual consent. Then, in Part 2, we’ll talk about ways to identify when consent is and is not clearly given.

The Morality of Consent

There are certain moral principles underpinning the importance of consent – ways of seeing and treating other people that need to be considered and accepted so you will understand how important “Yes” is:

  • Another person’s body is his or hers; you have no rights over it. Assault entails treating bodies like objects for one’s use and pleasure. Never forget: There is a human being within that body – a world of experiences, thoughts, ideas, values, perspective. That person, like you and like every other, deserves basic decency and respect. A body is never an object; it’s part of another human being.
  • In no circumstance – marriage, a long-term relationship, what the other person is wearing, for examples – does someone owe you sex, or any other form of physical affection. It’s not a product or a transaction; it’s an activity between two people that requires the full engagement and willingness of each.
  • No matter how many people you know who have practiced sexual coercion, or who treat potential partners as “conquests” or objects, it is never the right thing to do. “Normal” is not always the same as moral.

The Legality of Consent

Along with being a moral issue, there’s also a legal side to consent. That’s because laws exist partly to protect our rights, and one of our most fundamental rights is to our own bodies. Consent education, then, should include information about laws that exist around consent. Consider the following:

  • Laws vary by state, but the “age of consent” across the U.S. ranges from 16-18. This means that, legally, a person is not considered capable of consenting to sex when he or she is below this age. If a person notably older (usually two years or more) than another who is below the age of consent engages in activity with the younger one, he or she is considered to have committed a punishable crime (statutory rape).
  • Legally, consent cannot be given by a person whose judgment or decision-making abilities are impaired. This includes being drunk, on drugs or having certain psychological conditions. It can be very difficult to tell when someone is “too intoxicated” to give consent, particularly when the one seeking it is also intoxicated. That’s why sexual activity performed under the influence of drug use or heavy drinking is always risky. According to one study, only 29% of cases of attempted or completed rape did not involve at least one person who had been drinking.

What You Can Do

Part 1 of this series has given you some background information on the need for consent education, on your own personal responsibility to learn about this topic and on the moral and legal underpinnings of consent. In Part 2, we’ll consider a more effective way of verifying consent besides “no means no.” You will learn about different ways consent can be verified, then about warning signs that it is not. Doing this work will help ensure that you conduct yourself respectfully toward others and lead a sexually responsible life.

Written by Amée LaTour


Part 2:
The Ins and Outs of Sexual Consent
Yes Means Yes

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Good habits formed at youth make all of the difference in life. Aristotle