This year, the theme of sexual health awareness week was consent, and what a perfect year for it.
With hundreds of sexual harassment and assault cases in the news, consent has been a hot topic, and for good reason.
Consent must be the foundation to every sexual encounter and while it’s straightforward, sometimes different interpretations can make it complicated.
I’m going to break it down – explain what it is, how it can be influenced, why it’s important, and when and how it can be given, asked for and withdrawn.
What is it?
In the context of sex, consent can be defined as: permission that is freely and voluntarily given before a sexual act is performed with somebody else.
While this is consent to an extent, I think there’s more to it, so here’s my take.
Consent: enthusiastic permission to initiate or continue with an activity, given freely, voluntarily and without coercion that can be withdrawn at any time.
This is a great video released a few years back by the Thames Valley Police that compared having sex to making someone a cup of tea. It covers the basics and gives a general understanding of consent, but doesn’t cover everything, including how it can be influenced.
How can it be influenced?
‘Freely, voluntarily and without coercion’ is an important part of my definition because it addresses the things that can negate consent.
These things include:
Age – legally, someone doesn’t have ‘decision making capacity’ to give consent if they are under the legal age of consent in their country/region
Being asleep/unconscious or under the influence of alcohol/drugs
The use or threatened use of force
Unlawful detention (if someone is holding you against your will)
Mistaken identity and mistakes as to the nature of the act (i.e. mistaking anal play for anal sex)
Any position of authority or power, intimidation or coercive conduct (i.e. a sexual encounter with an authoritative figure like your boss, or persuasion from your partner or peers)
Why is it important?
Without consent, a sexual encounter is harassment, assault or rape.
Not only is the violated person possibly being physically, mentally or emotionally harmed, it also gets the perpetrator in legal trouble (or should).
Also, while it’s a serious topic I really don’t want to paint it negatively. Consent is amazing; it lets everyone know that they are excited and ready for an activity through communicating fun and sexy things.
It also can help to explore new territories and can be a form of foreplay.
When should it be given?
Always. Before and during every sexual encounter, from talking about sex to penetration.
A common time for people to consent is before sexual activity begins, but because lots of activities can be involved, I think it’s necessary to consent to all acts before and as they happen.
Consent must be given every step of the way, your partner can’t handcuff you or use a vibrator on you if you did not consent, even if you consented to having sex with them.
When can it be withdrawn?
What happens if half way through oral sex you start feeling uncomfortable? Consent can be withdrawn at any time – keeping in mind the list of things that can influence consent.
How can I give/ask for consent?
Consent can be delivered verbally, non-verbally, or with a combination of the two.
Every case, claim and interpretation is different so to make sure consent is unmistakable, I like to lean towards the enthusiastic, resounding, ‘yes means yes’ approach.
This approach means that a lack of protest or silence does not count as consent, consent must be clear and unambiguous.
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