What is consent?

What is consent?

Sexual activity that occurs without consent is against the law and a serious violation of a person’s boundaries. So, understanding consent is a key part of preventing sexual assault from happening in the first place. Consent is an active process involving an enthusiastic and voluntary agreement to participate in sexual activity. There is a shared responsibility between all parties involved in a sexual situation to obtain consent. Consent can be given verbally or non-verbally, although non-verbal cues can sometimes be misinterpreted if partners are less familiar with one another (so checking in verbally is always a good way to clarify). Consent cannot be given by someone who is incapacitated, nor can it be given by someone who is underage.

What is it not?

    • A one-time thing: There is no such thing as blanket consent. It must be given every time, every step of the way. If you agreed to have sex with someone before, you still get to decide whether or not you want to have sex with them again in the future. Similarly, just because you agree to engage in one act with a person doesn’t mean you agree to do something different.
    • Irrevocable: You can withdraw consent at anytime. Just because you have agree to participate at one point does not compel you to continue to participate.
    • Coerced: If you have to convince someone to engage in sexual activity with you, you are probably not getting full consent. Additionally, there are a lot of reasons why someone might have a hard time saying no. Fear for safety is a big one. Just because someone cooperates doesn’t mean that they have consented to what happened.
    • The absence of “no.” Read below for more on affirmative consent.

Why is it important we talk about consent?

Consent is the cornerstone of preventing sexual assault. However, it is grossly under-discussed and often misrepresented in society. Because everyone’s boundaries and communication styles are different, the process of giving and getting consent is going to vary depending on the person with whom you are engaging. It is critical that we each take time to think about where our boundaries are, how we prefer to communicate them, and how we can more fully respect the boundaries of our partner(s).

Alcohol and Consent

    • Alcohol is often used as a weapon to facilitate sexual assault. Alcohol isn’t what causes sexual assault–it’s people’s behavior and decision to commit sexual assault that does the harm.
    • Alcohol is not an excuse for failing to obtain consent.  

Even if someone drinks or uses drugs prior to being assaulted, it is not their fault that they were sexually assaulted. (Read more on victim blaming here).

What is affirmative consent?

    • Affirmative consent is quickly becoming the law.  Many states have passed or are writing legislation that requires affirmative consent on college campuses.  New York and California require all public colleges in their state to develop affirmative consent policies on their campuses.  For more information about affirmative consent in your state, click here.
    • Affirmative consent refers to receiving consent before initiating sexual activity.  According to New York State and with similar language being adopted by other policies, affirmative consent is: “A knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity. Silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent. The definition of consent does not vary based upon a participant’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
        • While there are many who are skeptical about the concept of affirmative consent, it is helpful to reevaluate the ways we think about sex.  Affirmative consent upholds the importance of communication and understanding prior to sexual activity.  Affirmative sexuality is crucial to affirmative consent.  In order to change societal norms around sex, sex needs to be a less taboo topic of discussion.  Currently, culture dictates that passivity or lack of a verbal “no” is equal to consent. Affirmative consent laws hope to have an impact on making obtaining consent the norm.
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