What is Consent?
Sexual consent is an agreement to participate in a sexual activity. Prior to engaging in sexual activities with someone, you need to know that they too want to engage in sexual activity. It is important to be honest and communicate with your partner on your boundaries. Asking for consent is about setting boundaries and respecting the boundaries your partner has set. It is important to check in with your partner to ensure there are no misunderstandings on what your partner wants and does not want. Our boundaries can also change. What your partner may be comfortable doing when you engage in consensual sexual activity, does not mean they will be comfortable with the same boundaries another time (if there is another time). All partners need to agree to engage in sex/sexual activity every time, for it to be consensual.
Receiving consent is the first step in engaging in sex or sexual activity that is a safe and positive experience for all partners. Planned Parenthood created an acronym for consent. If you are unclear about what constitutes as consent just remember: F.R.I.E.S.
- Freely given. Engaging in sexual activity with someone is a decision that is made without pressure, force, manipulation, or while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about what they want to do, at any time. Even if you’ve done it before or are in the middle of the sexual activity.
- Informed. Be honest. You can only consent to something if you know what you are consenting to. For example, if someone says they will use a condom and then they don’t, that’s not consent.
- Enthusiastic. You should only engage in sex or sexual activities you want to do, not the things you feel pressured or expected to do.
- Specific. Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to make out) doesn’t mean they’ve said yes to others (like oral sex).
You have the right to determine what you are comfortable with; this is your body. It doesn’t matter if you have hooked up before. It doesn’t matter if you said yes earlier that day and you changed your mind. It does not matter that you already started to have sex. You can say “stop” at any time and your partner needs to respect that. Consent is never something that can be implied; silence is not consent. Sexual consent is always clearly communicated. No matter how many times you have had sex with your sexual partner, consent is needed every time.
What consent is not:
- The absence of “yes” is not consent.
- A forced “yes” is not consent.
- A coerced “yes” is not consent.
- Silence is not consent.
- Consent to one act is not consent to another act.
- Past consent has no influence on present or future consent.
- Consent is not implied by a certain relationship status.
- The absence of “no” is not consent.
- A date is not consent.
- “Maybe” is not consent.
- Swiping right is not consent.
- Pressuring someone is not consent.
- Being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol is not consent.
- Guilt-tripping is not consent.
- Invalidating (“I know you want this”) is not consent.
- Repeated begging is not consent.
Power and Consent
Sexual activity involving those under the age of 18 can only happen between individuals where there is no relationship of power, authority, or dependency. When there is unequal power in the relationship, a partner may have control or influence over the young person.
- Do you hold power over this individual?
- Do you hold a position of privilege with your identities? Consider how this might impact the interactions in your relationship.
- What type of experience do you have in comparison to your partner? Each person is the only expert in their experiences.
- Am I trying to get what I want or am I actively engaging in open communication with my partner to create a mutually pleasurable and consensual experience?
Age of Consent
The age of consent is how old the person needs to be in order to give consent.
- Someone under the age of 12 is unable to give sexual consent under any circumstance.
- Someone 12 or 13 can consent to sexual activity with someone who is less than 2 years older than them.
- Someone 14 or 15 can consent to sexual activity with someone who is less than 5 years older than them.
- The legal age of consent is 16. If both people are the age of 16 or older and have equal power, you can both legally consent to sexual activity.
Sexual assault refers to any kind of non-consensual sexual contact. Sexual assault can happen to anyone – no matter what clothes you wear, gender, sexual orientation, or age. However, there are groups that are at higher risk to experience sexual assault in their lives. Women (especially women of colour), 2SLGBTQIA+ people (especially transgender women of colour), and people with developmental disabilities are more likely to experience sexual assault over the course of their lives.
Tips for Practicing Consent:
- Practice consent by making it part of your everyday.
Practicing consent does not need to be sexual consent. (i.e., borrowing an item, sharing information, non-sexual physical touch, taking someone’s photo and posting it on social media, etc.)
- Don’t ever make assumptions.
You do not know what anyone is okay with unless you ask them. You do not know how someone is feeling or thinking unless you ask. This does not mean it is always okay. You need to ask for consent every time.
- Ask your partner how they would like to communicate.
It is important to discuss your communication needs and how you would like to communicate before engaging in sexual activities. You also need to listen to their needs as well. Not everyone communicates the same way. Not everyone feels comfortable saying “no” or “stop” even when they want to. Talk to your partners about this. For example, some individuals may utilize the traffic light system (red = stop, yellow = slow down, green = good/keep going), using a safe word, or nonverbal signals such as tapping your partner’s back or leg twice when you want them to stop.
- Establish boundaries.
Establish your boundaries with your partner, this is ongoing open and honest communication. You and your partner’s boundaries may change from the last time you had sex with them, they may also change in the middle of the activity. It is important to listen to your body and communicate with your partner if something doesn’t feel good or you are feeling uncomfortable. When we communicate our boundaries, we are communicating clear guidelines to what we are consenting to. This ensures there are no misunderstandings, and you and your partner know what they are consenting to.
- Check in with your partner’s non-verbal cues.
Verbally check in with your partner to confirm your interpretations and understandings of their body language.
- Practice ongoing communication.
Verbalize what you notice, ask them if they are okay if you notice changes in responsiveness and participation. Use opening communication to verbalize what you are feeling as well. When we have open on ongoing communication with our sexual partners it helps towards all partners having a mutually pleasurable, satisfying, and safe sexual experience.
- Talk before, during, and after your sexual experiences with your partner.
Ask your partner what they may be needing, what they did and didn’t like. Share your answers to these questions as well.
- Discuss your after-care needs.
After-care is about what you and your partner need from each other after sexual contact. This might look like cuddling, cleaning up, hydrating and having a snack, or talking about the experience. There are many other ways to take care and support each other after having sex.
-Cassie Cole, RSW