What Does Consent Mean?
There are a lot of phrases and questions that come up when you search the phrase "consent" online.
"What does consent mean?"
"examples of consent"
While we can't know for sure who is searching or why they're searching for these terms, we want to make something clear: consent is critical.
What is consent?
At the root, to consent means to give approval.
When someone consents to something, they are giving their personal approval of the situation. One might consent to signing a document, a medical procedure, and, of course, sexual contact.
Most individuals think of consent in terms of sexual consent.
Sexual consent is about participants willingly giving their approval for specific forms of sexual activity — which can be everything from holding hands to intercourse. Consent is also a very personal thing as its an agreement based on someone's personal knowledge of what that action involves. For example, each individual might have their own definition of what constitutes kissing or what "third base" means.
When giving consent, the other party should always have the option to say no.
Sexual contact is only one piece of consent, albeit oftentimes the most important time someone consents.
Consent of all types should be given clearly and freely without any pressure. If there is pressure involved in the situation, this is sexual coercion. Sexual coercion is... Some examples of sexual coercion include making threats, intimidating the person, pressuring them to say yes, or even taking a yes to one sexual act as consenting to another. For example, a partner might agree to kissing but does not agree to you touching them under their clothes.
All consent, whether it's sexual or not, should be what's known as enthusiastic consent or affirmative consent. This means that the consenting party verbally says yes and their facial and body expressions also reflect this. Enthusiastic consent is a newer term that essentially means looking for the presence of a “yes” rather than the absence of a “no.” Think about that for a second!
While it might not seem like it in a hot-and-steamy moment, consent IS sexy.
Because, at its core, consent is communication. Communication is a foundation to any relationship and being explicit about consent is creating healthy communication between you and your partner(s).
The benefits of explicit or enthusiastic consent are:
- Shows that you respect your partner(s)
- Enhances honesty and transparency in a relationship
- Acknowledges sexual needs and desires of different parties
- Helps build confidence and self-esteem in both parties
- Builds healthy boundaries in a relationship
- Challenges stereotypes
- Increases positive associations with different forms of sexual activity
- Starts to eliminate power dynamics in relationships
- Establishes personal beliefs and values within any given relationship
Every person has their unique perceptions, boundaries, and ideas of intimate relationships. It's your job as a partner to ensure you're getting consent for each sexual act to help build trust and communication with your partner.
What does having consent mean?
There's a good acronym for consent known as FRIES.
The FRIES of Consent are:
- Freely given - A person doesn't feel coerced into saying yes
- Reversible - A person can stop or revoke their consent at any time
- Informed - A person understands what the sexual activity is and is not incapacitated
- Enthusiastic - A person is very excited to be consenting!
- Specific - A person agrees to a specific sexual act
The Rules of Consent
Rules sounds a little scary — and that's intentional. Because consent is all about boundary setting in a given circumstance, and boundaries are not something to mess around with.
Engaging in sexual activities without consent is sexual assault.
There are a few rules and laws when it comes to consent. The legal definitions of consent depend on the jurisdiction you are, but there are also some clear lines when it comes to consent.
First, if someone is underage (which depends on your local jurisdiction but is usually under the age of 18), they can not consent. Please do your own research on the legal age of consent.
If someone is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they can not consent.
If someone is asleep or unconscious, they can not consent.
If someone is has a mental disability or is otherwise impaired, they can not consent.
And, just because someone consents once to something, doesn't mean that you have unlimited consent to always perform that sexual act. For example, someone might consent to having sexual intercourse one night and has every right to revoke that consent in the middle of the act and down the line. Consent must be asked for every step of the way and every time.
The legal defintions of consent vary different from county to county and state by state here in the U.S.
How does consent work?
As we mentioned, consent is all about communication as you make your way through the list of sexual behaviors from hand holding to intercourse. Every sexual relationship is different just like every person's boundaries and desires are different. Which means that you can't ever assume consent without communication.
Consent is all about VERBAL communication. It can not just be assumed from non-verbal cues.
Physiological (aka body) responses like an erection, lubrication (aka "being wet"), arousal, or orgasm are involuntary, meaning someone's body might react one way even if they are not consenting to the sexual activity.
The best way to get consent in sexual situations is to:
- Ask at each step of the process "Is this okay?"
- Ask "Do you like when I do this?"
- Ask "Are you enjoying this?"
- Letting your partner know they can stop at any point
It’s very important to discuss discuss boundaries and expectations with your partner(s) prior to engaging in any form of sexual behavior.
Consent shouldn't be an afterthought. It should be early and often throughout the sexual encounter and relationship.
What is NOT consent?
Consent doesn't just mean verbally saying no — your partner(s) might feel like they can't actually say that word to you for a variety of reasons.
Your partner(s) not consenting to something may look like:
- Not responding to your physical touch or even moving away
- Pushing you away physically (even if in a "joking" manner)
- Holding their arms around themselves
- Turning away from you (their face or their body)
- Stiffening their body
- Tearing up or crying
Every individual has their own unique sexual experiences, and often trauma. Your job as a partner is to make others feel comfortable and considered at every step of a sexual relationship. Having clear permission is key.
Pressuring someone into sexual activities — whether that's a kiss or sex — can constitute coercion, which is also considered to be sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct is a spectrum that may include a broad range of unwanted sexual behaviors.
What to do if someone says no
Consent is not consent unless the partner(s) can say no to something.
You should actually feel pretty good about someone saying no — because it means you gave them the space and clearly communicated with your partner. While you might be in the heat of the moment and a bit let down, take the no as a sign of trust rather than one of disappointment.
If someone does say no to a sexual act, do NOT try to coerce them.
Sexual coercion can look like:
- Saying "Are you sure?"
- Saying "What about this?" that is an act just as sexual, just slightly different
- Saying "What about my needs?"
- Saying "What am I supposed to do now?"
- Guilting your partner
- Continuing to engage in the act they said no to
You should immediately stop the sexual behavior and comfort your partner. You can ask how they're feeling and why they're feeling that way. They may not want to engage in a conversation and you should respect their boundaries.
Ask questions and be sure to listen to their responses. Any form of sexual relationship is an intimate relationship and intimacy isn't just sexual. It's about building trust and deeper bonds with an individual.
What about "non-consensual sex"?
Let's be clear — "non-consensual sex" is sexual assault.
No one deserves to experience sexual violence. Everyone deserves to have happy, healthy relationships.
If you're questioning what happened to you, there are people you can talk to about your experience, including advocates at RAINN.