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Let's Talk About Consent

We’ve all heard the oft-repeated sayings including “no means no” and “consent is sexy”. However, although it is easy to understand that saying yes means giving consent and saying no means withdrawing it, we all could use a refresher about what consent is and what it isn’t. For example, the child I babysit on weekends is struggling to zip up his jacket. He’s only six and still acquiring fine-motor skills. Rather than grabbing his jacket and zipping it up for him, I’m getting into the habit of asking if I can do this action before I actually do it. This action, too, requires consent. In this way, I’m hoping to teach him at an early age that we must ask before we do.

Although this is easy enough to understand in the small action of helping a child, what does “asking before doing” mean in the context of far more complicated sexual relationships? Some points that are always true, regardless of the situation, are as follows:

  • Consent must be given each time before a sexual act and giving consent once does not mean that consent is a given in the future, it can be withdrawn anytime the other party no longer feels comfortable.

  • Regardless of the relationship between two parties (be they dating, married, friends, or just hooking up) consent is always needed.

  • Consent must be clearly and freely given without guilt. This means that convincing someone to perform an act they did not give consent for does not count as consent.

  • “No means no” but so does silence. No answer is an answer.

  • Consent must be given sober. Someone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol is unable to give full and proper consent to actions that may take place.

  • Consent is required for every type of sexual act. This means that, although an individual may have agreed to one form of a sexual act, they still have not agreed to the following on.

  • Lastly, consent can be taken away even after having initially been given. If an individual changes their mind, the consent is withdrawn.

When putting these points into practice, it may look something like this:

  • Consent must be given each time: Although Lindsay and Ted have consensual sex regularly, today Lindsay doesn’t want to engage in sexual activity of any kind. Ted realizes that, although she may have consented to the act in the past, today Lindsay has withdrawn her consent and therefore he does not attempt to convince her or guilt her into doing something she is not comfortable with.

  • Consent is always needed: Tom and Adrian have been dating for three years and are living together. Today, Tom does not want to engage in sexual activity. Adrian understands that this does not mean that Tom doesn’t love him and cherishes their relationship. Therefore, despite the fact that the two are in a committed and loving relationship, sex is not an expectation and consent must still be given.

  • Consent must be clearly and freely given without guilt: Jared works for Lisa. She has made many suggestive comments towards him and Jared fears if he does not engage in sexual relations with her, he may lose his job. Due to this anxiety, he engages in the activities despite being uncomfortable. Consent, in this case, was not freely given without guilt as Jared was afraid that withdrawing consent would negatively impact his career.

  • No answer is an answer: Lucas meets Stephanie at a party. They hit it off really well and Lucas gets the feeling Stephanie may be flirting with him. Later, he finds her asleep in a bedroom. If Lucas were to engage in sexual activity with Stephanie now, he would do so without consent, as, although Stephanie did not say no, she also has not said yes. This would be seen as sexual assault.

  • Consent is required for every type of sexual act: Sarah has explicitly and enthusiastically informed Britney that she is comfortable with kissing and making out. Britney wants to take it further but Sarah is uncomfortable with this action. She has given consent for the first act but has withdrawn it for the second. If Britney were to continue now, claiming that Sarah had given consent, it would be considered sexual assault as Sarah only gave consent for the first action.

  • Consent must be given sober: John is drunk at a party and is confused and unaware of his surroundings. In this case, any consent given by John would be invalid as he is not in the right state of mind to have knowledge of what he is agreeing to.

  • Consent can be taken away even after having initially been given: Alyssa and Sophie are about to have sex, to which both have consented. However, Alyssa finds herself uncomfortable with the action and changes her mind, thereby withdrawing her consent. Sophie understands that it is okay for her partner to change her mind and respects Alyssa by stopping the act.

The most important thing to note is that, if the other party is uncomfortable with the actions you are taking, you must stop. This applies to everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or other factors.

Further, as can be demonstrated in the example of zipping up a child’s coat, consent can refer to many things, not just sexual endeavours. Touching, even in a harmless manner, must also be done with permission.

By practicing both compassion and respect for those we love as well as for those who are strangers to us, we can avoid the devastating effects of sexual assault.

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