What Is Consent?
To most, it seems straightforward. You often hear the slogan, “No means no.” You may have even heard “only yes means yes”. But that’s not the whole picture. Here’s a handy consent checklist:
Is this a “yes”? Is it freely given?
Freely given means that they haven’t been pressured, threatened or guilted into saying yes.
Flirting is not a "yes". Provocative or sexy clothing is not a "yes". Silence or a lack of "no" is not a "yes". "Maybe" is not a "yes".
If the other person has been manipulated or pressured into saying "yes", it isn't freely given. If someone has said "no" or given you a soft "no" (like withdrawing, or making excuses like "oh, I'm busy", or "maybe next time") and you keep asking until they finally say "yes", it isn't freely given because you were pressuring them. Sometimes even if you're not actively pressuring someone, social pressure can mean the other person doesn't feel like they could safely say yes. For example, if you're someone's boss, your employee might not feel comfortable turning down unwanted sexual advances for fear of losing their job.
Recently, many people have been talking about “enthusiastic consent,” and “only an enthusiastic yes means yes.” I want to talk about that for a moment because it’s not exactly accurate.
Enthusiastic consent standards may invalidate the legitimate consent of asexuals, sex workers, and other consenting adults who for whatever reason are choosing that sex is right for them, even if they may not be enthusiastic.
There are a lot of reasons to freely choose to consent to something you’re not 100% enthused about, and that’s valid, too! Maybe you want to do something nice for someone else you care about. Have you ever helped a friend move even if you don’t like moving boxes or you’re tired? Maybe you want to get something in particular out of it (like if you wash dishes because you like having clean dishes, even if cleaning them isn’t fun for you). It’s okay to consent to things because you have still decided you’re interested and it’s the right choice for you, even if it’s not something you’re especially excited about.
A freely given yes is what counts for consent. The yes does not have to be “enthusiastic”, but it does need to not be manipulated, coerced or guilted out of someone.
Are they capable of consent?
Consent cannot be given when someone is incapacitated. This means, if they are passed out or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they cannot consent. The issue of drugs and alcohol is a complicated and nuanced one. Some people argue that any alcohol or drugs means consent isn't valid. Other people believe that small amounts of alcohol or drugs are okay and don't impair consent. People who take mind-altering medication to cope with chronic illness or who struggle with chronic addiction still have the right to make choices for their own lives, even if their decision-making may be affected. It can be very difficult to know if they're capable of consenting. You will have to determine your own comfort level with it. It's important to listen to other people if they say things like "oh, I do things I regret when drunk" and respect that they're telling you they can't consent while drunk. If you're not sure, assume they're not consenting!
Children are never capable of consenting to sexual acts! Younger children may also not be in a position to consent to other things like medical procedures, being taken on outings, etc. Some adults with mental impairments (e.g. due to intellectual disability, brain injury, or age) may not be able to consent to things. The ability of vulnerable adults to consent depends on the nature of their challenges and on what they're consenting to. They may be able to consent to simple things, but not complex things. They may have bad days where they're struggling more than usual.
Consent must be informed. Someone is not capable of giving consent if they don't understand what they're consenting to. Whether it's because of language barriers, lack of knowledge, impaired mental capacity or something else, if the other person doesn't understand then they're not consenting.
Do you have consent for the specific thing you’re about to do?
Consent must be given for each action. Just because you receive consent to kiss someone, doesn’t mean you have consent to grope them. If someone has consented to be in a relationship with you, it doesn't mean you automatically have consent to have sex with them. Asking for consent for each activity in the moment can sometimes feel awkward or "ruin the mood", which is why a lot of people skip this very important step. One way to keep things going smoothly is to discuss consent and what you'd like to do ahead of time. You can also discuss and agree on nonverbal yes/no signals that allow you to navigate things in the moment and know when the other person changes their mind and wants to withdraw consent or give consent for something new.
Did you get their consent this time?
Just because someone has consented to this activity before doesn't mean you have consent this time. People's moods and circumstances change. People might change their mind and realise that something they liked before isn't interesting to them anymore. Someone might also be feeling sad or upset, and not want to do something they usually want to do. It's important to respect that and to check in with people.
Do you still have their consent?
If someone changes their mind, you need to stop immediately.
Even if you're in the middle of something and you're really enjoying yourself, if the other person wants to stop, you need to stop.
They can withdraw consent at any point if they feel uncomfortable or just don't want to continue. One way they might do this is by clearly telling you "stop" or that they've changed their mind. Withdrawing consent can sometimes be challenging or feel intimidating to do verbally, so sometimes they might use non-verbal cues to convey this. Sometimes people panic, freeze, or shut down when they feel upset. The best way to make sure you still have consent is to talk about body language or signs to watch out for and check in periodically (especially when changing activities or escalating). Checking in doesn't have to be weird or ruin the mood. It doesn't have to be a stiffly formal "do I have your consent to do ___?" A consent check-in could look like this:
You: It would be so hot if we _____
Them: Oh yessss
Other ways to navigate consent
Sometimes people decide that they want to use different standards of consent. This is especially common for people in relationships. Sometimes they’ll decide that they don’t need to say yes every time, and agree upfront that the other person can always assume the answer is yes unless they say otherwise. For example, friends or romantic partners may agree that it's always okay to just go ahead and hug each other. Or maybe they’ll decide that it’s ok to start something when they’re drunk or asleep. This is okay as long as these things are established and agreed upon beforehand between all parties involved. The same rules about consent apply to making these new agreements, too. Someone who is too drunk or tired to consent is too drunk or tired to negotiate an alternative consent agreement. It’s not okay to pressure someone into agreeing. And if they change their mind, the agreement stops.
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