According to RAINN’s website, 1 in 6 American women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. There is a sexual assault every 2 minutes in the US alone. When Yale frat boys enthusiastically chant “No means yes, yes means anal,” it’s no surprise that a recent UK study found that nearly 1/3 of students are not learning about consent in sex ed. (Imagine what that says about students in the US, where any sex education beyond abstinence is practically nonexistent.)
Sexual consent is when all persons involved in any sexual activity have voluntarily agreed to that activity. A consenting person is free of mind-altering substances, as well as manipulation or force from others. They have a full understanding of the situation and are old enough to legally agree to it. Consent can have limitations. A person may consent to oral sex but not intercourse, spanking but not if it leaves bruises. Consent can also be revoked at any time. Even if someone previously agreed to intercourse, but changes their mind mid-act. Even if you have been with your partner for years and have had sex hundreds of times.
There are two types of consent: verbal & nonverbal. Verbal consent is very explicit, using one’s words in order to remove doubt or confusion about the situation. In the most basic sense, this is telling someone else “I want to have sex with you.” However, even though communicating verbally is much more efficient, many of us rely on nonverbal cues during sexual activity. If you want to have sex with your partner, you may moan and unbutton their pants in order to make your intentions clear. But this can be a tricky situation, especially for new couples.
Consent is not…
Consent is not based off of assumptions. While writing this, I was reminded of an email forward from when I was a teenager that described what different kisses mean. According to the wisdom of the internet, a kiss on the stomach meant “I’m ready.” I don’t know about you, but kissing a guy’s stomach came long before I was ready to have sex! My point is that different people interpret actions in different ways. If you gauge your partner’s desire for one action (sex) by their enthusiasm for another action (undoing their pants), you make the mistake of assuming. In this example, your partner may be expecting petting, oral sex, or even just some pants-less time together.
Consent is not the absence of “no” or “stop.” An argument during the Steubenville rape case was that the victim never said no — even though she was intoxicated to the point that even her attackers described her as “like a dead body.” Anyone in their right mind can see that this is absurd. But people also refrain from saying “no” for plenty of reasons beyond being physically incapacitated. Peer pressure and a fear of rejection are just a couple of big influences, especially for young individuals. “Maybe” or “I guess so” also don’t count. If the person you are with seems to have some reservations about sexual activity, stop and have a more in-depth discussion about it.
Despite what some believe, consent does not ruin the mood. It shows your partner that you are concerned for their comfort & pleasure. And what’s better than knowing that the person you are with truly wants to be with you?
My Challenge to You
The sad truth is, even if we know all of this and we aim for explicit consent, we get lazy sometimes — especially in long-term relationships. Therefore, my challenge is that you make an honest effort to give & get consent. I’m not saying that you have to explicitly ask for consent every time you kiss or touch your partner. You can discuss consent beforehand. The next time things are getting a little steamy, you can whisper in their ear what you’d like to do, or ask if they’d like for you to get a condom. If you’re shy, showing your consent nonverbally is still better than nothing — but take it beyond just “not saying no.” Remember: consent is an enthusiastic yes!