Sexual Assault Awareness Month every April. Each year’s campaign puts a spotlight on issues like preventing sexual assault on campus, healthy adolescent sexuality and child sexual abuse prevention. One subject that comes up often is teaching and understanding the importance of consent. We need to get past the victim blaming/slut shaming techniques used in the past. Telling women they were “asking for it” because of the clothing they were wearing, or being flirtatious, being intoxicated, or even just walking alone at night is no longer acceptable. This takes the responsibility away from the perpetrators. Teaching consent starts with learning how to say no and receive a no, how to say yes, how to have a conversation about what you want, how a person’s way of expressing themselves with their clothes is not inviting you to violate them, and learning that we are not ever entitled sex… ever. It’s a long row to hoe (no slut shaming here!) but even the campaign telling us that consent is sexy fell a little short. Consent can be sexy, but it can also be difficult and awkward. No matter how it happens, consent is mandatory.
What is Consent?
The definition of consent, according to Merriam Webster, is “to give assent or approval.” Unfortunately, that approval has for a long time been somewhat fuzzy in its definition. Consent needs to be given in an honest, sober and willing manner. While Yes always means Yes, the absence of a No does not mean Yes. It’s more than just a Yes, too. Consent is about a mutually agreed upon expression of desire that includes the discussion of boundaries along with these desires. Consent isn’t a maybe, maybe is always a no. What you need to look for is enthusiastic consent, not an “I don’t know.” “I’m not sure.” or “I guess so.” When looking for enthusiastic consent also look at body language. Are they turning away, folding their arms around their body, stiffening up, or being unresponsive? Then stop what you are doing and check in with your partner. Consent is not being freely given so either this person changed their mind or was not an enthusiastic yes to begin with.
Consent For Everything, Even Touch
Consent is an ongoing process that requires checking in and being aware that the situation might change. It’s important to remember in any sexual situation there is never a bad time to say no. You never owe someone a trip to the finish line. If at anytime during the sexual experience you find yourself, or you find your partner, has changed how they feel or is becoming uncomfortable then you need to stop. If the person you are with is upset with you for taking care of yourself then that person is not someone you want to have sex with anyway. Just saying “stop” or “no” should suffice but you can say things like “I’m not feeling comfortable with this” or “That’s enough” will tell people what you want. Also feel free to ask to slow things down during sexy time or even tell them you’re not ready to move on to anything else right now. Communication is vitally important. So is respecting your thoughts and feelings throughout sexy time. It should never be assumed that even a touch on the shoulder or knee is welcome, always ask first. Taking a moment to ask before touching can help to give people who aren’t comfortable with that kind of intimate contact the option to say no. Not everyone is comfortable with a random touch or hug. They need time to build up a sense of comfort and trust. Giving them an opportunity to decide who gets to occupy their personal space will make your time together more relaxed and comfortable.
Consent Under The Influence
Consent given when under the influence of drugs, alcohol or anything that inhibits your ability to make a conscious and informant decision is never a yes. An impaired or intoxicated person cannot give consent. Consent is never coerced. Consent is a conversation about what both parties want and need, this can’t happen if you’re not in full control due to a loss of faculties or being unconscious. One would like to think the concept that consent cannot be given if the person is unconscious would be easy to grasp but we still see this happening. If someone can’t speak or communicate in any way, rather than taking advantage of the person help them instead. The inability to say no due to the person’s state of consciousness is still an emphatic NO. Rather than taking something not freely given because you see a chance to get something easily, take that time to make sure the person is safe and see if they need medical attention.
Consent Over The Long Term
Consent is an ongoing conversation and doesn’t become a default Yes when you enter a relationship. Consent is always required even in long-term relationships and is never assumed. A spouse or partner is not entitled to implicit or blanket consent. There are times in our lives when we’re stressed or not feeling well, going through difficult times, transitioning to a different schedule like with a job, or even the physical and mental effects of having children can reduce your desire to have sex. You can still say no at any time. Having these discussions and check ins are the things that can make consent in a relationship sexy. It invites us to have conversations about what we want and need with our partners during the life of our relationship. We can grow and change with each other and learn something new along the way. We can try new things or step back and take a break, all with patience and understanding.
Consent For Those Who Can’t Communicate
Just as consent can only happen when sober it can only happen when we are mentally capable of making decisions like during an incapacitating illness. There’s been an ongoing problem with nonconsensual sex with the elderly. When someone who is experiencing dementia or other debilitating health conditions can’t actively or responsibly say yes, it is always a no. Sometimes their partner feels entitled to sex because of their long-term relationship making it difficult to protect the victim. There are trials going on right now about this. Educating about consent is important throughout our lives, even in our golden years. It is a never-ending conversation with our partners regardless of how long the relationship has been going. The same applies to anyone who has an illness or condition that inhibits the ability to make decisions. This means anyone who has an intellectual disability or has any challenges with their mental processing may not be able to give you informed, well communicated and thought out consent. This is a “No” no matter how enthusiastic their yes is. There are plenty of people who deal with various forms of intellectual disabilities and many can make decisions and have conversations for a fulfilled sex life but there are also those who can’t. Take the time to know the difference.
Building a Culture of Consent
If we stop thinking of consent as a buzz kill or a mood killer but as the important connection with our possible partners negotiating consent gets easier. Having that conversation can be sexy and flirtatious. You’re learning what your prospective partner wants, what they feel in the mood for, or even what they’re not in the mood for. This can start with teaching kids while they are young to respect one another’s personal space. I remind my kids all the time that they don’t have to hug anyone they don’t want to, even family. I also remind them they need to ask before hugging anyone else and respect their choice when they say no. A hug is never required and should never be insisted on. Hopefully with baby steps like this continuing on as they grow we can nurture a consent culture instead of a rape culture.
To learn more about creating consent culture and learning about consent check out your local colleges sex week and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center website.
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