WHAT IS? – The Meaning of Sexual Consent – Part 1

sexual consent


The topic of consent, and particularly sexual consent, seems to be coming up more often these days.  This should be all good news, since consent is something required for good enough sex.  In fact if there isn’t consent, we don’t call it sex at all, we call sexual assault, or rape.

But there’s a big difference between hearing more about consent, and liking or retweeting a post about consent on social media, and applying what you know to your own sex life.

Consent still mostly gets raised in the context of sexual assault.  If you are in a sexual relationship that isn’t coercive you might think that consent isn’t relevant to your sex life.  But we all need to understand consent (both what it looks like in others and what it feels like in our own bodies) not just to avoid being sexually assaulted or assaulting someone else.  We need to know about consent because it’s what makes sex good, pleasurable, and healthy.

The problem with how consent is talked about in the media, including social media, is that we often come into conversations in the middle.  If we ask a basic question we can get shouted down or shut out.  And a lot of the information we see tells us that consent is simple.  Which is another way of saying that we are dumb, if we don’t get it.  There may be some situations where understanding consent is simple, but there are a lot more where it is complicated, and to really understand it, you have to start from the beginning.

What Is Consent?

In it’s broadest sense, consent means to give permission for something to happen or to agree to participate in something.

Informed consent is a term used mostly in research and in the context of medical treatment.  Informed consent means that in order to agree to something you really should know what that thing is, and whatever it is you can know about the likely result of your participation. You can’t consent to something unless you are informed (as best as possible) about it.

Age of consent refers to a legal age at which someone is allowed to agree on their own to participate in an activity.  Age of consent laws change from state to state and country to country and they are different for different types of activities.  For example in the U.S. there are laws meant to restrict access to abortion services that say that someone who is not above the age of consent for an abortion must have their parents permission to obtain one.

Age of consent laws also apply to sexual activities.  Sometimes they specify the activity (so there may be different ages for vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse) sometimes they specify the gender of the people involved (again, different ages when the people involved are the same gender).

Interestingly these laws don’t actually describe what the components of consent are. They function instead as a legal prohibition for people under the age of consent from having sex. If you have sex and you are under the age of consent, you are breaking the law and the person you had sex with can be charged with statutory rape.  Most age of consent laws include exceptions when the two people are close in age (known as “Romeo and Juliet laws”).

Legally, consent is also used to prohibit some people with disabilities from engaging in sex.  It is possible for parents or the state to have someone deemed incapable of giving consent.  This is usually done when the person in question has been labeled with a developmental disability.  Unfortunately this is rarely done with the active involvement of the person in question.  They may very clearly be consenting to a sexual relationship, but because systemic ableism means they do not have access to their basic rights, they are not heard or listened to in the process. This is only one way that disabled people are sexually marginalized and excluded.

When most young people learn about consent (if they learn about it at all) this is what they learn. Before a certain age you can’t consent and after a certain age you can. This is not enough information for kids (or grown-ups for that matter).  Consent is not simply a matter of being old enough.

Applying Consent to Sexual Interactions

By now you may have noticed that the basic definition of consent doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about consenting to sex.  The definition of consent only says that it’s a form of permission giving, but what it leaves out is HOW one shows consent. In a medical or research context you might sign a form.  In a commercial context you usually click or check a box.  But how does that work with sex?

Most of the time we don’t have a clipboard with us when we’re about to have sex (unless clipboards are your thing, which is absolutely fine).  And most definitions of consent describe it as something fixed, you give consent and then it stays given forever.

That’s not how sex with other people works.  We might feel like having sex and then change our minds.  We might start having sex and then want to stop.  Sexual consent isn’t fixed, it’s fluid and can change from one minute to the next.  I know that makes it much more complicated, but it’s the truth of the matter.

And since most people aren’t going to get written consent for sex, does that mean consent be verbal?  Can it be non-verbal?  And here’s maybe the biggest question of all:  how does the idea of informed consent apply to sex with another person?  How much can one know in advance about the outcomes, possibly risks and benefits of having sex with a particular person at a particular place and a particular time?

Enthusiastic Consent

The basic definition of consent, that you agree to participate, can and does still apply to sex with other people.  No one should be forced to have sex they don’t want to have with people they don’t want to have it with.

But what does that look like in practice?

One way educators and activists have found to address the lack of understanding and talk about consent (and the lack of opportunities to practice getting it) is to talk about enthusiastic consent.  In a nutshell, enthusiastic consent refers to the idea that you shouldn’t just “go along” with whatever sexual activities are happening.  Doing so isn’t really consenting, because consent requires your active engagement and decision making throughout the sexual experience.

If you’ve ever felt like sex “just happened” there wasn’t enthusiastic consent.  Enthusiastic consent means that you really REALLY want what’s happening to be happening, and that you communicate that in some way throughout the sexual encounter.   Enthusiastic consent raises the bar above not sexually assaulting someone to the level of only having sex that is really really good. Enthusiastic consent involves not one conversation about what is agreed to, but finding a way to communicate with the person you’re having sex with throughout the sex you’re having.  It might not be verbal, but the communication is agreed on, and is understandable to everyone involved.

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