Disclaimer: We acknowledge that there are many different words that individuals use to describe themselves after experiencing sexual assault. In this article, we use the term ‘survivor’ for the sake of consistency. We acknowledge that there are many ways of processing sexual violence, and believe each individual person should choose the language that they are most comfortable with.
Consent is an agreement between participants to engage in a specific activity. Consent is mandatory for engaging in both sexual and non-sexual activities with other people. Activities that require consent can range from asking someone if they would like a hug to asking someone out on a date. Consent must be voluntarily given and cannot be obtained through coercion or force. It can also be revoked at any time during an activity.
Just because someone consented to something in the past, does not mean that they consent to it again in the future—consent must be received every time. Even though consent is essential for both non-sexual and sexual activities, this article mainly focuses on consent related to sexual activity. The purpose of this article is to provide a clear definition of consent, while thoroughly covering when consent is necessary to give, impossible to provide, or has been violated.
The University of Michigan Policy & Procedures on Student Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence define consent as “a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed outwardly through mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity.”1
Consent involves active communication between parties wishing to engage in sexual behavior. Verbal communication is the best way to receive consent, although there are instances in which it can be communicated nonverbally. Silence is not consent. Consent cannot be implied, regardless of the type of relationship that people have. For instance, being married does not imply consent.
Body language is a useful indicator of the desire to engage in sexual behavior, but it can also be misinterpreted. The best way to get consent is to ask directly and receive a clear and enthusiastic “yes!” In order for consent to be given, everyone that is engaging in the sexual behavior must clearly understand what is happening and freely choose to participate; there cannot be any pressure, guilt, or coercion involved. Understanding and respecting people’s limits shows care for their wellbeing.
There are several factors that should be considered when asking for or receiving consent. First, there are factors like intoxication, age, and positional authority that make it impossible for someone to give consent. Second, consent to participate in one activity does not mean consent for other activities has been or must be given. Third, consent is not permanent and should be given every time and with each new activity. Lastly, exchanging consent is something that occurs both in and out of the bedroom, and should be honored unceasingly regardless of location, relationship, or personal history.
Factors Affecting Consent
The age of consent along with the definition of consent, sexual assault, and rape can vary by country and state. Globally, the age of consent ranges from 11 to 21 years old. Some countries do not have age of consent laws, but forbid sexual relationships outside of marriage.2 The image below is a map for the age of consent across the globe.3
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) provides a policy search engine that allows those in the United States to enter their state or zip code to find information about their local laws.4 AgeOfConsent is a website that contains information about the age of consent laws for different countries around the world.2 If a person is unsure about legal definitions of consent where they live, they should look to government sites that provide accurate information about their country.
Beyond the age of consent where someone lives, a person is legally unable to give consent if they are in any of these categories listed below:
- Incapable of giving consent due to a mental disorder or physical disability
- Unconscious or asleep
- Unaware or confused about the essential characteristics of an act due to the perpetrator’s fraud
- Unable to resist because of an intoxicating or anesthetic substance; the state of intoxication should have been known to the perpetrator
- Unable to give voluntary consent due to force, intimidation, coercion, positional authority, or power difference
Consent must be willing. The decision to engage in any type of sexual behavior must be free of force, intimidation or coercion. Force can be either physical or emotional. Examples of physical force include kidnapping, using weapons, holding someone down, or taking advantage of someone when they are incapacitated due to drug or alcohol use. Examples of emotional force include threats, peer pressure, blackmail, guilt, or coercion. When power or authority is involved, it is not possible to give true consent. Relationship dynamics where consent cannot be given include any relationship where a person might feel compelled to say yes because of the power that the authority figure holds over them or the trusted position that that the person in authority holds. Here are a few examples of these types of relationships:
- Teacher and student
- Counselor and patient
- Supervisor and employee
If someone is limp, unconscious, or throwing up—they cannot provide consent. As a guideline, if someone is not capable of driving a car, they should not be engaging in sexual activity. The safety and health of a person that is limp, unconscious, or throwing up should be the top priority. If there is a concern about their wellbeing, it is best to immediately contact medical professionals who can properly assess their condition.
Consent for Every New Act
All sexually active persons should check-in with their partner(s) and get consent for every new act. For example, just because someone is okay with kissing, does not necessarily mean they are okay with engaging in further sexual behavior. Checking in with one’s partner(s) will make them feel respected and comfortable.
Sometimes people do not feel comfortable saying no, even if they are truly uncomfortable with a situation. Observing body language is a good way make sure that consent has really been given; however, directly asking if partners consent to an activity is the most effective way to be certain. If one is unsure how a partner feels, stop for a moment and ask. The following are possible questions to ask when checking in with a partner:
- Are you enjoying yourself?
- Do you like that?
- Do you want me to keep going?
- You look uncomfortable. Are you okay? 5
There is a misconception that asking for consent makes sexual activity less romantic. The truth is that consent is sexy. Being able to communicate one’s wants and desires to their partner(s) enhances the emotional and sexual bond between all involved. Checking in every time for each new act helps ensure that everyone participating in the activity is fully consenting to it. This type of communication gives people the chance to express their feelings and, of course, give or withhold consent.
Consent Over Time
Regardless of if an individual said they wanted to do something in the past, they are by no means required to participate in that same activity at a later time. Consent does not work like a contract—it is not permanent and should be given every time and with each new sexual act. It can also be revoked at any time, including in the midst of an activity.
Here are some possible ways one can express that their boundaries have been crossed or that they no longer give consent to the activity:
- I do not think I am ready for this
- You are making me uncomfortable—please stop
- I do not like this
- I liked what we were doing before; I want to keep doing that
If someone is uncomfortable and communicates this verbally or nonverbally, the activity should stop immediately. Continuing a sexual activity without consent is sexual assault or rape.
Consent Outside of Sex
Consent is necessary for any activity that involves another person. People have different desires, hopes, and dreams. Therefore, effective communication and consent are required for people to agree upon any activity. Here are some examples of non-sexual activities that require consent:
- Holding hands
- Revealing personal information about someone
- Hugging someone
- Borrowing an item from someone
- Taking pictures of others
There are plenty of activities that require consent. Practicing consent and effective communication both in and out of the bedroom allows others to feel respected and heard.
Global statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that 1 in 3 females have experienced physical or sexual assault in their lifetime.6 A national survey in the United States found that 1 out of 6 females and 1 out of 33 males reported that they were raped or that someone attempted to rape them.7 Sexual assault and rape are global problems that affect everyone regardless of social category. This section discusses some actions that ignore another’s right to consent, what to do if consent has been ignored, and some ways to support a survivor of sexual assault.
Ignoring Another’s Consent
There is a myth that most sexual assaults are perpetrated by a stranger and probably involve the use of weapons or force. The truth is that 60% of sexual assault survivors report knowing their attacker.6 The number is even higher for college-aged females in the United States, where 85 to 90% said they knew the person that attacked them.6
A person that commits sexual assault might not know that their behavior is sexual assault. Here are some actions that qualify as sexual assault:
- Refusing to change positions when asked by a partner
- Ignoring a partner when they express they are being hurt
- Forcing a partner to deep throat
- Asking for sex repeatedly until someone says yes
- Continuing to have sex with someone after consent is withdrawn
- Having sex with someone who is incapable of giving consent (e.g., drunk, on drugs, or unconscious)
- Engaging in a specific sexual act after someone says they do not want to
- Removing a condom during sexual intercourse without the consent of one’s partner(s)—a behavior known as stealthing8
It can be difficult to deal with rejection, but everyone has different desires, needs, and limits. All sexually active persons have the responsibility to recognize when partners are not interested in a particular sexual activity and stop immediately. Doing so not only shows a person that they are cared for and respected but will also prevent legal ramifications from sexual assault or rape charges.
If Consent Has Been Ignored
Ignoring consent shows a disregard for a person’s feelings and wellbeing. If the behavior is sexual in nature, the action could be considered sexual assault or rape. If someone is sexually assaulted, the first thing we recommend is getting to a safe place—a friend’s house, an open restaurant, or a well-lit, public location. Although survivors may find it very difficult and undesirable, we also highly recommend going to a hospital emergency room; while there, evidence can be collected, internal and external injuries can be assessed, potential sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be treated, and any possibility of pregnancy can be eliminated.4 The decision to seek medical treatment is entirely up to the sexual assault survivor. Another possible action is considering if the survivor wants to report the crime to local authorities.
Many survivors often feel emotions such as guilt and shame after the attack. Some individuals may wonder if there was something they could have done to prevent what happened. If they feel shame, survivors may even erroneously believe that they deserved what happened. Though these thoughts may be intense, it is best to avoid thinking in ways that put the fault of the sexual assault or rape on the survivor and not the perpetrator. Lastly, healing is a process that is different for each individual. Supportive friends, family, or counselors can aid in the process of healing. For more information about what to do if a sexual assault occurs, read this article.
How to Support a Survivor
Being told that someone experienced sexual assault can be a lot to process. Sharing such a sensitive topic with someone demonstrates trust and a desire for help. If possible, it may be best to find a place to speak in private. Showing support and avoiding judgment gives the sexual assault survivor the space and resources helpful in beginning the healing process. Be aware that survivors can feel shame and anger towards themselves.
It is imperative that the survivor feels others believe them. The prevalence of false reporting is extremely low. According to the United States Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, false reporting of sexual assault is between 2 and 10%.9 It is also important to avoid minimizing the situation or conveying negative judgment. The only person that can make a choice to seek medical treatment or report the assault to local authorities is the survivor. Lastly, do not share a survivor’s story without their permission. Below are some helpful phrases to consider when talking to a survivor:
- I am sorry this happened
- It is not your fault
- I believe you
- You are not alone
- Are you open to seeking medical attention?
- I care about you and want to do whatever you think may be helpful
- This does not change how I think of you4
It is crucial to acknowledge a survivor of sexual assault’s experience and to communicate empathetically. Sharing resources can also show support. In the United States, the National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).4 HotPeachPages maintains an international directory of domestic violence and abuse agencies for every country in the world, and provides abuse information in over 110 languages.10 For more information about resources for sexual assault, refer to our Resources article.
Consent is an important topic to teach at home and in the classroom because a thorough understanding of consent is essential for preventing sexual assault and rape. It also empowers young people to learn they have control over their body. It is important to clearly define consent and clear up any cultural misconceptions that prevent complete understanding of consent or lead to victim-blaming sexual assault survivors.
Teaching consent, along with all other topics related to sexual activity, should not be limited to one lesson, despite popular use of limiting phrases such as “the talk.” Instead, consent and similar topics should be addressed over multiple lessons throughout a child’s development and beyond. The content of the lessons should be age appropriate. For early childhood, discussions might revolve around the ability to clearly and verbally say “yes” or “no” in response to an activity that is happening to the child. Topics of consent and sexual activity can be introduced as children get older. Role playing and modeling how to ask for consent can demystify the processes. Giving young people the education and tools needed to communicate consent effectively will help them stay safe and lead happier lives. To learn more about teaching consent in the classroom, see our guide for educators here.
Understanding consent is essential in preventing instances of sexual assault and rape. Partners should engage in effective communication before, during, and after sexual activities. Anything besides a resounding, consensual “yes” may be grounds for sexual assault. Consent is also mandatory. In order for people to safely and legally engage in a particular activity, partners must understand and willingly agree to the activity. Consent must be received for every new activity. If someone is unconscious, throwing up, or otherwise incapacitated, they cannot give consent. Consent is not permanent and must be given every time. Practicing consent in and out of the bedroom ensures that everyone involved is comfortable and happy to be there, regardless of the activity.
- “The University of Michigan Policy and Procedures on Student Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence.” University of Michigan. 1 July 2016. Web. 2 May 2017.
- “Legal Ages of Consent by Country.” AgeOfConsent. 2017. Web. 26 May 2017.
- “Global Age of Consent.” Global Women Connected. 8 May 2016. Web. 2 May 2017.
- “State Law Database.” Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. n.d. Web. 2 May 2017.
- “Wanna have Sex? (Consent 101).” Youtube. Lacigreen, 26 March 2014. Web. 2 May 2017.
- “Violence Against Women.” World Health Organization. November 2016. Web. 8 May 2017.
- “Victims and Perpetrators.” National Institute of Justice. December 2000. Web. 8 May 2017.
- “7 Things that can be Rape, even if you were Taught to Think they can’t be.” Bustle, 12 February 2016. Web. 08 May 2017.
- “False Reporting.” Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. 2012. Web. 26 May 2017.
- “International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies.” HotPeachPages. February 16, 2016. Web. 26 May 2017.
Last Updated: 8 May 2017.