Feminism 101: What is Consent?

Image: “slutwalk-30.jpg” by roga muffin via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0.

Merriam-Webster defines consent as an agreement  “to do or allow something: to give permission for something to happen or be done.” We give consent and ask for consent all the time in our daily lives—we ask for consent to spend time with someone, give consent to allow someone to use our belongings. However, there continues to be some confusion surrounding consent  in sexual relationships. Because of this, I’ve decided to compile a list of things to keep in mind about consent.

  1. If someone says no to anything you’re doing, it means no. If your partner says no, it is not an invitation to negotiate with or try to convince them. It is, however, a signal to stop what you’re doing.
  2. Saying no can be difficult. People tend to forget this when wondering why someone may not vocalize their feelings during sex. There are so many different power dynamics that go into relationships of any kind and when you add something as intimate and vulnerable as sex, refusing your partner something they want is really difficult. This is exactly why this next one is important:
  3. Absence of a no does not mean yes. In 2014, California passed legislation to make affirmative consent a requirement for sexual contact. The law requires that in universities in which students receive financial aid, there must be a policy that includes a standard of affirmative consent. The standard defines affirmative consent as ongoing, “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” This means that if your partner is silent, hesitant, and especially if they are not in a state to say yes (i.e. asleep or unconscious, intoxicated, etc), you should not continue.
  4. Non-verbal cues are just as important as verbal cues. Sex is about feeling good, but should also be about making your partner(s) feel good. For that to happen, there is a certain amount of body language and cue reading that you have to do.  If your partner does not look happy, is not reciprocating, is pushing you away, etc. these are all cues that they are uncomfortable.
  5. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Any time meaning, yes, LITERALLY any time—while making out, when you’re both naked, even with partners you’ve had sex with before. Think about it, just because you hang out with someone all the time does not mean that they’re going to be free and want to hang out whenever you want again; you need to ask them first. The same applies to sex.

I’ve heard a lot about the “gray” area in consent, usually referenced in situations with alcohol consumption or in situations where people have already engaged in some sort of sexual relationship. This is an interesting concept to me because this “gray” area is exactly what should deter you from continuing. If there is ambiguity, you need to check in and get affirmative consent—contrary to widely held beliefs, sexual assault and rape are still sexual assault and rape, despite your intentions. This is why continuous consent is imperative.  


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