No blurred lines: Clarifying consent
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Consent: What does it even mean?
At an early age, we learn the ability to discern agreement and refusal—like in preschool, when you noticed that touching Jamie’s hair made Jamie pull away, even before your teacher told you to ask permission before doing something with another person’s body or property. Sexual consent is about those same communication skills. Essentially, it’s the same rule as always: Before you touch somebody’s body or property, ask first. Whatever their response, accept it.
Affirmative consent means that sexual interactions are held to the same standard as most other exchanges. Just as you can’t enter someone’s home or take someone’s stuff unless they’ve said it’s OK, you can’t engage in any form of sexual activity with someone unless they’ve said it’s OK. Consent is never implied and can never be assumed. It can be revoked at any time.
Why are there affirmative consent laws and policies?
The shift toward an alternative consent standard recognizes that the absence of a verbal “no” doesn’t mean consent, just like not fighting back against a mugger doesn’t mean your wallet was a gift to them. Affirmative consent requires a “yes”. Romantic and sexual relationships are about mutuality. Everyone involved should be enthusiastic and engaged.
What we know
Consent is critical—and it’s not complicated
We can tell when someone is agreeing enthusiastically or grudgingly, or refusing altogether. Our communicative skills work just as well in sexual situations. Unambiguous, positive responses are especially easy to affirm.
What if the cues you’re getting indicate discomfort, lack of interest, or confusion?
- Stop, slow down, check in. Wait for the other person to make the next move. Take whatever signals you get very seriously.
- Hold out for situations in which there is genuine enthusiasm and mutual interest.
- Be wary of drunkenness. It’s not impossible to discern consent when you’ve been drinking, but it can skew your interpretations of someone else’s signals.
Alcohol, incapacitation, and consent
- “Incapacitation” means the inability to make informed, rational judgments. The use of alcohol and other drugs can be incapacitating.
- Incapacitated people cannot legally give consent. A “yes” from an incapacitated person (verbal or otherwise) is not consent.
- You don’t need alcohol or other drugs in order to express interest in someone. If you’re not comfortable engaging in sexual activity unless you’re very drunk, this is something you need to grapple with. Consider talking to people you trust.
- If you’re not sure how much they’ve had to drink, let it go. If it’s meant to be, it can wait.
- If someone is incapacitated, seek medical help immediately. Their health could be at risk.
What if they’re your instructor, boss, or student?
What we all need to know
- It’s possible to have consensual sex within a working relationship.
- But if one person has professional or academic authority over the other (e.g., if you supervise them, assess them, grade them, or pay them, or if they supervise, assess, grade, or pay you), a sexual relationship is usually unethical.
- At almost all colleges, sexual relationships between teachers and their students are forbidden. Even if there’s no explicit exchange of sex for favors, the possibility is enough to make this a no-go zone.
- If you’re sure that someone you have professional or academic authority over (or who has professional or academic authority over you) is your true love, wait until the working relationship has ended before starting the sexual one.
What if they (or you) are underage?
What we know
- If you or your partner is underage, you can enjoy an emotionally intimate, non-sexual relationship until you’re both of age.
- Communication is the key to consent. People of different ages or backgrounds may have different cultural references. Make sure that you and your partners are on the same page.
- Every jurisdiction has an age of consent, which is the minimum age for legal, consensual sex. Any sex with someone under that age is illegal. In most of the US, the age of consent is 16, 17, or 18.
- Some states allow sex with an underage person if the older person is close to their age. If you or your partner is under 18, check the laws in your jurisdiction.
- It’s safest to wait until you and your partner have both turned 18.
- As long as everyone is legally of age and there is mutual enthusiasm, there is no right or wrong age to have sex, and there is no wrong age difference between partners.
- Check the age of consent in your state
What if this is harassment?
Harassment is persistently bothering or threatening people and interfering with their ability to live their lives.
Repeatedly directing sexual attention to someone who has not consented to it (e.g., pestering them for sex or a date, repeatedly calling or texting them with sexual solicitations or insults, sending unsolicited nude pictures) is harassment.
This is never consensual and it’s never OK.
If you or someone you know is experiencing harassment, reach out for help. Your school’s Title IX Coordinator can offer you support and point you toward other resources.
What if this is stalking?
Stalking is focusing attention on a person or group in a threatening or fear-inducing way.
This is never consensual and it’s never OK.
If you or someone you know is experiencing stalking, reach out for help. Your school’s Title IX Coordinator can offer you support and point you toward other resources.
What if this is coercion?
Coercion is making someone fear negative consequences if they don’t do what you want.
Note: You might worry that a person won’t like you if you don’t have sex. This is not in itself coercion: People are entitled not to like you. It becomes coercive if a person indicates that there will be negative consequences if you don’t have sex.
If you or someone you know is experiencing coercion, reach out for help. Your school’s Title IX Coordinator can offer you support and point you toward other resources.
What if they look sexy?
Check your assumptions.
Appearance is no indication of availability for sex.
Sexual aggressors use their victims’ appearance in an attempt to justify their aggression. This is never OK.
What if they have a reputation?
Check your assumptions. Previous choices are no indication of availability for sex. In any case, rumors are often false, and may be spread and used by sexual aggressors.
Sexual aggressors use their victims’ sexual histories in an attempt to justify their aggression. This is never OK.
What if they’re an erotic dancer?
Check your assumptions. No type of work, including any role relating to the sex industry, indicates availability for sex.
Sex work isn’t an enforceable contract. No matter what someone does for a living, no one has the right to have sex with them without their consent.
What we know about sexual role-play & consent
- Maybe your idea of sexy fun involves playing a character: naughty schoolboy, lustful shepherd, intimate moment between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. Whatever floats your boat.
- When in character, pay extra attention to your partner’s signals and the boundaries you’ve discussed.
- Some role-players choose to use a safe word, hand signal, code movement, or another method agreed on in advance. This is how they communicate a need to stop what’s going on, break character, and reassess.
What we know about disability & consent
- No one is obligated to disclose a disability to a sexual partner, ever.
- However, if you or your partner has a disability that affects how you move, feel, communicate, or have sex, it’s helpful to discuss your needs.
- To be sure everyone is comfortable, you both need to be able to communicate throughout. This could be by speech, writing, sign language, or an augmented communication device. If one of you has trouble speaking, agree on signals for “yes” and “no.”
- Talk about any modifications or accommodations that might be necessary. E.g., maybe certain positions can maximize mobility or avoid pain.
- If you have any questions or concerns, ask and answer explicitly.
Get help or find out more
Video demos of affirmative consent: Ultraviolet
Guide to private consent and public activism: The Consensual Project
Consent and alcohol: Cornell University
Verbal and nonverbal consent: Scarleteen