By Rick Isenberg - 07/08/2024


It seems obvious, right? Of course, we always get consent from others before we are sexual with them. It just comes naturally, right? Sadly, all too often the answer is no. From college campuses to our own private bedrooms, consent before sex is too often overlooked, ignored, or exploited. We can’t talk about healthy sexuality without broadly considering the concept of sexual consent. This is critical for all of us.

That’s because sexual contact without consent amounts to sexual assault, sexual violence, or rape.  Today, there is a worldwide epidemic of sexual assault. We live in a true Rape Culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalized, played down, accepted, excused, laughed off, and not challenged enough by our communities. Rape culture exists and persists especially because our society, with its entrenched patriarchy, regards women as less important than men– essentially less deserving of respect and power—and encourages men to objectify and hyper-sexualize women. We can see the normalization of sexual violence and abuse against women in popular music, TV shows, and films that glamorize the disregard of women’s boundaries and the need for sexual consent, and in the prevalence of violent pornography.

Consent lets someone know that sex is wanted. Consent involves letting your partner(s) know what you want and don’t want. Consent is about respecting your partner, creating safety, and allowing for pleasure and romance. We must all do our part to obtain consent with every sexual encounter and, importantly, to teach these principles to our children.

What is Sexual Consent?

Consent is about communication. Sexual consent is a clear, freely given, reversible, enthusiastic, and specific agreement between people to have sexual contact with each other. Consent should happen every time and for every type of sexual activity.  Consent is never implied or assumed; it is unambiguous and overt. Agreeing to kiss someone does not give that person permission to remove your clothes. Having sex with someone in the past does not give that person permission to have sex with you again. Consent should be clear, overt, and unequivocal. A verbal expression of consent helps both partners understand and respect each other’s boundaries and expectations.  Fundamentally, sexual consent involves a clearly stated “yes” rather than the absence of a “no.” Today, the principles of consent apply to online sexual activity as well as to in-person activity. Consent should precede any sexual contact—there should be no question or mystery.

What is Sexual Contact?

Sexual Contact includes (but is not limited to) any of these behaviors:

  • Touching, kissing, fondling (whether over or under clothing) of a person for the purpose of sexual gratification.
  • Vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, oral sex, manual sex.
  • Any contact, however slight, between the mouth, genitals, or anus of one individual with that of another.
  • Sexual contact includes touch and penetration using toys or objects.

You can change your mind at any time

Sexual consent can be withdrawn any time a person feels uncomfortable. “Stop” means stop immediately, even if you’ve done it before together, and even if you are both naked in bed. The best way to ensure that all parties are still in agreement with what is going on is to talk about it, check in with each other periodically, and make sure everyone consents before sexual activity is escalated or changed. You have final say over what happens to your body.

What does consent look like?

  • Confirming that there is mutual interest before initiating any touch.
  • Asking permission before changing the type of sexual activity with questions like “Is this OK?”
  • Letting your partner know that they can stop at any time.
  • Periodically checking in with your partner, “Is this still okay?”
  • Providing positive feedback when you are comfortable with an activity.
  • Providing explicit agreement to certain activities by saying “yes” or “I’m okay with that.”

What sexual consent is NOT

While the concept of freely given consent is fairly straight forward, it is worth being very specific about what does not constitute consent. Remember, sexuality without consent is sexual assault. Despite what may be portrayed in the media and elsewhere, sexual consent is NOT:

  • Ignoring or refusing to accept “no.”
  • Assuming that wearing provocative clothing, flirting, or kissing is an invitation for anything more.
  • The use of force, physical violence, intimidation, or threats to gain sexual access to another individual.
  • The use of coercion (unreasonable pressure) for sexual activity. Coercion is more than efforts to persuade, entice, or attract another person to have sex; coercion wrongfully impairs an individual’s freedom to choose whether or not to be sexual. Hearing a ‘yes” from a person who is being bullied, forced, or exploited does not mean that they actually consent.
  • Being sexual with a person who is incapacitated – unable to make rational, reasonable decisions because they have mental or physical disability, are asleep, unconscious, intoxicated, drugged, or unaware of what is happening to them. A person may be incapacitated due to consumption of alcohol or other drugs.
  • Lack of a “no” or “stop” or protest in any form does NOT constitute consent. Silence or passivity do NOT constitute consent. Lack of resistance does NOT constitute consent.
  • Consent for one form of sexual activity does NOT constitute consent for other forms of sexual activity. Consent during a prior sexual episode does NOT constitute consent to future sexual activity.
  • Oneself being impaired by alcohol or other drugs is NOT a defense against any violation of the principle of consent. The only person to blame for sexual assault is the perpetrator.
  • Physiological arousal (erection, lubrication, orgasm) are involuntary and do NOT imply consent. The body may get visibly aroused even when a person clearly does not want to be sexual.
  • Sexual contact by an adult with underage individuals is inherently non-consensual, illegal, and may lead to prison and being registered as a sex offender. The age of consent varies in different parts of the US and across the world.
  • Consent to intercourse does NOT give permission to remove a condom during sex (a practice known as “stealthing.”)
  • Sending explicit images or messages to another person online without first asking permission is a violation of “digital consent.”

Sex without consent is invasive, intrusive, and a violation of our intrinsic right to freely choose what we do with our bodies. Without consent, any kind of sexual activity is sexual violence. Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of trust, respect, clear boundaries, and freely offered consent. It’s time to get everyone on the same page about consent. Talk about it to your partners. And, please, talk about it with your children. Let’s make this a sexually safer world.

If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.

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