Consent and Sexual Assault
Updated: May 5
Generally, when we speak about “Consent” most people associate the idea of sexual consent and sexual assault awareness which often involves threats, coercion, and off-balance power dynamics. All of these are present in the spectrum of domestic violence.
What is Consent?
Consent is an ongoing mutual agreement between partners about what they do or don’t want to experience. It is a voluntary, enthusiastic, and clear agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity, maintaining boundaries and mutual respect.
When will consent be regarded as sexual assault?
If clear, voluntary, coherent, and ongoing consent is not given by all participants, it is then categorized as “Sexual assault”. There is no room for ambiguity or assumptions when it comes to consent, and the rules do not change for people who have engaged in sexual activity before.
Consent is a highly-debated subject both socially and legally, so it is important to first determine what consent actually means in the context of romantic relationships and sexual activity.
Points to keep in mind to determine whether acts in your relationship are consensual or not:
Consent isn’t as simple as “no means no” or “yes means yes.” Consent is a safe, open, and ongoing conversation about the activities you and your partner are comfortable with and actively want to experience together.
Consent should happen every time. You and your partner should feel safe letting each other know if you’re not comfortable with something, every time.
Consent is a process to be established on an ongoing basis, not broad approval based on past behavior. In a healthy relationship, you always have the right to set and adjust your boundaries based on what you’re comfortable with within the moment.
Your relationship status isn’t consented. Whether it’s the first time or the hundredth, a casual or committed relationship, nobody is ever obligated to give consent, even if you’ve done so before. You are the only one with ownership of your body.
Saying yes to one act doesn’t imply your consent to others and every act of physical intimacy requires its own consent. If you feel uncomfortable at the moment, you always have the right to stop, even if you previously agreed.
There’s no such thing as implied consent. Flirting with someone, talking to them, or the absence of ‘no’ are not consent. Consent only happens when all parties voluntarily, explicitly, and enthusiastically agree.
It’s not consent if you’re afraid or unable to say no, or manipulated, pressured, or threatened to say yes.
It’s also not consent if you or your partner are unable to give consent, including if you’re asleep, unconscious, or under the influence of substances like alcohol, some prescription medications, and other drugs.
Nonconsent means stop. If anyone involved isn’t consenting, then what’s happening is or could be rape, sexual assault, or abuse.
Consent in the context of the United States
The legal definition of consent (or lack thereof) varies by state. This can make it difficult to help victims of sexual assault or rape in court and elsewhere. Sometimes, it is hard for people who want to do the right thing to fully comprehend what consent means.
Several different organizations across the United States and the world have taken on the challenge of defining consent in simple terms. Some have compared consenting to sex with consenting to drinking tea someone made for you. Planned Parenthood emphasizes the fact that rape is not always accompanied by someone screaming “no” or fighting back.
The University of Michigan Sexual Assault and Awareness Center plainly defines consent as “…when someone agrees, gives permission, or says ‘yes’ to sexual activity with other persons. Consent is always freely given and all people in a sexual situation must feel that they are able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or stop the sexual activity at any point.”
According to the Loveisrespect project by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, “It’s not consent if you’re afraid to say no. It’s not consent, if you’re being manipulated, pressured, or threatened to say yes.”
Here are some red flags that your partner doesn’t respect consent
They pressure or guilt you into doing things you may not want to do.
They make you feel like you “owe” them — because you’re dating, or married, they gave you a gift, etc.
They react negatively (with sadness, anger or resentment) if you say “no” to something, or don’t immediately consent.
They ignore your wishes and don’t pay attention to non-verbal cues that could show that you’re not consenting (EX: being reluctant, pulling away).
How to practice healthy consent
Talk about it! Communication is one of the most important aspects of a healthy relationship. Establish boundaries by explaining what things you and your partner are comfortable with and what things you may not feel comfortable with. Always ask first. Try phrases like: “Are you OK with this?” “If you’re into it, I could…” “Are you comfortable with this?”
Be aware of the physical and nonverbal signs of consent as well. If your partner seems uncomfortable, talk about it and discuss it. Don’t assume that silence is them saying yes.
Remember that giving and receiving consent is an ongoing process.
Everyone deserves to feel safe and respected in their relationships. If you or someone you know does not feel safe or respected in a relationship or have experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, or both, you can reach out to the following for help:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1−800−799−7233
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
National Domestic Violence Hotline, The International Voice of Domestic Violence, NO MORE