Consent refers broadly to permission or agreement to participate in an event. It pertains to a wide variety of activities, from sex and kissing to therapy or medical treatment. Consent has far-reaching legal, ethical, and psychological implications.
In the era of #metoo and increased awareness of sexual coercion, consent often refers to permission to engage in sexual activities. Consent is a key part of creating ethical intimacy, especially when there is a potential power imbalance between people. Rape and sexual assault are both defined by a lack of consent.
This page focuses on sexual consent. You can find more information on consent for treatment here.
What Is Consent?
Consent is more than just the absence of “no” or the receipt of a begrudging “yes.” Without enthusiastic, coercion-free consent, a particular sexual activity may be illegal. Even when the law does not criminalize certain sexual conduct, it can still cause lasting harm if all parties do not fully consent.
Some hallmarks of consent include:
- It is freely given. Consent under duress, such as a threat of bodily harm, is not consent at all. Threats may also be emotional or psychological. If the person believes they will be harassed, screamed at, guilt-tripped, or otherwise “punished” if they say no, the act is not fully consensual.
- The person has the intellectual, psychological, or legal capacity to consent. Someone who is severely intoxicated might agree to activities to which they might not otherwise do. This person is probably unable to assess the situation well enough to consent. Likewise, a subordinate typically cannot consent to sex with someone who holds authority over them, such as a teacher or therapist, as these relationships inevitably involve power imbalances.
- It can be revoked. An individual can change their mind about sex at any time. Just because a person has given permission for sex in the past does not mean they give ongoing consent for future sexual activities. It also means they can ask to stop having sex at any point. When their sexual partner does not stop, this is sexual assault.
- It embraces open communication. Consent comes in many forms. An established couple might not engage in explicit verbal consent for every sexual act every time. Instead, people who are committed to consent are willing to talk about their desires and needs, even when doing so is uncomfortable or inconvenient. Consent requires a willingness to always accept “no” and to always allow a person to change their mind.
Myths About Consent
Sexual shame and stigma can make it difficult to talk openly and honestly about sex. This may cause some people to look for ways to assume consent rather than finding mutually comfortable ways to talk about sex. The following are some common myths about consent.
Myth: A person can signal consent with their clothing, personality, job, political views, or other outward cues.
- Fact: A woman does not consent to sex solely because she wears a short skirt. Nor does a stripper consent to sex with patrons or a prostitute consent to sex with everyone. A person who writes about sex or who publicly educates people about sex has not given public consent to sex.
Myth: Arousal means a person consents to sexual activity.
- Fact: Just as a person who laughs when they are tickled can still say no, a person who is physically aroused retains the right not to consent to sex. Arousal does not equal consent. In some cases, a person’s fear can cause their bodies to become physically aroused.
Myth: People with mental health conditions, intellectual disabilities, or other forms of neurodivergence or disabilities cannot give consent.
- Fact: People of vastly different abilities can and do give consent for sex. Some people with disabilities may be more vulnerable to coercion, but refusing to allow people with disabilities to have sex can itself be a form of abuse and control.
Myth: A person can’t be sexually assaulted by a spouse or current sexual partner.
- Fact: A person can always revoke consent, even in marriage. Spousal rape is a crime.
Myth: A person who does not say no consents to sex by default.
- Fact: There are many ways to consent to sex, and a person does not necessarily have to give verbal affirmative consent to each and every sexual act, each and every time. However, there are also many ways people can convey that they do not want sex—such as by recoiling from touch, seeming distant, or only giving permission after they are threatened. Sexual partners should err on the side of caution, especially when they do not know each other well or if one partner has difficulty communicating directly.
How to Ask for Consent
In a culture mired in sexual shame and secrecy, asking for consent can seem strange at first. Some people even worry that it will ruin the mood or magic of sex. Yet for most people, the opposite is true. Asking for consent opens the door to honest sexual communication, allowing all parties to safely communicate their needs. This feeling of safety can encourage both partners to relax and be present in the moment rather than staying “on guard”.
Some strategies for asking for consent include:
- Talking about sexual desires ahead of time. This is a strategy that can work especially well for people who know they plan to have sex. Discuss what each party likes and does not like. People who feel shy or uncomfortable may feel more comfortable doing this over email, chat, or text.
- Asking directly for consent. “May I kiss you?” can be a romantic question that intensifies the mood.
- Checking in during sexual activity. Try asking if a specific activity feels OK. Gauge your partner’s body language for signs of pain or distress.
- Using a prearranged safeword to signal when you want an activity to stop. This can be helpful for partners who feel uncomfortable directly talking about their needs in the moment. It can also be useful for people who engage in certain types of sex, such as BDSM.
Consent and Age
Children cannot consent to sex with an adult. They do not have the intellectual capacity or psychological maturity to safely engage in sexual relations with adults. Children are dependent on adults for their well-being and cannot consent without an implicit threat of duress.
Indeed, sex with an adult is not sex at all, but rape. Some young children may appear physically aroused by an adult, but this can be due to fear or the inability to understand what is happening. Similarly, some children may “cooperate” with an adult due to intimidation, manipulation, or because they have been taught to always obey adults.
A child looking or acting older than their age is not a defense to statutory rape or child molestation. There is no such thing as an “underage woman” or “underage man”. Individuals under the age of 18 are children.
Consent and Drugs
Drugs and alcohol create a murky environment for consent. It is still possible to consent to sex while under the influence, but only if the person giving consent has the intellectual and psychological capacity to assess the situation. There is no single line here that applies to everyone, but some factors to take into account include:
- Whether the person regularly uses drugs or alcohol. A regular drinker or marijuana smoker may still be able to consent while mildly intoxicated, but a new user may become too intoxicated even with a small dose.
- The extent of intoxication. Are the person’s other capacities diminished? Can they intelligently answer questions, safely drive, and move without falling or stumbling?
Violations of consent can cause lasting harm to a relationship, as well as posttraumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. The right therapist can help you recover. Find a therapist with GoodTherapy’s directory.
- Common myths about sexual assault. (n. d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/A_E/Common-myths-about-sexual-assault
- Myths and facts about sexual assault and consent. (n. d.). Retrieved from https://www.stsm.org/myths-and-facts-about-sexual-assault-and-consent