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What Does Consent Look Like and Why Is It Important?

Consent is necessary for all communities, whether LGBTQ+ or not.

CW: Sexual Assault, Sexual Violence, Rape 

In this issue of our lexicon series, it is essential to discuss the term consent. Consent is necessary for all communities, whether LGBTQ+ or not. This article will explore what consent means and why it is so important in relationships or sexual encounters. 

What Is Consent?

Consent is when all parties agree to participate in sexual activity. It should be clearly communicated. This kind of confirmation can be verbal or expression. Consent can also better identify boundaries and how to be respectful to these boundaries. 

Who Can’t Give Consent?

Some people cannot give consent. These people include anyone underage, intoxicated (by drugs or alcohol), or unconscious/asleep. 

Also, an individual cannot give consent if they are pressured or threatened—for instance, unequal power dynamics from a boss, teacher, coach, or others. 

Why Is Consent Necessary?

If an activity is non-sexual, it is sexual violence. Example of sexual violence include: 

Rape/Sexual assault: Rape and sexual assault are unwanted sexual acts from one person to another. Sexual assault can be unwanted sexual contacts like kissing, touching, vaginal sex, oral sex, anal sex, stealthing (non-consensual condom removal), and more. 

Sexual harassment: Sexual harassment is unwanted verbal or physical advances in a sexual way from one person to another.  

How Do You Give Consent?

Communication is crucial for consent. It should occur each time there is sexual activity. If a person has consented to sex before, it does not mean they will the next time or for other activities. Just because you had sex with someone before doesn’t mean they will permit you to have sex again. Talking about expectations before any sexual interaction is essential. 

Can You Change Your Mind About Having Sex With Someone?

If you feel uncomfortable or change your mind, you have the option to withdraw consent at any time. To make sure everyone is comfortable with any sexual interaction, talking about it is necessary. Everyone involved must consent to any changes of activity. 

What Is Enthusiastic Consent?

Enthusiastic consent is an expression of consent in a positive way. In essence, enthusiastic consent is making sure that there is a presence of a “yes” instead of the absence of someone saying “no.” This model of consent can be communicated verbally but also through nonverbal cues. These nonverbal cues can include enthusiastic body language like eye contact, nodding, or smiling. However, these cues are not the only thing that represents consent. They are extra cues to look for that show consent. Verbal confirmation is essential to consent, so it’s always important to check in with your partner.

Here are some examples of enthusiastic consent:

  • Asking permission before changing sexual activities. You can ask questions like, “Is this okay?”
  • Determining if there is interest from both parties before touching or kissing someone or engaging in sexual activities.
  • Ensuring your partner knows that they can stop at any time.
  • Checking in with your partner often.
  • Giving positive feedback when you are comfortable sexually. 
  • Agreeing to specific activities by saying “yes” or through an affirmative phrase. 
  • Using physical cues so that the other person knows you’re comfortable. However, it’s critical to note that physiological responses don’t always mean consent. 

What Are Some Examples of Non-Consensual Behaviors?

Some examples of non-consensual behaviors or include the following:

  • Not acknowledging or accepting someone’s “no” during sexual activity. These can also include gestures like kissing or touching, and when someone changes their mind. They can say no out loud or through body language.
  • Having sex with someone who seems unsure through signs like pulling away or looking nervous.  
  • A partner who is not engaged, unresponsive, sleeping, unconscious, or upset
  • Engaging in sexual activities with someone under the legal age of consent or does not fall into the close in age rule
  • Having sex with someone who is drunk or on drugs
  • Putting pressure on someone through fear or intimidation
  • Assuming you can engage in any sexual activity just because you have in the past 
  • A person is in a position of authority (boss, coach, teacher) and engages in sexual activities with someone who is under 18 
  • Removing a condom without consent 

How Can I Be Sure That the Sex I Had Was Consensual?

When you engage in sexual activity, everyone must agree with what is occurring. Here are some examples of consensual sex: 

  1. Each person is of legal age
  2. The person is awake and aware of what is happening 
  3. Each person is enthusiastic about the sexual activities and is an active participant
  4. There have been verbal confirmation for consent 
  5. Consent has been given through actions or non-verbal cues (however, this alone does not necessarily mean consent). For example, a nod or silence cannot be enough to give consent. 

It’s important to remember things like silence or a nod are not enough to establish consent. Also, if you move on to a new sexual activity, each person needs to consent again. If you pressure someone to change their mind, it is also not consent.  

How Does the Age of Consent Work?

In Canada, the age of consent is 16. However, there are a few exceptions. There is a “close in age” rule which means that 12- and 13-year-olds can’t engage in sexual activities with people who are more than two years older than them. Also, 14 and 15-year-olds cannot have sex with people who are more than five years older than them.

In the United States, each state has determined the age of consent to be 16, 17, or 18.

How to Prevent Sexual Violence 

The only person is responsible for committing sexual violence is the perpetrator. However, anyone can contribute to other people’s safety, but all of us can look out for each other’s safety.

There are actions anyone can take to create a safer community. Here are some examples:

  • Giving someone a safe ride home
  • Confronting and holding people accountable who have committed sexual assault
  • Educate yourself about consent and put it into practice
  • Be respectful of all sexual orientations and gender identities
  • Join or volunteer with violence prevention programs within your community, like crisis lines and more
  • Advocate for people who have experienced sexual assault and believe them. In many ways, you can do so, like saying a rape joke isn’t funny or stepping in when someone displays aggressive behaviors. 

You may not always be able to change the outcome of a situation. Still, by advocating for people who have been sexually assaulted, you can help people realize their roles in preventing sexual violence. If you know someone or think they have been assaulted, you can help them through available resources. 

For sexual assault resources, RAINN is an excellent organization with trained experts who can speak to you about sexual assault. 

You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or talk to someone online at online.rainn.org.

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Billie Olsen

AUTHOR: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.