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Sex + Relationships

Consent: What is it? What is it Not?

Content warning: this article discusses consent and uses examples that may be triggering to some.

As we grow older and dive into more adult relationships, it is important to know and understand consent. Consent is not something that most of us are taught at a young age; we have to learn for ourselves. Sometimes, we can feel confused or be unsure of what it is. Let this article be a guide to teach you the basics of consent.

What is consent?

A very important aspect of consent is that it is informed. Someone cannot consent if they do not know what proper consent entails. Miscommunication can lead to a dispute over what two or more parties thought was okay. Consent needs to be clear and cover what all parties think. For example, people have varying definitions of what sex means. If one party believes that sex is any touching of the genitals, but the other believes sex is only penetrative, then it needs to be discussed so that both parties know where their boundaries lie. This way, both partners have control and knowledge of the situation.

We are usually taught that there is one true definition of what sex is: penis-in-vagina sex. Not only is this heteronormative; it is simply not correct. There is no one true definition of what sex is. You and your partner may even have different definitions of what sex is, and that’s okay! However, it is important to know what your partner believes is sex. This way, you can respect your partner’s boundaries and give proper and clear consent.

Another important aspect of consent is that it is freely given. Consent is not something that comes from coercion.

“If someone agrees to an activity under pressure of intimidation or threat, that isn’t considered consent because it was not given freely,” according to The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN.

To give consent, “no” must be an acceptable answer. “Yes,” “okay” or “fine,” don’t necessarily mean you consented if you were pressured first. If a partner is pleading and trying to change your mind, they aren’t giving the option of saying “no.”

“No” isn’t the only way to decline unwanted situations. You don’t have to say anything decline consent.

For example, if you are in a situation and your partner is holding your wrists and won’t let go, if you give in, you aren’t consenting because you weren’t given the safe option of “no.” If you are with this partner and they make comments trying to coerce you to agree, that isn’t consenting. If you are just lying somewhere and don’t give a “yes” or say that it’s okay, it isn’t consent.

What consent is not:

Consent is not something that is only given once.

“Consent is about communication,” according to RAINN. “It should happen every time for every type of activity. Consenting to one activity, one time, does not mean someone gives consent for other activities or for the same activity on other occasions.”

If you consent to something once, it only applies to that instance. Just because you have done it before does not mean that it can be done again. Consent should be freely given in every instance, with the opportunity to say “no,” and for “no” to be accepted. Consent is not something that lasts a certain time either—consent can be freely taken back.

“Withdrawing consent can sometimes be challenging or difficult to do verbally, so non-verbal cues can also be used to convey this,” according to RAINN. “The best way to ensure that all parties are comfortable with any sexual activity is to talk about it, check-in periodically, and ensure that everyone involved consents before escalating or changing activities.”

Furthermore, consent cannot be given if you are impaired. If either party has had enough of a substance to alter their decision-making process, consent can not be given. Consent must be given in the right mind where both parties are aware of the consequences and have proper judgment.

It’s crucial to note that silence is not consent; consent is something that has to be expressed. If someone doesn’t actively agree and engage, then it isn’t true consent. They don’t have to give a verbatim “yes,” but there needs to be some kind of clear communication that they agree. Body language can be used, but “physiological responses like an erection, lubrication, arousal, or orgasm are involuntary,” thus these bodily reactions are not consented to and shouldn’t be treated as such, according to RAINN.

Consent is the bare minimum of what should be expected in a physical relationship. Consent is key to healthy relationships and healthy minds. If there is ever a disagreement or misunderstanding with your partner, talk about it first so that you both are completely informed on each other’s expectations.

(she/her) Madison Thompson is a junior at The University of Missouri- Columbia and has direct admission into the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism School. She is an older sister and loves to read and write. In addition to Journalism, Madison loves creative writing. Madison has a self-published poetry book titled "The Journey". Her Poem Supermarket was a finalist in the 2019 KET writing contest.
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