In consensual sexual experiences, both (or all) partners are able to openly talk about and agree on what kind of activity they want to engage in. Whether it’s holding hands, kissing, touching, intercourse, or anything else, it’s really important for everyone participating to feel comfortable with what’s happening. You may have heard the phrase “no means no.” That’s totally true, but it doesn’t really provide a complete picture of consent, because it puts the responsibility on one person to resist or accept an activity. It also makes consent about what someone doesn’t want to do, instead of being about openly expressing what they do want to do.*
How is consent defined?
Under UMKC policy, consent to sexual activity is knowing and voluntary.
What are the factors considered when the presence of consent is questioned?
- All involved persons must enter into a conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.
- It is the responsibility of each person to ensure they have the consent of all others engaged in the sexual activity.
- Consent must be obtained at the time of the specific activity.
- Consent can be withdrawn at any time.
- Consent, lack of consent, or withdrawal of consent may be communicated by words or non-verbal acts.
- Silence or absence of resistance does not establish consent.
- Someone who is incapacitated cannot consent. For more info, visit Does This Count? Incapacitation (link)
- Each person must have met the legal age of consent.
- The existence of a dating relationship or past sexual relations between those involved should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.
- Consent to one form of sexual activity does not mean consent to other forms of sexual activity.
- Consent to engage in sexual activity with one person does not imply consent to engage in sexual activity with another.
- Coercion and force, or threat of either, makes any apparent consent invalid.
So, what does this all mean?
Consent means two people (or more) deciding together to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same way, with those involved.
It means that you can’t make assumptions about what your partner(s) does or does not want.
It means that without clear communication, there is no permission to touch someone in a sexual manner.
It means that everyone feels like they’re making their own choice, rather than someone else making if for them.
It means that consent given at another point in time is invalid in the moments just prior to the sexual activity; consent must be revisited and given consciously and voluntarily in the moment.
It means that silence or the lack of action to deter or prevent sexual activity do not equal consent.
It means that consent can be communicated through words (“yes means yes”) or actions (engaging in the contact without force or coercion).
It means that any person participating in sexual activity can change their mind at any time, withdrawing consent.
It means the withdrawal of consent can be communicated by words or by body language and physical actions.
It means that someone who has become incapacitated (link) due to alcohol, drugs, sleep, unconsciousness, disability, or illness cannot consent.
It means that the people engaging in sexual activity must be old enough under the law to give consent.
It means that consent to one sex act, such as kissing or touching, does not equal consent to another sex act, like oral sex or intercourse.
It means that consent to one type of intercourse does not equal consent to another type of intercourse, like vaginal sex and anal sex.
It means that consent to participate in sexual activity with one person does not mean consent to participate with others.
It means consent is not valid when a person uses coercion or force, or threats of coercion or force, to obtain consent.
It means that if someone says “yes” because they are too afraid to say “no,” they’re not giving voluntary consent.
How do I get consent without being awkward?
You must be willing to communicate with your partner(s). Let’s face it – if you can’t communicate about what you want or what they want, maybe you shouldn’t be engaging in sexual activity. We need to stop thinking of sexual encounters as silent movies where things just work out without anyone talking about it. Done well, asking for consent can be incredibly sexy.
Here are some ideas:
- Be direct by naming or describing the act clearly – “Can I kiss you?”
- Ask your partner(s) what they prefer: “What do you want to do?”
- Ask open-ended questions as a way of starting an ongoing dialogue about what you each want.
- Create space for your partner(s) to respond, and give them a legit option to say if, when, and how they want to do something.
- Talk about boundaries beforehand, including wants and limits – this can be much more natural than in-the-moment discussions.
- Frequently check in with your partner(s) to ensure you are on the same page – this signals respect.
- Set clear expectations and boundaries, knowing that these can change at any time during a sexual act or encounter.
- No means No. If you do get a “no,” accept it the first time. Don’t proceed or pressure your partner(s). Remember, they are declining the sex act, not you personally. Be glad they trusted you enough to tell you what they really want (or don’t).
- Try these questions: “Can I kiss/touch/_____ you?” or “Do you want to have sex?” or “Are you comfortable with _____?” or “Do you want me to _____?” or “Will you do _____ to me?” or “It turns me on when _____. How do you feel about that?”
You can also obtain consent by “asking” with non-verbal body language, as long as you are aware that oftentimes, non-verbals are much less clear than using words to obtain consent.
If you’re someone that takes the route of a non-verbal ask, try these options:
- Using direct eye contact to indicate interest in a sexual activity (along with, “How about we _____?”)
- Gesturing toward an area of your partner’s body (asking, “Do you wanna _____?”)
- Moving your partner’s hand toward an area of your body (but prior to any touch, saying “I’d really like it if you _____. Is that cool?”)
Okay, so let’s be real. Non-verbal body language does not always ensure consent, unless it’s coupled with verbal communication. Relying only on nonverbal cues during sexual activity is pretty sketchy, and the stakes are too high to be wrong. You want clear consent from your partner, so be as clear as possible in seeking agreement before every sexual act.
How do I know when I have consent?
The other half of asking for consent is “listening” for the answer.
|Consent May Sound Like||Not|
|I’m sure||I don’t know|
|Don’t stop||Stop, quit, get off me, get out of there|
|I want to||I want to, but…|
|I’m good||I’m worried|
|I want you/it||I’m not into it/that’s not cool|
|I’m good||I don’t want to do this anymore|
|Keep going/doing that||That hurts|
|I am so into you/it||This feels wrong|
|Let’s do it now||I want to do this, but not right now|
|I’m so into you/it||I don’t know how I feel about this|
|Consent May Look Like||Not|
|Direct eye contact||Avoiding eye contacting or looking away|
|Initiating sexual acts||No initiation of any sexual activity|
|Pulling someone closer||Pushing someone away|
|Actively touching someone||Avoiding touch or moving away|
|Nodding yes||Shaking head no|
|Laughter or smiling||Crying, looking sad/fearful|
|Open body language – relaxed||Closed body language – stiff, tense|
|Sounds of enjoyment||Silence|
|Active movement||Freezing or “just lying there”|
If you’re not 100 percent confident that everyone agrees to what is happening – then stop, check in, and respect your partner’s decisions.
I want to learn more, but I’m not into “training.”
You have lots of options – just Google “what is consent” and millions of results will pop up. However, that can be overwhelming, so if you’d rather take a look at a few resources that we’d recommend, check out those listed below. Some infuse humor, others are more serious, a few have strong language and explicit content – but they all help us understand what consent is (and isn’t).
- Get consent. Ask. Listen. Respect (link) by Concordia University
- Tea Consent (link) – Blue Seat Studios
- hashtag NYU’s Let’s Talk About Consent (link) – NYU students and alumni
- If We Treated Things Like We Treat People During Sex (link) – As/Is
- Consent (with a sandwich) (link) – Leicestershire County Council
- Sex educator Laci Green’s video Wanna Have Sex? (Consent 101) (link)
- Enthusiastic Consent! (link) – Blue Seat Studios
- Can I Wear Your Hat? (link) – thewellvcu
- Sexual Consent 101 (link) – Hannah Witton
- How Do You Ask For Consent? (link) – As/Is
- What is Consent? (link) – Rise Above
- How Do You Know if Someone Wants to Have Sex with You? (link) – Planned Parenthood
- LoveIsRespect.org’s What is Consent? Healthy Relationships (link)
- American Sexual Health Association’s Understanding Consent (link)
- AVERT’s Sexual Consent (link)
- Brook’s Consent Myths and Facts (link)
- Swell’s How to Master Affirmative Consent (It’s Hot, We Promise) (link)
When thinking about consent, remember:
Conscious knowledge that the act is taking place is a must
Ongoing, enthusiastic participation by all partners
Need to listen, pay attention to reactions, accept decisions, and respect all partners
Sexual activity while drunk or high is not necessarily non-consensual – incapacitation (link) negates consent
Ensure consent for specific sex acts in the moment with each partner
No use of force or coercion (or threats of either) or unreasonable influence or pressure
Talking through wants, needs, ideas, possibilities, and comfort levels prior to sexual activity is a great way to understand your partners
Finally – it is your responsibility to check in, ask, and make sure your partner is okay with what’s happening. At the same time, it is your partner’s responsibility to do the same with you.
*Adapted from LoveIsRespect.org