Much of what we learn about consent comes to us through sexual education classes in school as well as from mass media (for example news, TV shows). The central tenet of such lessons is “Guys, no means no! Listen to women”. Often adverts specifically aimed at promoting consent also portray this message.
This is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, it is heteronormative - it limits consent to a purely heterosexual issue by suggesting sexual acts always involve one man and one woman, excluding same-sex partners and other queer people from the cultural and educational conversation about consent. In this way, it also ignores the presence of sexual violence in the queer community.
Secondly, it positions men as the gatekeepers of consent and sets up a power dynamic that undermines consent as an ongoing conversation between two partners. This ignores the vast history of experiences and micro-aggressions that individuals may have internalised.
It also implies that consent is passive: the absence of saying no may mean consent. This is a dangerous view as consent is something that must be actively given by all those partaking in sexual activity and ignores situations where a person may not be in a position to consent, even if they do say yes.
CUSU Women’s Campaign defines consent as the “active and willing participation in sexual activity. It means that all parties have the freedom and capacity to make the choice”.
Consent means enthusiastic participation in sexual activity. It applies in every sexual encounter whether it is a one night stand, a relationship, a fling, a marriage etc and no matter who is involved in the sexual encounter.
Everyone has different boundaries around sexual consent: some people may not want to have penetrative sex and some people's culture or religion may make them unwilling or unable to engage in certain sexual encounters. These boundaries must be discussed as part of an ongoing and informed discussion. It is important to remember that consent to one act does not mean consent to all - consent must be provided by all parties for every sexual act, whether they have previously engaged in that specific act or not.
True consent is enthusiastic consent—a deliberate and thoughtful process which shows “yes, I really want to do this”. It is not something that can be interpreted. It cannot be assumed – regardless of whether you're in a relationship, if you've just been kissing, or no matter who has paid for the date. Checking for consent needs to be an ongoing process, and is the responsibility of both partners. Each person involved equally participates in the process and feels comfortable to make and communicate any choice or feelings without feeling pressured, manipulated, or afraid.
An absence of a "no" DOES NOT mean "yes". If you're not sure, it is always best to ask – it will not “kill the mood”, rather, it demonstrates that you care about the person you’re about to engage with. Passivity does not equal consent - people may become passive or unresponsive in situations where there are power imbalances or if they are uncomfortable.
A partner may give consent because they feel obligated to or because they don’t feel confident enough to speak up. Consent cannot be considered consent if an underlying and unspoken pressure or obligation exists. Similarly, coercion is not the same as consent - consent must be freely given.
Consent need not be verbal; there are many indications and signals that may be used as long as they are mutually agreed and understandable. It is always better to ask, but bear in mind some people may become non-verbal during sexual encounters - they will communicate their consent through actions so listen to these signals.
Informed - all individuals agreeing to the single act in question
Mutual - there is a clear understanding of all individuals about what is being asked for and consented to
Given – freely and actively
Communicated – in words and or actions that are mutually understandable
Retractable – one sexual act does not mean all sexual acts
Willing – agreement does not count as consent if someone is forced
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