This year, the theme of World Sexual Health Day is consent. The easiest way to explain consent is the idea that, whatever you are doing, everyone involved has agreed to it, and has all the information available to make that decision for themselves.
What is Consent?
In the most basic sense, this can be as simple as asking “Would you like to have sex?”; a “yes” means you are good to go, but a “no” means you aren’t! However, it’s not always as simple as “yes” and “no”.
A few years ago, a video about Tea and Consent made the rounds on social media, sparking discussions about consent. The idea goes as follows; imagine, instead of initiating sex, you are making someone a cup of tea.
If you ask someone if they would like a cup of tea, and they say yes, then you can make them a cup. If they say no, you wouldn’t force them to drink tea just because you made it, right? And you definitely don’t force-feed tea to someone who is unconscious, even if they said they wanted tea and then fell asleep.
The analogy isn’t perfect – it doesn’t cover impaired consent (if you make tea for someone who is drunk, can you be sure they really wanted that tea?), but as a starting point it covers the basics, and makes for an excellent teaching tool.
The Amnesty website has a fairly comprehensive definition of consent, saying that;
Consent is Given Freely
One core aspect is that consent is a person’s own choice. Someone who is unconscious, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or has any other condition that might affect their ability to think clearly cannot give consent.
Young people who are under the age of consent are considered unable to give consent – the age of consent in the UK is 16 for sexual activity. Similarly, consent cannot be given under coercion, intimidation or pressure. The person needs to be fully able to say yes and reciprocate for consent to be given.
Consent is Informed
The person giving consent needs the full picture to make an informed decision. As with any big decision, people will always want to weigh the risks and benefits of any action. Lying to them, even through omission, means that consent is voided.
Someone who is unable to say no, through being unconscious or under the influence, does not mean consent has been given. Informed consent is key to keeping both you and your partner safe from risks that may come along with sex, including the risk of contracting STDs.
We discussed this aspect of consent in our post on Dating With Herpes, but this applies to all STDs – if you are infected and do not share your status with your partner, they cannot give consent to sex, and in some cases you can be charged with reckless transmission of an STD.
Similarly, pretending to be someone else, or otherwise lying to get sex, can be considered rape by deception – a 2019 case of a man who lied about having a vasectomy resulted in the first UK conviction under this offence.
Consent is Specific
Consenting to one activity does not mean consent to all activities. You may agree to kissing or cuddling, but not to any sexual contact; you may agree to oral sex, but not want penetrative sex. Or, consent to penetrative sex does not mean consent to anal sex.
All things are relative; someone may not be comfortable with certain acts, or simply not wish to engage in them at that time or with you specifically! Just because someone wanted sex with you last night, doesn’t mean you have implied consent the next morning.
When in doubt, stop and ask before moving onto something else! Communicating with your partner is key to ensuring both of you are happy with any given sexual encounter.
Consent is Reversible
Consenting once does not mean an ongoing agreement. Whether that’s not feeling like sex at a given moment, to stopping during sex and not wanting to continue, consent can be withdrawn at any point.
Once again, clear communication is key – aim to create a climate of open, honest conversation around sex and your wants and needs.
Consent is Enthusiastic
Ensure that your partner isn’t unsure, and definitely wants what is being offered. “Grey areas” and uncertainty do not mean consent! Your partner should be vocally or non-verbally showing their consent throughout sex.
How To Talk To Your Partner About Consent
Even in a long-established relationship, consent should be one of the most important aspects of any sexual activity. For the most part, however, partners will settle into knowing each other well enough to not require express or verbal consent for every encounter; that’s fine! So long as both you and your partner are happy with the situation, you shouldn’t have any issues.
But, if you have never explicitly discussed consent with your partner before, it might be worth your while talking about how you both see and approach sex, and reinforcing each of your own consents and needs out of the sex you are having. By having a conversation about consent with your partner, you might even find something you’ve both been wanting to try, but haven’t ever brought up!
For new sexual partners, it can be a bit trickier to broach the subject, but you are in the best position to clearly lay out what you and your partner expect out of your sexual encounters. Another easy learning tool is the idea of the Consent Castle, from the website Everyday Feminism.
Speaking to a new partner about sex is like building a castle with someone. Before you start building, you should talk to them about what they want the castle to be – its purpose, how it’s going to look, what sort of rooms it should have. You’ll also talk about what you don’t want, and what you’re not sure about.
You can discuss your experiences building other things, or other castles you’ve built and what you learned from each one. And once you start building, you don’t just steam on ahead without checking in – seeing if you still like it, if plans need to change, or if you want to add something new.
When you are building something with someone, it can take time – you use scaffolding and hardhats, and communicate to make sure you are on the same page. You take the time to make sure that, once it is built, it is something you’ll both enjoy and can be comfortable in.
Talking about consent with a new partner before engaging in sexual activity can help them feel safe, and can give your relationship a strong base to build from. You can discuss what you would like and what you wouldn’t; talk about previous sexual experiences, both good and bad, to find out what they are looking for.