A young person outdoors.

Understanding Consent

In the past decade, consent has come to the forefront as a crucial conversation being had in many walks of life. Movements like #MeToo have drawn attention to the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment throughout our culture by allowing survivors to share their stories, but in the wake of an increased awareness, many of us may be uncertain of exactly what consent is supposed to look like and how to talk about it. Many of us know what not to do, but mapping out the right ways to ask can get tricky. Some of us may also be wondering how to talk to children and others in our lives who are still learning about healthy relationships, as we may have not received clear messages on what healthy sexual communication looks like. In this article, we’ll be digging into some of the basics of consent: what is it, what it isn’t, and how to talk about it. 

Defining Consent

Merriam-Webster defines consent as follows: “1. (verb) To give assent or approval; agree . . . 2. (noun) Agreement as to action or opinion”. It’s pertinent here to notice that consent can be both a verb and a noun: it’s something that you can give and also something that you can do. This is relevant when talking about sexual consent, as it’s not only important that each person actively consents to the action, but also that each person receives consent from their partner. 

There are many important elements to consent. First and foremost, consent must be understood as a clear, verbal “yes”. Consent is the presence of a “yes”, not the absence of a “no”. This touches upon the idea of consent as a noun - you must be given the verbal yes before you can proceed with the action. However, while the clearly communicated “yes” is the most crucial component, there are several other factors that can impact whether or not consent is present. Other factors impacting consent include:

  • Coercion: If a person feels that they are being pressured, be it physically or emotionally, to consent to an activity, then that “yes” is not valid. The person should be consenting on their own accord.
  • State of Mind: Substance use can impact one’s decision-making abilities. If someone is not able to make clear decisions, then they cannot give consent to sexual activity. A person also cannot give consent if they are unconscious. 
  • Development: One’s age and development impact their ability to give consent. In regards to legal definitions of consent, a person below the “age of consent” cannot consent to sexual activity. In Illinois, the age of consent is 17. 
  • Understanding: Everyone involved needs to have a mutual understanding for consent to be present. Each person should be aware of what is happening and what is being communicated. 

A helpful (and tasty) acronym to remember when discussing consent is FRIES!

Freely given

Asking for Consent

Now that we’ve defined consent, it’s time to actually talk about what it looks like out in the wild. Many of us are aware of the importance of consent, but where many struggle the most is on how to actually ask for consent. It’s no shocker that we don’t know how to ask - it’s not something that we’re told about typically. A survey conducted by Planned Parenthood through the University of Chicago revealed that despite the majority of people indicating that how to ask for consent should be included in middle school and high school sex education programs, only 14% and 21% were taught about how to ask for consent in middle school and high school, respectively. We aren’t learning about consent at home, either: only 19% of adults reported having been taught by their parents about how to ask for consent. 

Because consent is reversible, it’s important to start off by saying that sex is a conversation before, during, and after. It’s important to get consent beforehand, to check-in with our partners and ask before starting any new activity, and to reflect afterward on how we feel and what we may want going forward. 

Some examples of questions to ask:

  • Before: Do you want to ____ ? What do you want to do tonight? How do you feel about ____?
  • During: Can I ____? What do you want to do right now? Can I take off ____?
  • After: How did you like ____? Can we do ____ again? 

When filling in the “blanks”, it’s important to be specific. It can be uncomfortable at first to overtly say “Can I kiss you?” or “Do you want to have sex?”, but the more specific we can be, the more we can assure mutual understanding. Because most of us haven’t been taught much about sexual communication, there can be a lot of embarrassment around these sorts of conversations. The best way to get used to direct communication around sex is to practice it. The more you flex your sexual communication muscles, the easier it will become to talk about sex. 

One of the most critical pieces of asking for consent isn’t in how you ask the question but rather in how you respond to the answer. If someone says yes and it checks all the FRIES boxes, then great! Have a wonderful time! But, if someone says no, there are a few things to be mindful of in how you respond. When you ask for consent, you should always be ready to receive a “no” response. As sexual partners, the way that we respond to a no can impact the comfort and safety we build in our relationships. A respectful response can increase that safety, while a negative response can make the relationship less secure. 

When someone says they don’t consent:

  • DON’T keep asking. Pestering someone by asking repeatedly is a form of coercion. You’re trying to force them into giving you the answer you want as opposed to respecting their initial response.
  • DON’T try to “convince” them. It’s not your job to try to sell your pitch on why you should have sex. The other person knows why they’re saying no. 
  • DON’T “punish” the no. Don’t try to make someone feel bad or guilty. That could be by directly communicating that they’ve upset you or by indirectly acting in a way to show that you’re upset with them. While it’s normal to feel disappointed, it can create pressure to say yes when we treat people poorly after they say no.

To show respect, it can be as simple as acknowledging their response and then going on with whatever you were doing before. If you were sitting on the couch watching a movie, continue with the movie. Go back to playing video games. Move on to another point of conversation. Normalize the “no” as a suitable answer that doesn’t need to be a point of contention or persisting conversation. 

Conclusion & Further Reading

Consent is a necessary component of healthy sexual relationships. While many of us recognize the importance of consent, it can be hard for us to conceptualize what it’s supposed to look like. The best way that we can get used to asking for consent is through practice and continuing to talk about it. When we talk about consent, it’s important to realize the important role education plays in our sexual relationships. Sex education can be the game changer that leads to healthier relationships, which is why it’s important for us all to support efforts towards increasing quality sex education in our schools and communities. 

To educate yourself further on consent and sexual health, check out some of these resources: