Consent: Discussing its Importance and Ambiguity

A few weeks ago I contributed to the RLA post, Our Struggle is Real. My story discussed a negative experience I had related to the topic of consent. But the topic itself deserves further attention than my own personal account. I hope that this post will start a conversation where we can collectively begin to discuss the topic of consent, in all its importance and ambiguity.

Recently the idea of consent has sparked my interest and I have been trying to discuss and look into the topic further. Gaining a better understanding of consent has helped me to identify my past experiences and accept them for what they were. It has also forced me to look at myself and my own ability to ask for and respect the consent of others. I am mostly interested in the intense gray area that exists in its definition. I am believing more and more that not understanding consent is a contributer to rape culture and many cases of sexual assault. Better understanding it is important to helping prevent future cases of unwanted sexual activity.

BUT before we start discussing consent, let’s break it down a bit:

Statistics show that approximately 2 of every 3 of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim (RAINN.org.). This, to me, shows how important it is to talk about consent with everyone, which goes along with a previous discussion in an RLA article about rape culture. In this article we discussed the importance teaching men not to rape, rather than solely teaching women how to avoid rape. If perpetrators had better understood the significance of consent, both what it is and how to appropriately gain it, I wonder if these statistics would be so high.

The fact is that the majority of sexual assault victims are women, but that does NOT mean that men do not deserve to be asked for their consent as well. It also does not exclude the fact that consenting queer sexual activity needs to be discussed too. A lot of times we have double standards for different groups of people but we are all responsible for gaining the consent of our partner(s).

I firmly believe that it is most effective to introduced and required this discussion at a younger age, as part of education. Statistics show that approximately 18.3 % of women in the United States have survived a completed or attempted rape. Thats nearly 1/5 women! Additionally, 12.3% of these women were younger than age 12 when they were first raped, and 29.9% were between the ages of 11 and 17 (National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010). This is also assuming that these statistics are accurate, most believe them to be much higher. This is a sad truth, but it shows that these discussions need to start at a very young age.

Better understanding consent can help to avoid sexual assault, especially in cases where the perpetrator was never taught to understand consent. This discussion could also help victims to better identify if they have experienced sexual assault and allow them take the necessary actions to report it and to heal.

Below are some facts and information gathered from the sources listed at the bottom of the page. They should be useful in legally defining consent, and also addressing its ambiguity.

CONSENT IS

  • A voluntary, sober, imaginative, enthusiastic, creative, wanted, informed, mutual, honest, and verbal agreement
  • Consent cannot legally be given by someone who is intoxicated
  • An active agreement: Consent cannot be coerced
  • A process, which must be asked for every step of the way; if you want to move to the next level of sexual intimacy, just ask
  • Consent is never implied and cannot be assumed, even in the context of a relationship–just because you are in a relationship does not mean that you have permission to have sex with your partner(s)
  • Consent is about confident, open, real communication. And, respecting boundaries

The fact is:

  • Once a person says “no” it does not matter if or what kind of sexual behavior has happened previously in the current event, early that day, or daily for the previous six months. It does not matter if it is a current long-term relationship, a broken relationship, or marriage. If one partner says, “NO,” and the other forces penetration it is rape.

Circumstances in which a person, CANNOT, by law, give consent (no matter what they might verbalize):

  • The person is severely intoxicated or unconscious as a result of alcohol or drugs
  • The person is mentally disabled
  • In each state there are different laws addressing age limits in which a person can and cannot legally give consent

Non Verbal Communication (perhaps the greatest gray area of consent):

  • This is something for you to explore with your partner
    • Examples: Some lovers want to be asked every step, every time. Some make spoken consent a rule for the first few times, and once they’ve developed a trust and understanding – then relax into something more unspoken, more intuitive
  • Whatever you decide – be gentle, go slowly. Particularly the first few times, until you know each other better. Be present and be sensitive. Never force anything. Be awake to small signals – if you notice that your partner might be tensing and resisting – then stop and relax
  • Accept that things change – what you or your partner(s) wanted before may not be what is wanted now
  • Remember – sex is making love – it should always be loving

The Perks of Consent:

  • Asking for and obtaining consent shows that you have respect for both yourself and your partner(s)
  • Enhances communication and honesty, which make sex and relationships better
  • Gives partners the ability to know and be able to communicate the type of sexual relationship they desire
  • Can open conversations to discuss how to protect yourself and your partner against STIs and pregnancy
  • Helps to identify your personal beliefs and values and respecting others personal beliefs and values
  • Builds confidence and self-esteem
  • Challenges stereotypes that rape is a women’s issue
  • Challenges sexism and traditional views on gender and sexuality
  • Promotes positive views on sex and sexuality –it is empowering
  • Eliminates the entitlement that a partner might feel over another
  • Sex is always sexiest when ALL partners desire it – without any feelings of pressure, intimidation or fear

The Consequences of not asking for consent:

  • If you do not ask for consent, you are at risk of doing something the other person doesn’t want you to do. You might significantly disrespect and hurt someone. You are also at risk of breaking the law and facing criminal charges
  • Touching someone’s – breasts, genitals or buttocks – without consent is sexual assault. So is making someone touch you. Any form of sexual activity with another person without their consent is sexual assault
  • If you don’t have consent then you could go to prison for assault

I know, it’s A LOT of information. You may be gritting your teeth at this point, wondering if you have sought consent every time you have engaged in sexual activity. As I stated earlier though, throughout this exploration I have been reflecting on my own ability to seek consent in the past and my hopes to improve in the future. I have also been reflecting on situations that I have been in where I did not feel I was given an opportunity to consent. Better understanding this topic has helped me to identify the violence that has occurred in my own life, and from there, I can work to heal.

Being aware of our own struggles with asking for consent is important for us all to reflect on. It is a touchy subject and talking and thinking about it may bring forward a lot of guilt or pain. It is important to address these feelings so that we can work as a community to better avoid them in the future. I hope that we can use this space to start a conversation on the topic.

Some follow up questions to write about/think about/talk about:

How do you ask for consent? How do you give consent?

Do you assume consent? How you can allow your partner an opportunity to say YES, rather than assume a yes and wait for a NO.

What aspects of consent are difficult for you to grasp? How can deal with that in the future?

Some Resources:

US Department of Health and Human Services: Consent age laws in each state

Consent is Sexy

Article: UN-MEMORIZING THE “SILENCE IS SEXY” DATE SCRIPT

Vassar College: Sexual Assault Violence Prevention

University of North Carolina, Asheville: Health and Counseling Center

More information on sexual assault and sign a petition:

Make Anti-Rape Culture and Consent Training a Requirement in Sex Education

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13 thoughts on “Consent: Discussing its Importance and Ambiguity

  1. Ami says:

    FYI, you’re using the word detrimental incorrectly – it actually means harmful, which is pretty much the opposite of the way you’re using it in this piece. Just thought I’d point it out because it makes reading this quite confusing.

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  2. Thanks Jenna! Great piece discussing consent. I think everyone needs to know and understand this for our own health and happiness. It’s very hard especially in high school and college, as well as everywhere when alcohol is involved. It’s not as if people are going to rid themselves from being intimate when they have had drinks but the fact is that many times it’s one person who is much more intoxicated. Often times the woman. I think talking about rape for men and women can be uncomfortable because many of us have in our head that rape is this super violent act, that is done by strangers and only the worst members of society perform it (sometimes, not always)– however, many see not having clear consent as rape — which freaks many people out. What I hope is for men and women to not blame feminists and their crazy ideals .. but to reconsider what it means to gain consent, and realize that it shouldn’t be out of the norm to understand what your partner wants or doesn’t want. Many of us, I believe wouldn’t consider it rape — instead we would call the girl ‘easy’, because she couldn’t make up her mind or was acting without inhibitions — and sometimes that’s fine, and sometimes it leaves people feeling lots of regret and sadness, which shouldn’t be paired with sexuality. If we all promised to not have sex without clear consent, rape, sexual assault, and that confusing ‘grey area’ (that I still struggle with understanding as well) between rape and non-consensual sex numbers would drop!

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    • epsiegel says:

      Yeah, the addition of alcohol is a really complicated and confusing element of consent for me, and also for a lot of my male friends that I’ve spoken with about issues of rape and sexual assault. My school has been going through a big, public struggle about these issues, which has led to a lot of these conversations. And when we talk, the addition of alcohol almost always comes out because these are men who under no circumstances want to sexually assault or rape someone, but are confused as to how they can navigate through bars or parties where both individuals are drinking. They know that technically no consent can be given under the influence of alcohol, but what if both parties are drunk? And how can you determine if consent is given, if its being enthusiastically given, but either person has been drinking? In all honesty, these are questions that I’m still struggling to figure out. I do know that there are thresholds, such as if one person is clearly intoxicated and is struggling either physically or cognitively, but that’s not a very good measure. I know that we say that any alcohol or drugs negates consent, but I wish we could figure out better guidelines for situations involving either substance, because we all know that many people are interested in sexual activity when drinking, and I wish we could make it healthier and safer through more clear and practical guidelines.

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  3. Kinga Gabrielson says:

    Good point Elena, I think it’s tricky too with encounters such as bar culture or parties. If people have been involved for a while it makes more sense sometimes that they would do so even if they were intoxicated — but this can become confusing if someone thinks that they are entitled to something.. I think that another issue is that while we feel confused about the grey area, we should perhaps open up conversation with that with our partners and have the ability to say, “hey, I wasn’t okay with what happened the other night, in the future I want to avoid that situation and this is how I’m going to do that.” Because often times, when I’ve heard stories about people feeling violated they don’t believe they were raped but they would like to not have that happen again or for that person to know that that isn’t okay, for future relations or whichever! Even small steps like that (which may only work for people previously involved) could perhaps clear up consent, because I know that while some people may feel they were taken advantage of, many people also feel fine about doing something drunk — and because sexuality, boundaries, and stories are often unspoken, we are limiting ourselves from having a really clear idea of what’s okay and what’s not — and that differs with every person.

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  4. lexismanzara says:

    Great article Jenna! I’m so glad these conversations are being started and I love what has been said so far. I especially liked that you put reflective questions – I just read an article about the value of reflecting on and learning from your own experiences. But specifically because I almost subconsciously dismissed the idea of thinking back to whether I ask for consent just because I’m a woman. Of course men may feel pressured to have sex especially because of the social norm that men always want to and it’s the woman’s responsibility to say no. Also, we shouldn’t overlook the whole range of things beside just sex that should require consent.

    A second thing that adds to the grey area is perceived obligation. Jenna you made a good point that it is important not to assume consent because of what has been done in the past or that they may be in a relationship. The reason why this is so tricky is because I would bet that a lot of people may verbally give consent even when they don’t want to. One example is that women (and men) are many times expected to return favors for food, drinks etc. and feel a real sense of obligation. Also, in relationships there is often at least some expectation for sex and they may feel obligated to have sex and might give consent regardless of whether they want to or not. I don’t believe this would be considered rape, but it really highlight the importance of open communication and paying attention to body language.

    Last thing – Kinga I like the idea of taking small steps and that even if the event has passed it’s still a good idea to bring it up with the person. and Elena we really do neen better guidelines rather that any alcohol is no consent!

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  5. Kinga Gabrielson says:

    I agree Lexis! It’s not fair or realistic in my eyes to say that no consent can be given with alcohol. That was my college’s rule too, perhaps to air on the side of understanding the victim, and also in a weird way knowing that many times people have sex when they are drinking and if the person feels taken advantage of enough to come forward, she should be believed..? I don’t know.. I have mixed emotions with that.. what I’m trying to say though is that I agree that there should be more clear lines, I guess I just always hope that the world will have enough people that understand what’s too far… but that’s wishful thinking. I was recently watching a movie where a guy and a girl were having sex for the first time and he kept saying, we don’t have to do this. and I thought, wow, that’s so nice to be said, and really putting it in her own hands — because the truth is that we can wait. I feel that sex has become something to be acquired in Patriarchial culture, and when it has that connotation the sense that you’re ‘sharing’ or ‘engaging’ in an act together, is lost. (Like the saying ‘I fucked her’ instead of we had sex. <– laaanguage, woah.) I am really interested in this conversation because it's something I've thought about a lot in school and with friends where I'm surrounded by some feminists who often do agree that consent can't be given with alcohol and I think, well, too bad. It is, and it isn't. Sometimes it's fine and sometimes it's not but it's not realistic to believe that people will avoid that when drinking. I don't want to say that consent can't be given with any amount of alcohol because then I would want to believe that it was always rape and that I can't do. I find myself stuck in that grey area where I think, okay, she or he was drunk or both, but it wasn't rape… but if it's normal to be having sexual activity without consent, then it's normal to be engaging in that without full conscious decision which is damaging to so many people, and ALL OF THAT IS NORMALIZING RAPE CULTURE, and making only extreme violent public acts of rape visible (and still kind of dismissing them..) which ignores all the everyday sexism that is prevelant in our culture, which leads women to feel bad about sexuality, feel taken advantage of, and overall much less respected when it comes to sex. AND THAT'S MY RANT.

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  6. jennavagts says:

    I agree with a lot of what is being said. We can’t just tell people not to had sex under any influence of alcohol, but I also don’t know if we will ever be able to clearly define consent when substances are involved. I do think it is most important to predetermine what you need to feel that your consent was given, weather intoxicated or not. AND you have to know what your partner needs to feel comfortable and consented. I think it is about self awareness and communication with your partner or partners. Ultimately I feel like it HAS to be thought about, reflected on, and discussed more openly!!

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  7. leon says:

    ‘Thank you for this blog. That’s all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something thats eye opening and important. You clearly know so much about the subject, youve covered so many bases. Great stuff from this part of the internet. Again, thank you for this blog.”

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  8. Jenna says:

    Do you mean find out more on consent or just from the blog in general?

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  9. Artanya says:

    Does consent strictly have to be verbal in every situation? It seems a little unrealistic to expect all sexual communication to be 100% verbal, 100% of the time. Asking first for sex is reasonable. It takes all of 5-10 seconds and makes sense as the best way to protect your partner and yourself, but asking prior to every little kiss or touch is a bit much. Particularly in long-term relationships where there are established boundaries and patterns of interaction.

    Verbal communication doesn’t remove all ambiguity either. As even if someone asks for permission, there may still be a miscommunication regarding what exact behaviors the person was asking for. For example, let’s say a man asks a woman if she would like to make-out, and the woman says yes. The two then begin kissing, and the man places his hand on the woman’s buttocks. The woman startles and quickly tells the man to stop, and the man complies. The woman then asks what the man thinks he’s doing, and the man is stunned. “You said you wanted to make-out,” he says. “I didn’t say you could touch my butt,” the woman responds. “Isn’t that a part of making-out?” asks the man.

    In that situation there was a miscommunication over what specific behaviors fall under the heading of “making-out.” In the man’s mind “making-out” means kissing as well as some low-level over the clothes touching. In the woman’s mind, “making out” only refers to a type of kissing. So who’s right? Should that man be punished in some way? Perhaps even arrested and charged with a sex crime? This is just one example. There are countless others in which two people may have slightly different ideas about what specific behaviors are referred to by certain words. Even “Want to have sex?” is not perfectly unambiguous. Indeed, no communication is ever completely unambiguous.

    The only way to try and avoid such miscommunications would be to be mind-numbingly explicit. “May I now place my left hand upon your right breast and gently squeeze it for a short period of time? May I now move my other hand to your other breast and repeat the same squeezing action?,” etc. Even then, miscommunications would still be possible. As they may have different ideas about what “gently squeeze” or “short period of time” means. There’s really no way to make consent 100% miscommunication-proof.

    How should these questions best be addressed?

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    • Jenna says:

      That’s a really good point, Artanya! I know that I for one do not have all the answers to miscommunications around sex and consent. However, I do think it is important to understand your own limits and the limits of your partner in order to be more aware of what sexual activity is wanted and unwanted. Having an initial discussion about it might be helpful and then multiple follow up discussions to see how the each other is feeling. But in general I don’t know of a way to have fully unambiguous communication surrounding sexual activity.

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