Consent: What is It, When Does It Count, Why Does It Matter?

In the discussion of sexual assault and rape culture, the topic of consent may be the most important point of all. The dictionary definition of consent is “permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something.” In the context of sexual assault, consent is the specific agreement between individuals to engage in sexual activity; it implies a sincere desire that is freely given, not the product of any kind of coercion or duress, and made with full presence of mind.

Consent is the defining factor in whether or not an assault has taken place. Despite a clear-cut definition, the idea of consent is frequently contested in situations involving alcohol or even social pressures. Consent is essential: It should be continuous and enthusiastic, and it can be revoked at any time for any reason. Until our society begins to adopt a deeper understanding of consent, rape culture will continue to run rampant.


How Does Consent Work?

Consent is communication. It is the backbone of any sexual encounter, and the border between sex and rape. But consent isn’t just about sexual activity, either. Couples consent to hold hands, kiss, or even simply touch. In any relationship, consent is a vital factor in healthy communication, and when it is broken or manipulated, there is never any justification.

In the context of rape culture and the conversation about sexual assault, we often hear the adage of “no means no.” This is an important facet of consent, but the issue is often not as simple as simply saying no. Though every no must be respected, it is equally as important to foster a culture of sincere, continual yeses that have not been made under any sort of duress or the influence of alcohol or drugs.

It’s also vital to remember that consent can be revoked at any time, and consent to one act is not consent to others. One individual may consent to holding hands, but not to kissing, or consent to sexual intercourse one time and not in the future. Even in the middle of a sexual encounter, any party has the right to say they would like to stop or are not comfortable engaging in certain activities, and to violate their wishes in any of these situations is to commit sexual assault.


The Dos and Don’ts of Consent

The key to maintaining consent is to always ask permission and never assume someone’s boundaries. And remember: the absence of a clearly communicated no does not mean yes. Only yes means yes.

A few examples of communicating consent:

Asking, “Is this okay?”
A partner confirming, “I’m ready.”
A partner saying, “I want to __” or “Are you comfortable with __?”

Consent does not look like:

A partner who agrees while intoxicated or incapacitated.
Saying nothing.
A “maybe.”
Saying “yes” after being pressured, blackmailed, or coerced.


It is essential that consent be communicated in every sexual encounter, even if you and your partner have had sex before. Assumptions are not consent, and past communications of consent are not consent in the present. Every healthy relationship should involve discussions of one’s boundaries, and respect of those boundaries. No matter what, everyone has a right to make choices about their own bodies, and no one has a right to your body without your consent.

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