December 7, 2023 Dec 07, 2023 9 min read
Consent is an infamously difficult term to define. The subject of many political and legal debates, consent – especially sexual consent – is important to understand yet complicated to grasp.
For many of us, we may know what consent feels like in our bodies, but talking about it may feel challenging or even scary. But answering the question “what is consent?” is an important part of building healthy boundaries and relationships.
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In this article, we’ll go over some of the most basic definitions of consent to help you understand what is (and what is not) consent. Then, we’ll dive into some of the practical ways consent can be applied in our lives.
Before we dive into a deeper discussion of consent, let’s outline some of the basic definitions.
When it comes to sex, consent is usually defined as a verbal, conscious, informed, and unambiguous agreement between people to engage in sexual activity. Consent is rooted in clear communication and happens between people who are fully awake and clear-headed. For consent to be authentic, all people involved should hold a similar degree of power in the relationship and must be of legal consenting age.
Answering the question, “What is consent?” also means looking at some examples of what definitely isn’t consent. First off, consent is always freely and willingly given. It is never manipulated, coerced, persuaded, obliged, or forced. Sex that happens as a result of manipulation, coercion, or force is sexual assault.
Some common examples of nonconsensual sex include…
In the situations listed above, it’s possible that the person being manipulated may at some point say “yes” to the sexual encounter. However, this does not mean that the encounter was consensual. A “yes” that follows manipulation, persuasion, or coercion is not consent.
It’s also worth noting that manipulation and coercion don’t always look the way we might expect. Unequal power dynamics and social pressure can lead to nonconsensual sex as well. A common example of this is having sex with a student, trainee, mentee, employee, or someone else you have power over.
Finally, while it should go without saying, anyone below the age of consent is not capable of consenting to sexual activity with an adult.
Now that we understand the basics, let’s dive a little deeper…
At its most basic level, consent is a form of permission. The Oxford English Dictionary defines consent as “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.” As a verb, the act of consenting is the act of “giving permission for something to happen.” In other words, we consent to someone else doing something with our permission.
So, consent in the context of sex is technically the permission one person gives another person to engage with them sexually. But this is an outdated and stale way of thinking about sexual consent, and it doesn’t get us very far in forming truly consensual relationships with our partners. After all, sex isn’t something that one person does to another person – sex is collaborative, reciprocal, and relational. Our conversations about consent should reflect that.
Most conversations on this topic tend to talk about consent as an object – it’s something you either have or don’t have, something you give or are given. But thinking about consent this way actually causes more harm than good, because consent is not an object.
When we think about consent as an object to be acquired, it paves the way for situations in which one person thinks all they need to do is “get a yes” from another person to feel justified in having sex with them. But this is dangerous and false.
Instead, it’s best to think of consent as a process. Consent is something that we do together, not something we simply give or receive. The process of consent requires active participation by all people involved. Engaging in consent as a collaborative activity leaves less room for miscommunication and harm, allowing us to create truly reciprocal and desirable relationships with our partners.
Some ways to make consent more active and collaborative include…
This depends. In some places, the law may dictate that a person under the influence of drugs or alcohol cannot legally consent to sexual activity. However, in most places, this question falls into a gray area. For example, under Canadian law, a person under the influence of alcohol can still consent to sexual activity as long as they have the mental capacity to do so. Demonstrating this, however, becomes complicated in a court of law.
Outside of a legal context, this discussion becomes even more complicated. Drugs and alcohol severely loosen our inhibitions, even in small quantities, meaning we’re more likely to engage in behaviors while high or intoxicated that we wouldn’t otherwise. So, consent given while under the influence isn’t as meaningful as consent given while sober.
However, many people engage in enjoyable, collaborative sex while slightly intoxicated without violating the boundaries of consent. It is up to each person to carefully decide for themselves what their boundaries are around sex under the influence. That said, if someone is intoxicated to the point where they can’t stand up or walk straight, are slurring their speech, experiencing blurred vision, etc., they are not capable of engaging in the process of consent.
To increase your chances of having sex you actually want to have while drunk or high, have a conversation about consent with your partner before you start drinking and limit the amount you consume overall. It’s also a good idea to avoid drinking or using drugs on first dates or in environments you’re unfamiliar with.
In most cases, yes. In order to check the “unambiguous” box, consent should involve a verbal component. This is especially true if the people navigating consent don’t know each other well.
However, there are certain cases in which partners with a well-established sexual dynamic can engage in consensual sexual activity without verbally acknowledging their consent. In this respect, not all sex that skips over the verbal consent step is nonconsensual.
That said, consent should still be unambiguous regardless of whether or not there is a verbal component. If there’s any doubt whether someone is engaging in a sexual interaction willingly, this should be discussed and clarified verbally before moving forward – regardless of how well the participants know one another.
Yes! Consent is fluid and can be revoked at any time. Saying “yes” at the beginning of a sexual interaction, or expressing interest in one phase of a sexual experience, does not mean you must consent to the entirety of the interaction. You can also say “yes” and then change your mind at any point or for any reason. This is why it’s so important to not think about consent as an object – your consent is not something that another person can possess. You are always in control of your own consent boundaries.
Consent is a complex topic, but hopefully this article got us a little closer to answering the question, “What is consent?” once and for all. While some definitions portray consent as a simple agreement, participating in meaningful and authentic consent requires ongoing dialogue, care, and presence.
Put simply, consent is a verbal, conscious, informed, and unambiguous agreement between people to engage in sexual activity. However, consent in practice is more complex than one agreement or conversation. While consent is most often talked about as an object (something we either have or don’t have), it’s more helpful to think of it as a process (something we do together). Authentic consent is a necessary prerequisite to all consensual sexual activity. Any and all sex that happens as a result of pressure, manipulation, persuasion, coercion, obligation, or force is not consensual and can therefore be defined as sexual assault.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.