Sexual consent

What does sexual consent mean? Do you know how to get consent? And, most importantly, do you know what ISN’T consent? We asked Brook, the sexual health charity, for the lowdown on consent.

consent sign

It's not as complicated as you think.

What does sexual consent MEAN?

Sexual consent is an agreement to any sexual experience – be it touching someone, kissing someone, or having full sex with them.

This includes the sharing of intimate photos and videos. If someone trusts you enough to send you naked photos or videos of themselves, that doesn’t mean you can share them without their consent. That’s illegal.

The law defines consent as:

  • someone agreeing ‘by choice’ to the sexual experience, and
  • having ‘the freedom and capacity to make that choice’

So, if you do something sexual with someone and it wasn’t their choice to participate – or they weren’t in the right mind to make that choice – it’s sexual assault or rape. So, in order to protect yourself, and the person you’re intimate with, it’s really important to know you have consent.

How does this work in the actual moment though?

Confused? We don’t blame you. And it’s great that you’re here and reading this article to try and make sense of it. It shows a really responsible attitude toward sex – GO YOU.

To clear things up, here are some common ‘grey’ areas in sexual consent, that actually aren’t that grey at all.

So, do I have consent if…

We’re in a relationship? Not automatically, no. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been going out, you can never assume the person you’re with is always consenting to sex acts. In fact, most sexual assaults and rapes occur in relationships.

They’re drunk/on drugs? No. Someone must be in a sober and clear state of mind to give consent. Obviously people react to drink and drugs in different ways, and there’s a difference between being tipsy and being off your face. If you’ve only just met someone though, you don’t know what they’re like when wasted, so always be considerate and careful. If in doubt, don’t go there.

They’re under 16 but want to have sex? No, legally they’re considered too young to be able to give consent. Get more detailed advice on our age of consent article here.

They’re unconscious? No. If someone has passed out or asleep, they are unable to give consent. Even if they are your partner.

They’ve been flirting with me? No. Even if you’re 90% sure this person thinks you’re God’s gift and have been flirting or ‘leading you on’. This does not mean they owe you any sex.

They’re wearing a revealing outfit? No. It doesn’t matter what someone is wearing – whether it be a low-cut top, a tiny skirt, or a onesie – it’s no indication of whether they want to have sex or not.

I asked them and they said ‘no’, but after I persisted they said ‘yes’? No. Pressuring, persuading, or coercing someone into saying ‘yes’ is very unhealthy behaviour and does not give you consent even if they give in.

They’ve not said ‘no’ out loud: A lack of a clear no doesn’t mean it’s a clear yes. It’s really common for somebody under sexual pressure to totally freeze up and not feel able to speak. If they don’t seem into it, stop. They don’t have to yell ‘NO’ to make it clear it’s a no.

We’re already kissing? No. Giving consent to one sexual activity does not count as consent for others. If you want to go to the next level, get the conversation going.

They said ‘yes’ then changed their mind halfway through? No. Consent can always be taken back during sex. It isn’t a binding contract. If they stop, you stop. Even if they don’t say ‘stop’ but they seem freaked out, stiff and uncommunicative – stop, and ask they if they’re OK.

I am in a position of power? No. If you are a teacher or lecturer you cannot receive consent from someone under 18. You are a responsible and influential figure, and engaging in a sexual relationship may affect the care given. For more information on this, see our Age of Consent article.

How do I know I have consent then?

It’s really easy – just ask! Alex, who runs Brook’sAsk Brook‘ service, advises seeing consent as a continuous conversation with whoever you’re sleeping with. “It’s nuanced,” she says. “And it can involve some backtracking if not everyone is sure they’re happy about what’s being said or done.”

Also keep in mind someone’s body language too. Do they seem up for this and into this? Or are they freezing up, zoning out, or pushing you off. Georgia, who leads Brook’s work on abuse, violence and exploitation, says: “Body language can be a signifier, but signs can be misread, so it’s always best to check with your partner.”

Keep asking if what you’re doing is ok. For example, “Do you like this?” and “Can I keep touching you there?

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to them about consent, then maybe you’re not ready to be doing sexy stuff with them.

I think I’ve been raped or sexually assaulted

If, through reading this, you’re starting to realise there have been situations where your consent was violated, there is support out there. Read our Was It Rape? or Was it Sexual Assault? articles for more information.

Georgia says: “There is never a ‘bad’ time to tell someone what happened, even if it was weeks, months or years ago.”‘

Whatever you decide to do, remember what happened to you wasn’t your fault. And there is support out there and people and organisations that will believe you.

Use our tool to help find answers for you

Click the play button below to begin or add our bot on Skype.

Next Steps

  • Rape Crisis offers support and advice to victims of rape and sexual assault, no matter how long ago the attack was. 0808 802 99 99
  • Find your nearest Rape Crisis centre here.
  • SurvivorsUK offers advice and support to male victims of rape and sexual assault. Text on 020 3322 1860.
  • Do you want to understand your relationship better? Love Smart helps you work it all out.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By

Updated on 20-Jan-2016

Photo by Shutterstock