A loving lesbian couple sit on a bed embracing and smiling each other; photo via filadendron/Canva.
Health + Wellness

Important Conversations: What You Need To Understand About Consent

Giving or receiving consent to sexual activity involves much more than a verbal or non-verbal cue; the circumstances leading up to how and why consent is being provided, as well as what is being done to maintain it, are hugely significant — and it needs to be discussed more openly.

Content Warning: This article discusses the topic of consent, which may include sensitive and triggering issues related to sexual activity, sexual assault, abuse, and harassment. Please take care while reading and prioritize your own well-being.

Consenting to sexual activity is one of the most essential boundaries we have. Deeply rooted in bodily autonomy, everyone possesses the fundamental right to assert, protect and maintain control over what happens to their bodies. Choosing when, how, with whom and for how long sexual activity takes place, consent underpins personal freedom, power, dignity and individuality. As consent plays a critical role in our lives, especially with regards to intimacy with others; it must always be fully informed and without coercion or external influence when given. Everyone has the right to approve or withhold their consent in any situation that requires it.  


There is no way around understanding consent without having exploratory and candid conversations with ourselves and the people around us (particularly the ones we’re likely to be intimate with). It doesn’t matter if we’re in a casual or committed relationship, trying things out with someone we trust or satisfying our needs with hook ups; making sure we’re in agreement when it comes to these types of personal boundaries is central to healthy, appropriate and fulfilling sexual relationships

What Is Consent?

As mentioned before, permission given for sexual contact involves far more layers of detail and nuance than simply relying on someone saying ‘yes’ or providing non-verbal signals of affirmation. Engaging in specific sexual activities like kissing, genital touching, oral sex, and vaginal or anal penetration must always be centered around a voluntary, enthusiastic and ongoing desire to participate — but there is more to it than that.

Establishing awareness and creating opportunities for more extensive discussions about what to establish before entering into a sexual situation are key to embracing our autonomy and sexual health. Here is what you need to know about consent:

Transparent and Unequivocal

Consent is a clear, unambiguous agreement given with full, unimpaired knowledge and understanding. Both verbal and non-verbal cues that express approval should not be left to interpretation; they must be carefully defined and understood by all involved.

Coherent and Informed

People are incapable of consenting if understanding the nature and implications of a sexual encounter are restricted in any way. If they cannot fully comprehend the facts of the situation, their ability to consent is insufficient or compromised. This can include:

  • Being drunk and/or on drugs.
  • Being asleep or unconscious.
  • Experiencing a medical or mental health emergency.
  • Cognitive or intellectual disabilities.
  • Being too young or immature.

Freely Given and Enthusiastic

Consent must never involve manipulation, pressure or coercion. This can include:

  • Verbal threats, physical violence, bullying or ridicule.
  • Guilt or persistent requests designed to wear someone down.
  • Taking advantage of vulnerabilities, such as lack of confidence, self-consciousness or limited experience.
  • Using a position of authority or power imbalance to oblige someone into sexual encounters.
A couple laying on their stomachs in bed; they are facing each other and both puckering their lips for a kiss.
photo via puhhha/Canva

Considerate and Reversible

At any point, consent can be withdrawn; all sexual contact must stop when this occurs — people are allowed to change their minds especially if something becomes uncomfortable. Permission must also be ongoing; agreeing to one particular activity within a sexual encounter does not mean that something else is permissible. Communication and checking in with one another is crucial to maintaining a safe and respectful sexual experience.

Definable and Limited

Consent refers to permission for a particular action in a given, present moment; it’s time, activity and circumstance specific. It does not imply agreement for future or unrestricted access to someone else’s intimacy or body — even within long-term relationships. Making sure consent is current and well communicated is best practice.

Reasonable and Well-Grounded

The following are not indicators or proof of interest in sexual activity or an interpretive signal of consent: 

  • The clothes someone is wearing.
  • Paying for a date/meal.
  • Smiling; laughing; kind/encouraging words; conversation; a compliment.
  • Flirting; kissing; a touch; a gift.
  • Previous sexual history or behaviour with you or other people.

If you think there is a possibility of intimacy/sex based on these factors you need to explicitly ask — respect the answer.

Unambiguous and Conclusive

If you are uncertain whether or not you have someone’s consent, assume you don’t — and ask them. The only way to prevent misunderstandings or miscommunications that potentially lead to harm or discomfort is to make sure that approval is beyond doubt, clearly outlined and completely understood. Consent involves recognizing through verbal or non-verbal signals the presence of a clear and enthusiastic ‘yes’ rather than relying on the absence of a ‘no’.

The Myth of Non-Consensual Sex

The language used to discuss sexual abuse, assault and rape can significantly influence how it is perceived or dealt with. Phrasing in media reporting, policies and even everyday personal word choices can either support constructive action or fuel stigma and victim-blaming.

Despite a common understanding that sexual activity without consent is sexual assault or rape — which is reflected in legal definitions and laws — the term ‘non-consensual’ has slipped effortlessly into our lexicon. While at first glance this language may initially seem unproblematic, its usage glosses over the considerable harm this issue perpetuates. It also disregards the fact that sex and consent interdependently coexist, the concept and actions of one are inseparable from the other; only sex is consensual, everything else is sexual violence. Therefore, in these circumstances, the phrase ‘non-consensual’ is essentially rendered meaningless; it’s an oxymoron.

Framing sexual abuse, assault and rape as ‘non-consensual’ activity/contact does little to convey its seriousness — which may be the point. It quietens and sugarcoats the far-reaching and often devastating impacts of this kind of violation. Whenever we come across this term being used, we should critically examine who benefits from it being described in this way.

A couple sit facing each other on a bed, arms and legs closely linked together.
photo via Sinitta Leunen/Unsplash

Ultimately, any discussion, policy or reporting that deals with sexual abuse, assault or rape should focus on terminology that is most accurate and straightforward; euphemisms like ‘non-consensual’ are too ambiguous. Correspondingly, if any discourse relates to an ongoing legal case (e.g., decisions or potential convictions have yet to be reached), describing act(s) as ‘alleged rape’ or ‘alleged sexual assault’, for example, is more valid.

Similar phrasing that needs to be challenged/changed because it trivializes sexual violence and abuse (to the benefit of the perpetrator) and further preserves the acceptance of rape culture include:

  • Underage woman/man — there is no such thing; this is a teenager or child.
  • Sex with a minor — this does not exist as children cannot consent; it’s rape or child sexual abuse.
  • Child prostitute — as mentioned above, children cannot consent; this is a victim of child sex trafficking.

[…] the presence of rape myths, stereotypes, victim blaming and improper terminology within media coverage perpetuates the spread of misinformation about sexual violence. | The Representation of Rape and Sexual Assault Within News Media – Katherine E. Layman (Portland State University)

Misunderstanding Consent is Still a Problem

The concepts and boundaries surrounding consent may seem obvious or accepted by many/most of us, but an alarming disconnect can still exist between what is known and what is actively put into practice.

Back in 2017, researchers from Rush University in Chicago and Binghamton University in New York conducted a small study examining how a group of 145 male college students interpreted sexual desire and navigated sexual boundaries with women. While this was not a broad study in terms of sample size or demographic (all were heterosexual and 92% were White) — the results still highlighted the need to tackle problematic attitudes and misconceptions about consent. 

After posing questions about different given scenarios with women, the researchers found the men in the study misinterpreted or relied on inferred consent when women’s sexual intentions were unconfirmed or ambiguous — essentially they were assuming the absence of a ‘no’ was enough to indicate sexual desire or approval.

In another small study carried out in 2015, Dr. Nicole Bedera from the University of Michigan interviewed 25 male, heterosexual college students (68% of whom were White), to explore how they responded to cultural and campus sexual consent policies. Dr. Bedera’s results revealed that while the respondents claimed to actively understand and practice affirmative consent, their own recent sexual encounters often showed this was not the case. Perhaps most concerning was when it became clear to the men in the study that their actions potentially crossed over into sexual assault, instead of questioning their own conduct they changed their definition of consent to rationalize and excuse their behaviour.

While the participants as a group condoned affirmative consent policies and claimed to consistently apply clear strategies for consent-seeking, their descriptions of gauging a partner’s willingness to engage in their recent sexual encounters relied primarily on ambiguous cues that would not meet an affirmative consent standard. | Moaning and Eye Contact: Men’s Use of Ambiguous Signals in Attributions of Consent to Their Partners – Dr. Nicole Bedera

While other studies reflect similar findings; more comprehensive research is clearly needed, particularly with participants from wide ranging and diverse age groups, sexual orientations, gender/gender identities and race/ethnicities. However, what these two examples illustrate is that there is much work to be done with how we ensure consent is both understood, protected and applied.  

In Summary

As April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month; it’s important to highlight the in-depth and ongoing conversations/learning we all need to have about sexual health, relationships and consent. This is not always an easy topic to discuss; however, there is clearly a need for honest, well-researched information that can inspire everyone to delve into this subject matter with confidence.

We can all take concrete steps to be better informed and consciously practice affirmative consent. By understanding that everyone involved must be on the same page and actively agrees to each step of a sexual encounter; we can create a safer, more respectful, and enjoyable sexual experience for all.

What conversations about consent have you had? How do you ensure affirmative consent?

Further Info:

A Brief Guide to Consenting with a Nonverbal Partner – ScarletTeen: SexEd for the Real World

Confi – an online resource providing non-judgemental, diverse and inclusive health and sexual health information

Planned Parenthood – an organization offering reproductive health care and sex education

National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline – RAINN

39 thoughts on “Important Conversations: What You Need To Understand About Consent”

  1. In India, marital rape is the most controversial and complex issue. Consensual sex after marriage is assumed, especially if the woman gets pregnant. Misinformation and conservative ideologies prevent women from discussing sex-related issues even with peers. I think consensual sex is deeply connected to gender bias. Direct and clear communication is important to understand someone’s intention. At the same time, keeping an open mind towards sexual health is also relevant. 


  2. This kind of post are always needed, but usually the people that needs them will not learn from them.
    I’m an asexual person and I navigate the world of sec and consent – or rather, I don’t- in a way that is different than the majority – ergo allosexaul people. But this also helped me a lot to understand what I want and observe how so many of my peers struggle to understand basic consent. I’ve heard too many stories that absolutely scarred me… because… it was just so wrong on many level that I didn’t know how to talk to the other person and tell them “hey, what happened to you is not okay”

    And don’t let me start on how so many people try to pull discourses such “but the age of consent in that country is-“. If there’s an age of consent, it wasn’t created for them to predate on younger people


    1. I had hoped that this article would highlight that consent isn’t always fully understood and it gives enough info to help with any conversations about it — especially with busting common myths that still linger. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective; more voices in this conversation are always needed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for highlighting the fact that consent can be withdrawn at any moment. This should be communicated more. The topic of consent should be spoken about more and openly – to learn and teach. It can be triggering for some, and that is something we can’t and shouldn’t ignore. This topic should be brought up well. You’ve touched on so many bases, I couldn’t add or take anything from this post. It’s brilliant!


    1. I agree; withdrawing consent is one aspect of it that some people are not aware of and don’t really cover. It’s definitely a really tough topic to talk about, but if done with sensitivity and respect it can make it easier to deal with. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here.


  4. A fascinating read….and obviously such a powerful subject to address head on – was interesting to read the coercion aspect: constantly asking until the other person is worn down – that was the charge against a rising Actor/Comedian: the woman admitted she finally had sex with him, but he badgered and berated her for an hour to coerce her into it…shameful on his part and an important point to make sure is understood


      1. Exactly, and it’s probably faced by people so much more than a full on assault…it’s the belittling and badgering until it feels like there is no option


  5. It’s not good to force someone and it must be done freely and out of the other person’s will. Very informative post and helps to make people understand more about consent.


  6. I didn’t know that April was an awareness month for this, I think it is so important to have conversations about this, to talk about it with others and improve help for people who are victim to this type of abuse. This was a really informative post. Thank you for using your platform to share this and increase awareness.

    Lauren – bournemouthgirl


    1. I didn’t know there was a month dedicated to this either so it was good that this post naturally fit into that. I hope that more awareness is raised and support continues to get organized. We can do better with how we educate about consent — and make sure it’s protected. Thanks so much for commenting!


  7. I just love this post, Molly. Consent is so important and it’s something I make a point of teaching my son. It saddens me that it hasn’t been a part of his education in school thus far, I know he is only in Primary 4 (he is 9) but I think it’s something ALL people, especially children should understand and learn about. The younger it is taught, the easier it will be to raise fine young adults who know and accept what consent is and put it into practice without taking advantage.

    Thank you for sharing and shedding light on such an important topic.


    1. Consent can taught from a very early age and be made completely age appropriate; children need to grow into young people (who then grow into adults) who understand and actively practice consent. I hope this conversation continues but that real action is taken to cover this.


  8. Consent across different cultures is interpreted in various ways. But this is a great topic and very controversial in narriages and commited relationships. It’s almost weird to think that a husband has to gain concent from his wife for sexual engagement.


    1. I think a lot of people struggle with the idea of consent within committed relationships and marriages, but in this case, the implied agreement to be intimate does not negate being considerate and respectful of a partner’s boundaries, etc. It really shouldn’t be a controversial topic under these circumstances, but you are right to state that it still can be for many. Being in a relationship does not remove bodily autonomy; so I hope couples can have these conversations going forward. Thanks for commenting!


  9. A really important topic and one that’s very timely too, what with so many sexual assault cases making the news. My daughter’s school recently covered the issue of consent and used the analogy of offering someone a cup of tea – which I thought was the perfect image for early teens to grasp.


  10. Great post! What classes as consent isn’t as simple as saying yes or no. Especially when alcohol is involved or persistence/emotional abuse and manipulation. It’s really sad how people can almost be gas lighted into believe they are not a victim.

    Corinne x


  11. This is such an excellent post, Molly. Consent is so important. We shouldn’t NEED posts like this, to explain exactly what consent is but sadly we do. It really needs to be taught thoroughly in schools.


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