All You Need To Know About Sexual Consent And The Importance Of What Consent Looks Like

From understanding what sexual consent means to why it’s important and what no consent and affirmative consent looks like.

male with arm around female

Sexual health and consent are topics that are becoming less taboo the more it’s talked about. It’s something we all need to discuss and revisit in terms of our understanding regularly. Whilst it may be an uncomfortable topic for some, especially for those of you who have limited experience in talking about these topics, it’s important you know how to stay safe. Before engaging in sexual activity, you need to understand (we’re talking all genders need to) what consent means and what behaviour is acceptable. 

In basic terms, consent means wholeheartedly agreeing for something to happen. It means saying yes completely by choice, enthusiastically and without any external influence. Sexual activity without consent is either sexual assault or rape, it’s a serious crime with severe punishment. So it’s more than important you understand all the nuances of consent. Because it goes much further than ‘no means no’. 

Two men lying in bed hugging

What does no consent look like?

Not giving consent can present itself in a number of ways. Consent is never ambiguous or vague, it is always as clear as day. If you catch yourself wondering, if the other person is enjoying themselves or you sense they feel uncomfortable. In other words, if you are unsure, then you need to ask. Even if someone doesn’t say no, that doesn’t mean it’s a yes. Sometimes, a person may show their lack of consent through their body language. For example, a person pulling away is a sign of not giving consent in a non-verbal way. If this happens, you need to stop and ask if they are okay with what you are doing. Communication is everything, and at all times you need to be listening and analysing the other person’s behaviour. If you’re getting mixed signals, you should stop and ask if they want to keep going. 

Being pressured, forced, under the influence of substances of drugs and/or alcohol, asleep, passed out or incapable of saying no does not equate to sexual consent. It can also not be given when someone is under the age of 16. That would make the person a minor and it’s a serious crime with harsh penalties. If you are unsure of someone’s age or even if you think you know, there’s no harm in double checking by saying ‘I don’t want to offend you but you look really young to me, are you 18 or older?’. 

You should never assume you have someone’s consent. Always, always ask. We can’t stress this enough. Even throughout your sexual activity you should be checking in with the other person to check that what you’re doing is okay, if it feels good or if they are comfortable. Don’t be afraid to ask if there’s something you should do differently that they would prefer. Make sure it’s clear that you are happy to stop at any time if the other person would like to and that you are respectful of their boundaries, there’s zero pressure.

Sexual Consent in relationships

Another point you must be aware of is that previous sexual encounters with someone does not automatically mean you always have consent in sexual activities after that. Even if you’re in a relationship. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been married for 10 years or dating for 2 months. Sex is never owed to anyone and you should always check if the other person is happy and willing with what’s happening. 

Everyone is entitled to change their minds at any time, which means consent can be taken away at any point. You should stop if this happens. Just because someone said yes at the start doesn’t mean they can’t say no later on. The same applies if someone willingly said yes but you realise they are too intoxicated. If this happens, you should certainly stop because that person is not in a coherent enough position to give a definite yes. 

Two women asleep in bed next to a laptop

Why you need to learn about consent

It’s your responsibility to educate yourself and fully understand everything there is to do with consent. Simply ‘not knowing’ won’t work in the courts and justice system. Besides avoiding making a serious mistake that would more than likely result in jail time, it’s important to learn about this because sex without consent can cause severe emotional damage. It can affect another person in a variety of detrimental ways, sometimes for life. Whether that be in future relationships, work and overall well being. Simply for the safety and health of other people, it’s your responsibility to practice consent every time you engage in sexual activity with each and every person you choose to do so with. 

The effect of drugs and alcohol

Drugs and alcohol can seriously affect a person’s ability to make decisions. Keep an eye out on your friends. If you see one of them is really intoxicated and they’re getting rather close with someone else, be sure to pull them aside and double check that that’s what they want to do. Same goes if you see your friend with someone who is seriously intoxicated. Pull them aside and remind them of what consent is. You could prevent them from making a mistake that could cost them and the other person involved both mentally and physically.

Sexual consent at university

University is a glorious place for open discussion on consent and sexual health to ensure safety and respect. And there’s a world of resources and support services at your fingertips. In fact, most universities will require you to fulfil a consent matters course online. This will further educate you in what consent means through potential scenarios a student may face. It’ll help you recognise when consent can and can’t be given regardless of your gender, background or sexuality. Often there’s a quiz that you’re required to complete at the end to prove you understood what the course taught you. 

Man and woman holding hands across a table

What is affirmative consent?

Asking for consent should never kill the vibe and it’s something that should happen naturally. You should ask things like, ‘is this okay?’ or ‘do you want to keep going?’, to which the other person should say something along the lines of ‘Yes, I want to keep going’. This is consent. It should be explicit verbally and all parties should be 100% on board and clear with what’s going on.  If you’re hearing things like ‘I’m not sure’, ‘I guess, if that’s what you want’ or nothing at all – STOP.

If someone is pulling you closer, responding to your touch, is relaxed, clearly enjoying themselves and saying yes, that is consent. Another point to mention is that consent is not just sex, it also includes kissing and touching. If that happens to be the limit of what you want to do, say things like ‘can we stay like this’, ‘can we slow down’ or ‘can we not go further than this’. 

Even if you are in a relationship with someone, you’ve had sex with them before, they’re giving you massive signals of wanting to go back to your place or you’ve started having sex – you’ve still got to get a yes. The person you’re with will respect and appreciate you a whole lot more for checking in, rather than assuming. If all you’re getting is stiffness, silence, uncomfortable and painful expressions, turning away, pushing away, holding their body or incoherency from being under the influence, again we remind you. STOP.

Support Services Available

If you have been involved in an incident where your consent was disregarded, there are plenty of support services available at your university specific to these types of situations. You can also refer to mental health lines, the police or other government support services. Remember you can always reach out. It’s not weak to speak, it’s a safe space and that it’s not your fault.