What is Consent?

Sexual violence has been front and center in the headlines recently, in part because of the many who bravely spoke out about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry and those who shared their stories in the #metoo campaign. With increased discussion of this widespread issue, it is helpful to review what sexual violence is and the important role that consent plays in it.

Sexual violence is a broad, non-legal term that includes sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse. Sexual assault is used to describe any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Generally, sexual violence and sexual assault refer to acts that are criminal.

Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in the workplace or learning environment. Harassment generally violates civil laws—you have a right to work without being harassed, and you have recourse if you are harassed—but in many cases is not a criminal act.

Sexual violence of every kind occurs when consent is absent. Consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. There are many ways to give consent, both verbally and physically. Someone consents when they clearly show in actions or words that they agree to a sexual act, they haven’t been coerced or threatened in any way, they are old enough to legally agree, and they have the physical and mental ability to say yes or no. Assuring consent is essential so you and your partner can respect each other’s boundaries.

Even if someone says that they want to have sex, they still may not be able to consent. For instance, if someone is below the age of consent for a state; is incapacitated; or has certain physical or mental disabilities, then they are not able to consent.

Consent is about communication, and it should happen every time. Giving consent for one activity, one time, does not mean giving consent for increased or recurring sexual contact. For example, agreeing to kiss someone doesn’t give that person permission to remove your clothes. Having sex with someone in the past doesn’t give that person permission to have sex with you again in the future.

You can withdraw consent at any point if you feel uncomfortable. Consent is an ongoing process, and as soon as one participant no longer wants to engage in sexual activity, it should stop. It’s important to clearly communicate to your partner that you are no longer comfortable with an activity and wish to stop.

The best way to ensure both parties are comfortable with any sexual activity is to talk about it. You may find it helpful to learn more about what consent does and does not look like, the legal role of consent, and how consent is defined in your state.

Remember to clearly ask for consent every time you have sex and continuously throughout sex. It is the best way to ensure that you and your partner are safe, comfortable, and respected.

Legal Disclaimer

The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) website provides general information that is intended, but not guaranteed, to be correct and up-to-date. The information is not presented as a source of legal advice. You should not rely, for legal advice, on statements or representations made within the website or by any externally referenced Internet sites. If you need legal advice upon which you intend to rely in the course of your legal affairs, consult a competent, independent attorney. RAINN does not assume any responsibility for actions or non-actions taken by people who have visited this site, and no one shall be entitled to a claim for detrimental reliance on any information provided or expressed.

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