Understanding Sexual Consent

What is consent?

Sexual consent is a mutual agreement which is verbal, physical and emotional. It is also an absolutely vital part of any sexual relationship. By consent you are saying that you’re both happy to continue, and you both feel comfortable.

Consent can be given but it can also be taken away. Sometimes this might happen when you’re already having sex. If so, it’s important to stop right away. To continue after consent is revoked is rape.

While you might have heard the phrase ‘no means no’, specifically saying no isn’t the only way to make it clear that you’re not giving consent. That said, if your partner does say no at any point, don’t think of it as a game, or that they’re ‘playing hard to get’. You should stop whatever you’re doing immediately.

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Consent is never automatic. If you’re in a relationship, or have had consensual sex in the past, it does not mean that consent has been given. All parties involved needs to give consent every time you have sex.

To consent means that you’d like to engage in this particular sexual behaviour this particular time.

When someone can’t give consent

Consent cannot be given if someone is…

  • Under the age of consent (in the UK that’s 16)

  • Really drunk

  • Under the influence of drugs

  • Unconscious

  • Asleep

  • Otherwise unaware of the situation

If any of the above are true then any consent given is legally invalid because the person may not be fully aware of what they’re doing. To continue with sexual activity when consent cannot legally be given is statutory rape.

How to tell if someone is consenting

There are two types of consent: verbal and physical.

Reading someone’s body language is a really good way of telling if someone is consenting, but only if you’re really comfortable with your partner and you’re sure that you can read their physical actions clearly. It is possible to misread signals, so if you’re ever not totally sure, simply speak to your partner. Consent doesn’t need to be clumsy or awkward; it’s not a case of formally agreeing in writing that you’re both consenting adults.

There are some obvious signifiers that someone isn’t consenting without specifically saying ‘no’.

These might be:

  • Looking upset, or crying

  • Tensing or freezing up when touched

  • Saying you’re tired

  • Pulling away

If a person doesn’t seem totally happy and relaxed, you shouldn’t continue.

‘Are you okay with this?’

‘Do you want to stop?’

‘Is this what you want?’

Simple, open questions can be a great way to get consent. You should never try and pressure anyone into anything which they don’t feel comfortable with. Closed questions which don’t leave room for the other person to say no wouldn’t count as genuine consent.

The more open and honest you are with each other the more comfortable and trusting your relationship will be. You shouldn’t feel scared or embarrassed because you don’t want to have sex – and if you do perhaps you need to talk to someone about your relationship more generally.

If you’re ever not totally sure, stop and talk about what you’re doing. It is up to both of you to make sure consent is being given, and you shouldn’t assume that it is just because your partner isn’t kicking and screaming.

If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, say so. Make it clear that you’re not comfortable and if your partner respects you, they will stop straight away. If you’re concerned about a sexual encounter that you weren’t happy about, speak to us. There is a chat facility in the bottom right corner of this page, or you can phone us for free, confidential support on 0808 800 1037.