What is consent? — revisited

In recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, let’s look again at this previous post from An Untangled Life (Sept. 25, 2014).  Help us raise awareness about prevention and treatment issues, and provide support to survivors courageously living life every day.

no_consentBy Michelle Scheu
As I read Emily’s latest post about rape culture, I started thinking about the concept of consent. Consent is the basis of all healthy relationships, but especially sexual relationships. People often assume that the absence of the word “no” means there is consent. That can lead to confusion, misunderstanding and in some cases, criminal charges. Consent means that a person fully understands what is about to happen AND agrees to it. True consent has several requirements:

  • Both parties are emotionally and intellectually equal
  • Honesty
  • A full understanding of the situation
  • Permission to disagree or to refuse without penalty or harm
  • Equal power in the relationship

Let’s walk through some examples:

  • A teenager asks a peer who is in special education to touch them sexually and the peer says yes. A person with an intellectual disability might say yes because he or she thinks it would be fun or because he or she is curious. But a person with a low IQ does not necessarily understand about sex, the laws concerning sex, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. The two individuals are not emotionally or intellectually equal.
  • A person is not honest about having multiple sexual partners. Without this information, the person he or she is having a sexual encounter with cannot make an informed decision about whether this is a safe and positive choice.
  • People who are drunk, high or passed out may not have a full awareness of the situation. I had a friend in college who woke up in a room with more than one man and no recollection of what had occurred. This is not consent.
  • If your boyfriend tells you he will break up with you if you do not have sex with him, this is not consent. Getting hit because you won’t have sex is not consent. Being threatened with losing your job if you don’t tolerate unwanted sexual contact is not consent.
  • A mutual relationship has the connotation of equal power. Examples or relationships in which there is a significant difference in power include teacher/student, employer/employee, therapist/client and doctor/patient.

When two people both agree to an act, understand what is about to happen, are allowed to say no, and are both emotionally and intellectually equal, positive sexual relationships are created. With consent, a relationship that is beneficial to all involved can occur.

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