What is Consent?

In last month’s post we mentioned the important role consent plays in marking an action as sexual harassment or assault. This month we’re going to define consent more thoroughly, examine the ways consent is built into our culture, and look at what happens when someone fails to gain consent.

What is consent? In general terms it is permission for something to happen or agreement to do something. Oregon law says “a person is considered incapable of consenting to a sexual act if the person is: mentally incapacitated or physically helpless.”  Consent can be verbal or nonverbal. Verbal consent should be obvious; statements like “yes, you can [touch, etc.]”, “no” , or “I don’t want to be touched like that”. Nonverbal cues might seem harder to identify, but are also critical. Examples of nonverbal lack of consent can look like: someone tensing up when touched, avoiding eye contact, or not responding when interacted with. Consent should be clear and actively given. It shouldn’t be passive or assumed, and previous consent doesn’t mean a person consents to a new act.

When seeking consent, asking questions is a great way to understand someone’s boundaries and desires. Some examples of good questions are: “can I kiss you?”, “is this okay?”, “are you comfortable?”

Unclear if someone gives consent? Ask!

A common way to explain the concept (often used in sexual harassment awareness lessons for young adults) is by showing a video that says “it’s simple as tea”. The video explains that asking for consent for any sort of sexual act is like asking if someone wants tea. It’s good manners to ask if someone wants tea, and it’s acceptable for a person to turn down the offer. It’s not okay if the person proceeds to force the other to drink the tea, and the same is true if someone doesn’t consent to words or actions that are directed at them.

Consent shouldn’t be hard to grasp; there are other instances where asking for consent is social protocol. For example: it’s polite and a safe decision to ask for permission before petting someone’s dog, and you wouldn’t hold someone’s baby without asking first.

Now that consent has been defined and we know how to identify receiving consent, what happens when someone fails to ask for consent before saying something or taking action?

College campuses and workplaces have systems in place to manage reports of unwanted acts that are sexual in nature. Such acts are considered sexual harassment or sexual assault, and in last month’s blog post we examined the difference between those two terms. Oregon state law defines First Degree rape as a crime when a person has sexual intercourse with another person who is “subjected to forcible compulsion [or] is incapable of consent.” The consequences of taking non-consensual action can vary depending on the circumstances; for Oregon the minimum sentence for conviction of rape is 100 months. 

It’s clear that consent is important! Having an understanding of consent is the first step in recognizing when permission needs to be asked before speaking or taking certain actions. It’s also clear that there are instances in our culture where it’s expected that we ask for consent. At Willamette Public Health [now TMI Action] we provide consulting, training, and speaking services to increase workplace sexual assault awareness and promote consent culture.  What ideas do you have to normalizing asking for consent in an intimate setting?

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