April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month – it’s a time for us to raise awareness about sexual assault and educate ourselves about how we can prevent it in our respective communities. This month has sparked important conversations about what intimacy and dating are really like in 2022. There has never been more widespread awareness about sexual assault and harassment than we have seen in recent years, with the rise of activism such as the #MeToo movement. However, we still have a long way to go when it comes to combatting the prevalence and ideologies behind sexual assault.
One of the most important things to understand while educating yourself about sexual assault is just how prevalent it is in current society. Here are some statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault in the United States:
- 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be victims of sexual assault during their lifetime.
- More than 1 in 3 women and more than 1 in 4 men in the United States have experienced sexual assault, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
- More than half of female victims of sexual assault reported being assaulted by an intimate partner.
- 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.
- The prevalence of false reporting for sexual assault crimes is low — between two percent and 10 percent.
- An estimated 13% of women and 6% of men have experienced sexual coercion in their lifetime.
Sources: CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey and National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).
There are many conversations we can have about sexual assault, but the best place to start when it comes to engaging in a practice of healthy intimacy is to understand consent.
What is Consent?
Consent is a clear agreement between all parties involved to engage in sexual intimacy. While this may seem clear to many of us, there are cases in which others may misunderstand or manipulate how consent is given. Because of this, it’s important for us to understand how we should properly give consent and receive it from others. The bottom line is consent should never be assumed from either party, it should always be a clear communication without any doubts or confusion.
The idea of consent is rooted in the fact that everyone has a right to their own body and should feel free and comfortable in romantic and sexual relationships. One of the most important and meaningful ways to participate in healthy, safe sex is to practice consent with our partners and set boundaries around what you we are and aren't comfortable with.
In practicing healthy intimacy, consent must be:
Consent must be given freely, without any coercion or pressure from all parties involved. If consent is given in the presence of threats, intimidation, coercion, or pressure, it is not true consent.
The absence of a yes or no does not indicate consent. Consent should be absolutely clear without any gray area. It should not be inferred from someone's silence, passivity, lack of resistance, or a lack of an active response. A strong ‘yes’ will do the trick. The same goes with saying no. No means no, and if you or your partner refuses any sexual advance, it should be taken seriously and any intimacy should be halted immediately.
Consent should be clearly demonstrated through words and actions of all parties involved. It cannot be given while an individual is incapacitated in any way, including intoxication, sleep, or while being unconscious. Consent can also not be given from an underage person engaging in intimate acts with an adult.
Consent can be revoked at any time before or during sexual intimacy. There’s nothing wrong with saying yes at first and then refusing to engage in any sexual act if you or your partner becomes uncomfortable.
The Evolution of Consent
Consent can be given in multiple ways, and there are multiple different models of consent that have become popularized in the discussion of healthy sexual intimacy, such as:
“No Means No”
This phrase was coined by the feminist movement in the 1970’s, and it indicates that the expression of the word “No” in sexual intimacy should be respected. It also indicates that the person desiring not to consent is responsible to verbally say the word no during sexual intimacy; This point leads into the prime criticism of this model, where saying ‘No’ may not be an option for certain parties.
It is true that “no” means no, and it should always be respected during sexual acts, but consent is revoked in other ways that do not involve verbally expressing the word no. For example, if someone is unconscious, intoxicated, making excuses not to engage in sex, or physically pushing the perpetrator away, this is a clear indicator that consent is not present.
Ultimately, saying no can feel very uncomfortable or impossible in certain situations and the absence of a no should not indicate consent.
This is a model that focuses on the presence of a “yes” during sexual intimacy. The absence of a no does not indicate consent, and there should be a clear indication that both parties want to engage in sexual intimacy. This indication can be verbal or non verbal, but it should be clear. This model is adopted by many college sexual assault policies and by the law in many states. Ultimately, this model is formed around the idea that one person is proposing sex and the other is agreeing through verbal or non-verbal communication.
In many feminist and sex-positive circles, this is seen as a step-up from other consent models. This model focuses on sex being something that both parties are excited and enthused about, and by giving enthusiastic cues verbally or non-verbally, consent is given.
Mutual pleasure and desire is very important in this model – that both parties are engaging in consensual sex through their own enthusiasm.
However, there are situations in which people may consent to sex without being enthusiastic, such as those who are asexual, attempting to conceive, sex workers, etc. While these people may be consensually agreeing to sex, they may not be overly enthusiastic about it, and that’s okay. The most important thing overall is that genuine consent is given, whether it is enthusiastic or not.
Three Common Myths About Consent
1. Consent Is a Given in Existing Relationships
Whether both parties are in a relationship or not, consent matters. There is a misconception that all sex that occurs between people in a committed relationship is consensual, but this is very far from the truth. Just because two people have been intimate in the past doesn’t mean consent will always be there. Whether you are having sex with a stranger, a spouse, or a romantic partner, consent should always be clear and affirmative.
2. Consent Can Be Assumed
Consent should never be assumed. No matter what a person is wearing, how they present themselves, or whether they initiated the sexual activity – consent should remain clear the before and during sexual intimacy.
3. Asking for Consent Kills the Mood
Consent should be sexy. Affirming and ensuring that your partner is just as excited as you are to be intimate should be a part of the fun. After all, what’s sexier than knowing your partner desires intimacy just as much as you do? You should always feel safe and comfortable to ask, give, or revoke consent with your partner no matter what. There are many ways to express consent that aren’t necessarily verbal, such as physical movements or sounds you can make to let your partner know you are enjoying yourself.
How to Ask for Consent
Asking for consent should be a regular practice in all intimate situations. It can be as simple as asking:
- “Is this okay?”
- “Do you want to slow down?”
- “Do you want to keep going?”
Asking these questions during intimate acts ensures both you and your partner that everything is good and both of you are enjoying yourselves.
What Does This Mean for Me And/Or My Partner?
Incorporating your knowledge and commitment to consent into your current relationship is a great thing. It can help your sexual relationship become more clear and enthusiastic.
Here are three tips for incorporating consent into your current relationship:
Don’t forget to ask: Not only should consent be normalized, but it should be sexy! Continuously checking in with each other during intimacy using the examples above (for example: “is this okay?”) is a great way to ensure consent throughout sex.
Designate a safe word: Creating a safe word together can make it easier to communicate your desire or non-desire for sexual intimacy. Agreeing upon a word that means “I’m not in the mood” or “I don’t want to” can make the boundaries clearer between the two of you and help facilitate a way to clearly communicate how you are feeling about continuing during initiated intimacy.
Have open conversations: Sitting down with your partner outside of sexual intimacy and having a conversation about sex is a great way to make consent even clearer between the both of you. Discuss your boundaries: What do you enjoy during sex? What do you not enjoy? Are there things your partner does that you really like or really don’t like? It may seem simple, but many couple’s may not have these conversations. Not only will this help you understand better what the other wants, but it can make your sex even better, and who doesn’t want that?
Consent is the most important aspect of sexual intimacy. It should be the foundation of all sexual experiences between partners. Ensuring consent with your partner builds trust and a closer connection between the two of you; don’t be afraid to ask for it!