Consent is a NECESSARY component of any and all sexual activities. If there is no consent, it’s not sex.

You may have heard the phrase “sex without consent” or “non-consensual sex.” It’s important to be clear that there is no such thing as “sex without consent” or “non-consensual sex.” While survivors may name their experiences in many different ways, it’s important that others around them don’t use euphemisms to explain other people’s experiences that minimize the harm to avoid our own discomfort. For example someone might say “I did not consent to sex,” “I felt uncomfortable or pressured,” “someone crossed my boundaries,” “this person pursued sex without my consent,” etc. Minimizing the harm through language like “sex without consent” speaks to our discomfort around the fact that this type of harm is caused by people we know and care about instead of strangers/monsters.

Our understanding of consent begins long before any sexual encounter. From childhood we learn when we are able to say “yes” or “no”. For example, crossing the street a child may be asked to hold their parent’s hand. For safety reasons, this may be necessary, even if the child does not want to. However, when a child is asked to give someone, even a close relative, a hug, this is not a necessary action. A child having the ability to say “yes” or “no” is an indication of their right to bodily autonomy. If the child does not want to hug and is asked to proceed anyway, the lesson may be that you tolerate this unwanted touching to make the other person happy.

The above example is why it is important to intentionally create a culture that values consent. As adults, we are made up of our experiences, histories, geographies, and identities, all of which inform our understanding of consent and physicality. Cultural expectations around both sex and consent vary significantly by gender and enforced beliefs about gender are inextricably linked to the perpetration of harm.

Regardless of gender, it is everyone’s responsibility to seek consent in and throughout a sexual encounter.

When it comes to sex, encouraging and respecting the bodily autonomy of a partner is necessary. Consent isn’t always as complicated as it may seem. There are things you can do to ensure consent is present, ultimately leading to safer and more enjoyable experiences for everyone. 

Consider again the child receiving a hug. Imagine this child said nothing (or perhaps was not asked at all). The child may lean away from the hug or put their arms out to create distance or they may simply not hug back. These are nonverbal indicators that the hug is unwanted. Sometimes it is easy to recognize nonverbal indicators. Other times it is not. The consequences of misreading nonverbal indicators change drastically when we are talking about a childhood hug versus an attempted sexual relationship. 

Without consent, there is no sex. If you are unsure the indicators you are reading from the other person are affirmative, the best way to proceed is to ask. Be mindful of any existing power imbalance. A person may say yes if they feel they have no choice. This is mitigated through honest conversation where safety is created for the person with less power to answer ‘no,’ without fear of consequence. Consent culture requires us to value the other person enough to let them make their own decisions and in turn, for us to respect their decisions even when it is different from something we might really want. If we receive a “no,” in any form- or really anything that isn’t an explicit “yes,” be it verbal or nonverbal,-” it is our responsibility to respect this. 

Changing our culture to normalize conversations about consent in everyday contexts contributes to a greater understanding of consent and provides us the language to seek consent before and throughout a sexual encounter. With consent culture, initiating the conversation feels less clumsy because communication about consent is a natural and expected part of the experience.

As we work our way toward consent culture, presently, having a conversation about consent may seem awkward- evidence of our lack of familiarity with consent. Awkward does not have to be something we fear, despite what we have been taught by society. Fear of rejection is substantial enough that we may choose not to ask for consent so we do not have to risk hearing “No.” Other times we may incorrectly conclude that “No” is a starting point for a negotiation. Media have long represented problematic behaviour as romantic and desirable. In reality, not taking no for an answer and/or asking someone repeatedly for sex when they have not said yes, are coercive behaviours.

The normalization of these behaviours is antithetical to consent culture.  Consent culture teaches that hearing “No” is normal and provides skills for receiving a “No” gracefully, be it a person rejecting us specifically, or simply a choice they are making for themselves. 

Opposite Consent Culture is Rape Culture

There are many things we have been socialized to say, do, and think, that contribute to the prevalence of sexualized violence. This includes not questioning societal norms around sex and gender, even when these norms are harmful. 

Blaming someone for the violence they experience, or not believing a survivor- that’s rape culture. 

If you hear a person making a rape-culture related comment or joke, it is important to tell them it’s not okay- so long as it is safe and possible for you to do so. It might be a challenging conversation, but countering rape culture requires being accountable to ourselves and to each other.

Because we are all socialized in a culture that has fostered, and in some cases encouraged, rape culture, you might find yourself thinking or saying something that reflects rape culture. The best antidote to this is to ask yourself where those ideas come from, who they harm, and who benefits. That is part of our work toward accountability.

Supporting survivors is prevention

It is a well-supported fact that we live in a rape culture, where sexualized violence is prevalent and supported by social norms. It’s likely that you will know someone who has been impacted by sexual violence. Within this community, we are all part of each other’s support system and you can support survivors in some ways that make a real difference.

Being supportive can be as simple as  listening to a survivor and assuring them you believe them. Always ask what they need, don’t assume or advise them to do what you think they should do. Respect their decisions even if they are different from what you would do. People who have been impacted by sexualized violence are the experts on what they need. 

Believing survivors when they speak out about their experience is a necessary part of consent culture. Avoiding asking questions about what someone was wearing or drinking and expressing that it’s not their fault, no matter what,  signals your support. Receiving validation and support can have significant impacts on how the person who was harmed understands their own experience and whether or not they choose to seek additional resources or supports. 

Familiarize yourself with available resources as well as information about what services and options are available. If you are supporting someone, you can offer to walk with them to SVPRO. Sometimes the first step is the hardest and having someone to take that step with you may make all the difference.

Learn More

Check out SVPRO’s course on Consent Culture or request a workshop.