April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center has named this year’s theme as I Ask for Consent. Over the last few years there has been a shift in the discussion of consent and a growing emphasis on the importance of sexual consent. Previous ways of discussing consent focused on “no means no”. This slogan communicated the idea that unless you explicitly say “no,” you are implicitly consenting to whatever you are being subjected to. The discussion of consent then transitioned to “yes means yes,”. This shifted the idea to an understanding that unless you explicitly say “yes,” you are not giving consent. Currently the idea of consent has transformed to the idea that consent is those two ideas and more; enthusiastic, informed, explicit, active, mutual, and ongoing. Consent is not the absence of “no” or only the presence of a “yes”. It is not assumed, implied, or obtained through coercion, pressure, manipulation or deception. Consent is not valid when influenced by fear, possible when a person has power over the other or possible when someone is intoxicated through alcohol or drugs. Consent is also not possible if they are not old enough to legally consent. In the state of Minnesota, the general age of consent is 16 years-old and is raised to 18 when the other person is an authority figure or in a position of power.
Every person and situation calls for a different approach in navigating enthusiastic consent. Below are some things you can do to ensure that you and the other person(s) will be happy and comfortable with the physical activity you engage in.
1.) Establish reciprocal interest.
In a situation that involves negotiating consent it is important to state your intentions and limitations as well as ask the other person what their intentions and limitations are. All parties should agree to those intentions without coercion as well as respect limitations. It is also important to clearly communicate if those intentions and limitations change at any time. This will contribute to a comfortable, enjoyable and safe experience for everyone.
2.) Avoid partners who are vulnerable.
Vulnerable people may not be able to make informed decisions about sex and therefore may not be able to give consent. A person could be vulnerable due to being intoxicated through drugs or alcohol, their mental capacity could be impaired or limited in some way, they could be unconscious, or not of legal age. If a person is not capable of providing consent, then sexualized physical interactions with them is sexual assault.
3.) Pay Attention to both verbal and non-verbal responses.
The easiest way to negotiate verbal consent is explicitly asking permission and then pay attention to how they respond. Do they have a positive response, either verbally or physically? Do they seem uncomfortable or uncertain? Do they respond with silence? Do they respond by stating “I am not sure”, “I don’t know”, “maybe” or “not right now”? Do they physically respond by avoiding eye contact, moving or turning their body away from you? Do they explicitly say “no”, “stop” or “I don’t want to”? It is important to pay attention to these responses and respect the boundaries of others.
4.) Encourage others as well as yourself to say “no” as well as “yes” at any point.
In order to have respectful physical interactions it is important to encourage everyone involved to say yes or no at any time. It is also important to create a safe space where everyone can feel comfortable to change their mind and express that change without repercussion. Remember you and the other person(s) have a right to say no at any point during physical interactions, even if you already said yes.
5.) Be cautious.
If you’re not sure whether someone is providing enthusiastic consent, err on the side of caution. Stop the interaction. Clearly communicate what your noticing and give them space to decide what they want. Lastly, respect their decision.
Sexual interactions without consent is sexual assault and no one deserves to be subjected to sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been subjected to sexual assault or if you are uncertain of a situation that may have been sexual assault contact the Violence Prevention Center (VPC) to talk to a trained sexual assault advocate. All our services are free and confidential. We welcome anonymous calls and do not require any personal identifying information. The VPC works with people of all ages, all genders, and strives create a safe and inclusive environment for everyone.