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What is Sexual Consent?

Apr 04, 2024
Last updated Jun 17, 2024
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Sexual consent is an important and often misunderstood concept that plays a vital role in all sexual interactions. Unfortunately, many of us are still unaware of what consent truly means and how it should be properly obtained. 

Sexual contact without consent is not only morally wrong, but a violation of a person’s legal rights and bodily autonomy. Nonconsensual sexual activity can have long-lasting effects on a person’s physical and mental well-being. If you are a survivor of sexual assault or abuse, you should know that you are not alone. At Edwards Henderson, we are dedicated to fighting for survivors of sexual abuse and providing them with the resources and support they need to move forward with their lives.

Key Takeaways

  • Sexual consent is an agreement between sexual partners to engage in certain sexual activities.
  • Any sexual contact without consent is considered a violation of a person’s legal rights.
  • Those who experienced sexual contact without consent may pursue financial compensation from the perpetrator and any third party that may have enabled the crime.

Sexual consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), consent should be clearly and freely communicated. It cannot be given by individuals who are underage, intoxicated, or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or who are asleep or unconscious. Consent also cannot be given under pressure of intimidation or threat, or in case of unequal power dynamics. 

Since it can be hard to determine whether there was consent, remember to ask yourself: Did I agree to this sexual activity? Did I stop wanting to participate in the sexual activity at some point? Was my intent clear through either words or actions? If you are confused about consent, a licensed therapist can help offer perspective and guidance. 

Consent is essential for any sexual activity in a relationship, regardless of its nature or the partners’ familiarity with each other. Simply being in a relationship does not imply consent; it must be given freely by all partners for any sexual activity to occur in a healthy and respectful relationship. 

According to Psychology Today, between 14% and 25% of women are sexually assaulted by their intimate partners during the course of their relationship. In fact, 40-45% of individuals in intimate relationships experience sexual assault at some point. 

Marital or spousal rape has been considered a crime in all US states since 1993. Nevertheless, several legal loopholes exist which may hinder a married survivor’s pursuit of justice. 

Enthusiastic consent goes beyond the absence of a “no” and emphasizes the importance of actively and willingly saying “yes” to sexual activity. It means that both parties involved are excited and enthusiastic about engaging in the sexual activity. In other words, it ensures that everyone involved is fully on board and comfortable with what is happening. 

Remember, silence or not saying “no” does not always imply consent. Affirmative consent is about clear, enthusiastic, and ongoing communication to ensure a consensual and pleasurable sexual experience for all parties involved. Consent should never be assumed, and it should never be coerced or forced. If at any point you show that you are uncomfortable, a sexual partner should respect your boundaries and prioritize your sexual and emotional well-being.

Coerced consent occurs when an individual is forced or manipulated into giving consent for sexual activity. It involves using tactics such as threats, blackmail, or coercion to pressure someone into saying yes. Coerced consent is not genuine or freely given, as the person may feel obligated or fearful of the consequences of refusal. Any sexual activity that occurs with coerced consent is sexual assault. 

The Yes Means Yes Law and Movement

In 2014, California became the first state to adopt the “Yes Means Yes” law, also known as the affirmative consent law. Accordingly, consent must be affirmative, voluntary, and ongoing throughout the sexual activity. Both individuals should actively and enthusiastically communicate their consent, rather than relying on the absence of a “no.” The “Yes Means Yes” movement aims to shift the culture surrounding consent and promote a clear and enthusiastic approach to sexual encounters.

Sexual contact without consent refers to any sexual activity without the explicit and voluntary agreement of all involved parties, such as sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse. Unwanted sex of any kind is a violation of a person’s dignity and autonomy.

Sexual assault involves any non-consensual sexual activity that involves force, coercion, or intimidation. It can include acts such as unwanted touching, groping, watching, kissing, or penetration. Rape, on the other hand, refers specifically to non-consensual penetration of any kind, including oral penetration, however slight. 

Sexual abuse is often more complex. It can encompass a broader range of behaviors, including non-consensual sexual contact, exploitation, or psychological manipulation, and can occur over a large period of time, such as in the case of child sex abuse.

If you have experienced sexual contact without consent, it is important to seek support, report the incident to the authorities, and consider legal action to hold the perpetrator accountable. Remember, you do not have to fight alone. There are resources available to help you through this difficult time.

Consent is not always a straightforward “yes” or “no,” but can be conveyed through various means. Understanding the different types of consent can help individuals navigate sexual encounters more confidently and responsibly. By being aware of both verbal and non-verbal cues, we can establish a culture of clear communication and mutual understanding in all aspects of sexual relationships. 

Verbal consent happens when someone clearly and explicitly communicates their consent to engage in a sexual activity. It involves using words to express willingness and desire. Examples of verbal consent are saying “yes,” “I want this,” and engaging in a direct conversation about sexual boundaries and preferences.

Non-verbal consent refers to giving consent through non-verbal cues, gestures, or actions. It involves using body language or physical actions to communicate a desire for sexual activity or continued sexual activity. Examples of non-verbal consent may include initiating physical contact, undressing, or engaging in intimate gestures such as kissing or touching. 

To understand how consent works in practice, we can refer to Planned Parenthood’s acronym, FRIES

  • Freely Given: Consent should never be coerced or forced. It should be given willingly, without any pressure or manipulation.
  • Reversible: Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Just because someone initially gave consent doesn’t mean they cannot change their mind.
  • Informed: Consent requires clear communication and understanding. Both parties should be fully aware of what they are agreeing to and any potential risks involved.
  • Enthusiastic: Consent should be enthusiastic and eagerly given. It is important to ensure that all parties are genuinely excited and actively engaged in the sexual activity.
  • Specific: Consent should be specific to each act. It is not enough to receive consent for one thing and assume it applies to everything. 

While consent for sexual activity is valid when given freely, there are situations in which consent cannot be given.

If a person is underage: 

The legal age of consent varies in different jurisdictions, but generally, individuals under a certain age cannot give legally valid consent for sexual activity. It is important to be aware of the age of consent in your area to ensure that all parties involved are of legal age. It is crucial to protect children from predators and ensure their physical and emotional safety. 

If a person is intoxicated: 

Consent cannot be freely given by an intoxicated person. This is because when someone is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, their decision-making abilities are impaired, and they may not be able to fully understand the consequences of their actions. Additionally, the use of date rape drugs can render a person unconscious or incapacitated, making it impossible for them to give valid consent.

If a person is sleeping:

Engaging in sexual activity with someone asleep is never permissible. Sleeping individuals cannot provide consent, as they are unaware of what is happening and unable to communicate their desires or boundaries.

If a person is unconscious:

Needless to say, unconscious individuals cannot provide consent. Sexual activity with an unconscious person is a severe violation of their sexual autonomy and is considered sexual assault.

If you or a loved one has engaged in a sexual activity for which they did not give legally valid consent, it is important you consult a sexual assault attorney for help. 

Yes, you absolutely can take away consent if you previously gave it. Consent is an ongoing process, and it can be revoked at any time. Just because you initially agreed to engage in sexual activity does not mean you are obligated to continue if you no longer feel comfortable or willing. You should prioritize your own boundaries and well-being above someone else’s pleasure. You should never feel guilty or obligated to continue any sexual activity.

What If I Consented To One Sexual Act But Not Another?

Consenting to one sexual act does not imply automatic consent for any other activity. If you have communicated your boundaries and desires with your sexual partner, they should respect them. A person who truly respects you will not continue any sexual activity you are uncomfortable with or not enjoying. You should trust your instincts and prioritize your comfort and sexual health.

If your consent was violated and you might be in danger, call 911. If you are able to remove yourself from the situation safely, then file a report with the local police who can guide you through the process and provide resources for your safety. Next, consider seeking medical attention, such as going to the hospital to get a rape kit done. Be gentle with yourself and seek support from friends, family, or support groups. Finally, explore legal options with a sexual abuse lawyer who can provide you with guidance on how you may hold the perpetrator and any enabling or negligent third party accountable for the crime. 

Remember, you are not alone, and there are resources available to help you. Organizations such as RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the National Sexual Assault Hotline, or your local rape crisis center for counseling, support groups, and other services, can provide support, information, and referrals to local services.

If you have experienced sexual assault or rape, it is important to know that you have legal options available to you. Seeking justice and holding the perpetrator accountable can be a significant step towards healing and reclaiming your power. 

As a sexual assault or rape survivor, you may choose to pursue criminal charges, a civil lawsuit, or both. If you decide to file a civil sexual assault lawsuit, then you can seek financial compensation for the physical, emotional, and mental harm you suffered as a result of the assault. This often includes economic damages such as medical bills, missed earnings, therapy costs and medications, as well as non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. 

In many cases, adult survivors of child sex abuse discover past sexual abuse way into adulthood. Fortunately, there are laws in several states that allow adult survivors of child sex abuse to sue the perpetrator and any relevant negligent entity, like the Catholic Church, a youth sports program, school, or similar organization. A sexual abuse attorney specializing in such sensitive cases can help you understand the applicable statute of limitations and provide advice tailored to your situation so you may get the right help and support. 

What is the Statute of Limitations for Sexual Assault?

The statute of limitations determines the amount of time in which a survivor can legally file a lawsuit against the perpetrator. The period for sexual assault and child sex abuse varies depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of the case. A sexual assault attorney practicing in your state can help you understand the applicable statute of limitations in the relevant jurisdiction. 

Who Might Be Liable for Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is a serious crime, and those responsible should be held accountable for their actions. While the primary liability lies with the perpetrator, other parties can also be held liable for failing to prevent the crime or otherwise holding the perpetrator liable. Some examples include:

  • Clergy: In cases where sexual abuse occurs within a religious institution, the leaders or authorities within the institution may be held liable for failing to protect individuals from harm or for covering up the abuse. Religious institutions such as the Southern Baptist Church have been held accountable for allegedly covering up sexual abuse
  • Boy Scouts: The organization has been held liable for allegedly failing to properly screen or supervise their volunteers or leaders, and for allowing sexual abuse to occur.
  • Hospitals: If a sexual assault occurs within a hospital setting, the institution may be held liable for not providing a safe environment or for negligence in hiring and supervising employees.
  • Educational institutions: Schools, colleges, and universities have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for their students. In the case of sexual assault on campus, the institution may be responsible for neglecting to screen faculty or staff, or for not properly responding to reports of assault.
  • Sports teams: Sports teams or organizations may be held liable if sexual assault or abuse occurs within their programs. Many organizations like USA Gymnastics have been held liable for allegedly failing to take action to protect athletes.

If your sexual consent was violated, you deserve to know your legal options so you may seek justice. The experienced sexual abuse lawyers at Edwards Henderson are here to support and guide you through the legal process. We approach each case with compassion and dedication, working tirelessly to help for our clients meet their goals. Contact us for free and confidential consultation and let us support you during this difficult time.

Article Sources

  1. What Consent Looks Like
  2. Marital Rape Is Criminalized But Not Upheld
  3. California Enacts 'Yes Means Yes' Law, Defining Sexual Consent
  4. Types of Sexual Violence
  5. April 2022: The Complexities of Consent
  6. About the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline

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