What is Consent? 5 Points to Discuss with the Teens in Your Life

It is challenging for young people to navigate through conflicting and complex messages about sex, sexuality and consent that they receive from their peers, the media and society as a whole. The term “sexual assault” refers to any and all sexual activity that takes place without consent.

Consent is a particularly confusing area that requires real explanation and discussion. Here are some key points on consent to address with the young people in your life. This is a critical conversation for both young women and young men:

  • Consent is not the absence of a “no” – it is the presence of a “yes.” Lack of consent can look different in different situations, and someone does not have to explicitly say “no” for sex to be non-consensual. If a person goes limp, cries, becomes silent or stops kissing the other person back, these can be signs that the person does not wish to consent to sexual intercourse. Similarly, if the person says “wait,” “I don’t know” or “not here,” these are also signals that he or she is not comfortable consenting to sex.

  • There are times when someone cannot consent to sex. When someone is drunk, on drugs, asleep, passed out or otherwise incapacitated, he or she is not capable of making decisions around sex.

  • Consent for one sexual act does not mean consent for all sexual acts. Each sexual activity requires its own explicit consent. For instance, consensual kissing does not mean that sex is consensual. Similarly, vaginal intercourse does not imply consent for anal intercourse. Partners should discuss their expectations and limitations around sex and respect each other’s boundaries without making assumptions about a partner’s comfort level.

  • Non-consensual sex can happen between people in a relationship. The media perpetuates the notion that sexual assault comes from strangers in dark alleyways, when the truth is that the vast majority of cases of sexual assault happen between people who know each other. Non-consensual sex is never okay or normal, whether it takes place within a romantic relationship, between friends or casual acquaintances, or with a stranger. Being in a relationship does not mean automatic consent for any and all sexual activity.

  • People have different expectations, desires and comfort levels around sex. College campuses bring together diverse people with different experiences, attitudes and views, and there is no way to predict how a potential partner feels or what he or she is comfortable with. The best way to ensure that sex is consensual and pleasurable for both partners is to communicate openly and respectfully.

Read the Huffington Post piece by Deborah Rosenbloom, JWI's director of programs, for more on why parents must discuss sexual violence on campus with their kids.

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