I Don’t Get It: Consent 101

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Words || Yasaman Rowshanbkhash

[CW: Sexual violence]

There is a part of me that really can’t believe that I am a university student having to define consent. But, here we are. 

Let’s start at the beginning. I don’t know about you but I’m definitely that person who’ll nod and say I know what something means but actually not know what it means, then Google it later when I am alone and safe from judgement.

Allow me to de-Google this space. 

CONSENT 

‘Consent’, as defined in Macquarie University’s Policy, is present when “a person has freely chosen to take part in sexual contact. Consent requires ongoing agreement; it can be withdrawn at any time. Where consent is withdrawn, or cannot be given, sexual contact must stop”.

There are three significant elements here.

  1. Consent is something that is freely chosen. This is something people can mostly acknowledge fairly easily; it’s clear to see that sexual behaviour is wrong when someone has been threatened, coerced or blackmailed into sex. 
  2. Consent is an ongoing agreement, and can be withdrawn at any time. Not as easily accepted. This concept is supposedly not as clear, with numerous studies demonstrating that people generally do not believe sexual assault has taken place if the person changes their mind. 
  3. Where consent is withdrawn, or cannot be given, sexual contact must stop. This is the kicker kids: if there is no consent given (especially if it is not able to be given), you are not having sex. You are committing a crime.

These are loaded terms, and given the context it is understandable that some of this is murky. If you’re not 100% clear on consent, it’s largely because society isn’t really big on getting that message out there. For instance, how many times have you heard the saying “no” actually means “yes”? 

Well, I’m here to tell you that “no” means “no” and that it comes in all different verbal and non-verbal forms. I’m also here to tell you that the “no” means “yes” message is garbage.  

AFFIRMATIVE CONSENT

Yes, there’s a new term. Don’t be frightened! Contrary to popular belief, this term has been introduced to make things easier, not harder. Rather than looking for behaviours that demonstrate a lack of consent, this term encourages us to acknowledge “words or actions” that “are clear indications of willingness to engage in sexual conduct”.  

This is genuinely a really simple concept. Is your partner engaged and enthusiastic? Are they reciprocating contact? Are they smiling, or nodding, or telling you they’re enjoying themselves?

This, my friend, is affirmative consent. The person you’re with is actively enthusiastic, and they’re showing you this!

What about a partner who goes silent when you touch them? One who looks away, closes their eyes, or stiffens? Maybe one who inches away but doesn’t stop you if you keep going?

If we were using a traffic light system, this would be orange for “Slow down friend”. Your partner is showing you that they’re not comfortable and affirmative consent has not been given. You haven’t been told no, but critically: you have not been told yes. 

Listen, we’re all human, and we’re all learning. If you reach an orange light, you are not a bad person, and you are not in the wrong. But if you speed through the orange light to get to the finish line without checking on your.. Passengers.. 

What I mean to say is, it’s what you next that counts. 

Check in with your partner. Ask them if they are okay. Slow down. 

NON-VERBAL CONSENT

Perhaps you didn’t like the last example. Maybe you’re thinking; “Well he/she didn’t say no! I’m not a mind reader!”. 

And yeah…no one’s a mind reader. 

But do you remember being in trigonometry when your teacher asked a question? When your whole class immediately avoided eye-contact? Your teacher knew that you were uncomfortable. 

How did they know that? Say it with me now: non-verbal cues.

As Sam and Jordan demonstrated, one does not need to say “My name is ____ and I say no to this” in order for their discomfort and lack of consent giving to be clear.

We need to learn to read the non-verbal cues.

  • Looking at you/avoiding your gaze
  • Pulling you closer/pulling away
  • Reciprocating and touching back/staying completely still

Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to say no to someone – through words or actions. 

But please know that no matter who you are, you have every right in the world to say no to someone. For your comfort, for your wellbeing, for your personal space: you have the right to say know. It doesn’t matter if you have been with that person for just one day, one month, or one decade- you have the right to not give your consent in any context.

It is each individual’s responsibility to ensure that boundaries are kept. We must learn to empathise with others and pick up on whether or not we are causing discomfort. 

So please help me spread this message, so that, in 40 years’ time, future students aren’t going to start an article with “I can’t believe people still don’t know or respect affirmative consent”.