I feel like consent is a good place to start this series because it’s the foundation of everything we talk about. If everyone knew about and always respected consent, there wouldn’t be a need for our group. We start nearly every presentation with consent and make sure that the group has a good understanding of it before moving on to other topics. We teach that proper consent has five aspects, although there are many other ways to look at and define consent. Consent needs to be clear, knowledgeable, voluntary, active, and is time-limited and situation-specific. Clear means that consent is not implied and it can never be assumed.
In order for a person to consent to something, they need to know exactly what they are consenting to—they need to have full knowledge of the action and consequence. Notice how I said action, consent is active, not a single yes that gives someone free reign to do whatever they want. Consent as active means that it needs to be checked every step of the way. Active also means that the person giving consent is fully aware of what’s happening and can make a rational decision. Consent cannot be physically, psychologically, or emotionally coerced. It has to be voluntary and free of external pressure and intimidation. Lastly, consent only applies to the situation in which it was given. A yes today is not a yes tomorrow or a yes to everything. A yes five minutes ago is overruled by a no right now. Consent is able to be withdrawn at any point for any reason.
The code of conduct at William and Mary defines consent in relation to incapacitation, defining incapacitation as “a state where a person cannot make an informed and rational decision to engage in sexual activity or permit sexual contact because he or she lacks conscious knowledge of the nature of the act.” I am confident in saying that the majority of questions we get have to do with how alcohol effects consent. What is the limit that renders someone unable to give consent? Is it one drop, one drink, three drinks? The issue here is that the cutoff is different for everyone because no two people react to alcohol the same way. It’s tough for people to recognize when they’re too drunk to make good decisions, never mind for someone else to try to judge that for them. You can give consent if you have been drinking depending on your ability to make an informed decision free from pressure, coercion, and incapacitation. The problem is when you’re drinking, most of these are in play, especially external pressure. If you’re trying to see if someone else can give consent, clear communication is key here. You also have to ask yourself a few questions: Am I taking advantage of the fact that he or she has been drinking? Would things be different if no alcohol was involved? Even if you think the answer to both of these is no, there’s still no guarantee that you’re right. Personally, I think it’s better to play it safe and not risk hurting somebody. If you have to ask yourself if you or someone else has drank too much to give consent, it’s probably not a good idea to continue. It can happen another day if it’s going to. “The use of drugs or alcohol is not an excuse for failing to obtain consent.” I couldn’t highlight, bold, or underline that sentence enough, and I think it speaks for itself.
Consent needs to be clear. Does that mean it needs to be verbal? Well no, not always. But ideally, it is. Consent should be both verbal and reflected in body language. We stress the importance of communication and clearly communicating intentions and desires. There are many questions about nonverbal consent, and without knowing the exact details of a situation it is difficult to say with definitive authority that this is consent and that isn’t, so it’s up to your own judgment. That doesn’t mean that something was consent because you thought it was. Things like pulling you closer or initiating further actions themselves can show consent; hesitation, pushing you away, stiffness, and lack of involvement or enthusiasm are pretty good indicators that you don’t have consent and should stop. Consent should be communicated both verbally and with body language. If someone says yes but was hesitant or seemed unenthusiastic, then that might not have been true consent, and at best might not be a great experience for either person. So how do you ask for consent without breaking the mood or making things awkward? There are a lot of ways to make sure your partner is okay with what you’re doing, and the more that you practice communication the easier and more natural it’ll become. Here are some phrases from loveisrespect.org that I think work well: “Are you comfortable with…? Is this okay? Do you want to stop? Do you want to go further? What do you want me to do next?” Obviously there are ways to read these that can sound odd, but if you can work them into your vocabulary and say them with honest care for your partner, they work wonders.
I’ve seen posts on social media recently that say things like “consent is sexy.” While I appreciate what they’re trying to say and the support they’re showing for healthy relationships, I think that this phrase sets our standards much too low. Consent isn’t just sexy, it’s a basic human right. Everyone should respect consent. It’s great if you find somebody who can navigate all the right parts of consent and make sure you’re absolutely comfortable, but that should be the expectation, not the exception. It’s our responsibility to understand consent and get it before we’re sexually active with others.
Go Forth, and Make a Difference
– Someone You Know