SEX & RELATIONSHIPS ∙ 4 minutes read

Everything you need to know about sexual consent

By Kirsty Mason

No means no, but it’s not always as simple as that. Revenge porn, stealthing and digital relationships have evolved our understanding of acceptable sexual behaviour. Situations are sometimes complex, but could respectfully navigating consent be the key to a happy sex life?

With 81% of women and 43% of men reporting some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime, it’s clear that we still have mountains to climb when it comes to navigating consent. 

It’s a vital part of a healthy relationship but it’s not always black and white. Even with good intentions, you may be confused about how to navigate consent so that your partner always feels safe, comfortable and enthusiastic about the act. A mutually respectful sexual relationship must be approached correctly - but how?

Living in a digital era and building on our understanding of stealthing, new layers of complexity have been added to our interpretation of sexual consent. Here’s a breakdown of how to understand, respect and build healthy sexual relationships with a modern approach to consent in mind.

But first: what is consent? Let's find out.

What is consent?

Understanding the meaning of consent, how it's given and when to ask for it is essential, as it will help you to recognise when someone has given their consent and when they haven't.

“In very simple terms, consent is the mutual agreement and permission to do something and continue,” says Kate Moyle, a Psychosexual and Relationship Psychotherapist. “It’s an ongoing conversation between those involved, which can change at any point.”

Harmonising with Kate's sexual consent definition, sexual assault charity RAINN explains that sexual consent is a process of communication and setting boundaries. This means that either participant can change their mind at any time, prior consent doesn’t mean current consent, and the choice must be made consciously and freely. If someone’s ability to make decisions is impaired in some way - such as intoxication by drink or drugs - then sexual acts are considered non-consensual. 

In terms of legality, section 74 of the Sexual Consent Act 2003 states that consent is agreed by choice when someone has the freedom and mental capacity to make that choice. Consenting to one sexual act does not automatically mean consent for another. A person doesn’t have the freedom to consent if they’re under threat, intoxicated, or underage.

By these definitions, the two following conditions must be met for consent to take place:

  • The person must freely choose to take part.
  • The person must be in a state where they can make a clear decision, meaning they can’t consent if they’re under threat, intoxicated, unconscious, or underage.

“No” terminology

The term ‘no means no’ is a commonly used phrase. While it’s important to remember this, the terminology used to communicate ‘no’ may not always be so explicit.

When it comes to consensual sex, it’s important to bear in mind the following:

  • Sexual consent is reversible and while someone might initially agree to a sexual act, they might change their mind further down the line.
  • Consenting to one sexual act does not give consent to another sexual act.
  • Silence does not mean yes.
  • Assumptions must never be made about consent, regardless of whether you’re in a relationship or you’ve had sex before.

So, if your partner doesn’t explicitly say no, how do you know when the act is non-consensual?

The key is communication.

Rather than searching for an explicit ‘no’, look for the presence of a ‘yes’. This is known as enthusiastic consent and means that your partner is expressing positive body language or verbal confirmation to express their consent. 

Enthusiastic is the key word here. If someone says “maybe later” or “I’m not sure” or otherwise doesn’t seem to be enjoying themselves, stop.

If you’re ever unsure in any way, check-in with your partner and ask if they’re ok. This is especially important if the sexual act changes to some degree.

Communication isn’t a mood-killer and can even lay the foundations for an intimate, positive sexual encounter.

Condoms, consent, and stealthing

The Sexual Consent Act states that consenting to one sex act does not give consent to another sex act. This is why the removal of a condom without the knowledge of the partner is a non-consensual act as the condition in which sex was agreed upon has changed. Consent has been given to sex with a condom, but not without.

It’s termed ‘stealthing’ and has gained traction in recent years as awareness that the act is classified as rape has become more widespread. Condoms protect both of those involved from sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy and the advice is to always wear one unless trying for a baby (which must be agreed upon by both people involved).

Revenge porn and consent - what is revenge porn?

Revenge porn is the act of sharing private, sexual photos or videos of another person without their consent in order to cause embarrassment or distress.

Celebrities tend to be the most high-profile targets of revenge porn, with their leaked images and videos occasionally being uploaded to social media as well as dedicated revenge porn sites. However, revenge porn videos and images of normal, unsuspecting people are also frequently uploaded to the internet with serious consequences.

Guidelines imposed in 2015 meant that ‘revenge porn’ was recognised as a sexual offence that could serve you a whopping 2 years of prison time. That’s right - sharing images online without consent is a very serious offence.

Revenge porn can be both a digital or physical image and is shared with the intent to harm or upset that person. But whether or not there’s an intent to embarrass someone, sexual images should never be shared online or offline without consent.

The bottom line

Consent is vital when it comes to feeling safe, happy and healthy in any sexual relationship. As the world becomes increasingly digitised, there are even more ways to neglect consent and an update on legislation has imposed tougher sentences on acts such as revenge porn. 

The key to ensuring a mutually respectful relationship is to communicate with your partner and look for signs of enthusiastic consent. If your partner seems uncomfortable in any way, you mustn’t hesitate to stop.

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