April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (#SAAM). Check out DVSN’s blog post from April 2021 for an overview of what constitutes sexual assault, some worrying statistics, and the history of SAAM. This year, we want to talk about the one word at the epicenter of sexual assault: consent.
What is Consent?
Sexual consent is an agreement to participate in sexual activity with someone. It is important to set honest boundaries about what you do and do not want, and to respect those set by your partner, so both are comfortable and can fully enjoy themselves. Any sexual encounter where consent is not (or cannot be) freely given is assault.
Principles of Consent: FRIES
There can be misconceptions and miscommunication around what each partner wants and agrees to in a sexual encounter. It is important for to know what constitutes consent. There are many facets involved, so Planned Parenthood has developed an acronym to lay out the principles of consent: FRIES.
Consent must be a choice without pressure, manipulation, or impairment due to drugs, alcohol, or health reasons. One must be clear of mind and not fearful of angering or losing their partner if they say no. Repeatedly badgering someone to engage in a sexual act until they eventually agree is coercion, not consent. Leveraging a position of power to make someone feel they cannot refuse without consequences is not consent.
Consent may be revoked at any time. Even after freely giving their consent, if either partner no longer wishes to continue for any reason, at any point, they may rescind that consent. They may want to try something but discover they do not like it and change their mind. Or they may not be in the mood for something they have previously enjoyed. Just because consent was given in the past does not mean it will automatically be given for a repeat encounter.
Consent is only consent if all parties are fully aware of what they are consenting to. They must understand what they are agreeing to. If one partner wants to change something or try something different, they should check in to make sure the other has the necessary knowledge to continue to consent.
Both parties should want to do what they consent to and not feel that they must agree to please their partner or because it’s a “normal” or “expected” activity. Their enthusiasm may ebb during the encounter and should prompt communication of changed consent. Only yes means yes. “I guess so” is not enthusiastic or true consent.
Consent should be asked for and received before any sexual activity or before any change in sexual activity. Just because you consent to one thing does not mean you automatically consent to something else. You may consent to one part of an activity but not another part. Consent should be specific to what you want.
What is NOT Consent?
The FRIES acronym gives a good guideline for what constitutes consent but there are also a few things to be aware of that definitely do not constitute consent.
Not saying “no” is not the same as saying “yes”. There are various reasons and situations where someone may be reluctant or incapable of verbalizing or otherwise (pushing away, shaking head, etc.) making clear their lack of consent. Consent should not be implied; it should be undoubtedly communicated.
Just because one is married or in a committed or long-term relationship with a partner does not mean consent to sexual activity with that partner is automatically given. One can always choose to say “no” at every encounter, regardless of what other relationship commitments have been made.
Clothing & Appearance
While wearing something revealing or suggestive may be part of sexual activity, it does not constitute consent. One’s state of dress has nothing to do with whether or not they agree to an encounter. Special attention paid to one’s appearance through clothing, hairstyle, make-up, jewelry, etc. is not a sign of consent.
While it differs from state to state, there is a legal age of consent. Consent cannot be given to an adult by someone underage, whether the minor freely wants to or not. In Massachusetts, one must be 16 years old to legally give consent to penetrative sex and 14 years old to legally give consent to non-penetrative sexual touching. Massachusetts does not allow so-called “Romeo and Juliet” exceptions, when both parties are close in age or even both minors. For example, a 17-year-old could be convicted of rape or “indecent assault and battery” of their 15-year-old partner, whether or not they both fully consented as described above.
Creating a Culture of Consent
Conversations and changing perceptions around sexual consent have come to the forefront in recent years with many high-profile sexual assaults and harassments coming to light and spawning the #MeToo movement in 2017. Bringing these issues out of the shadows has emphasized the differing understandings of what constitutes consent. In fact, in Massachusetts, there is no legal definition of consent, despite it being cited as an element in the crimes of rape and indecent assault and battery. We need to continue to discuss and clarify, to practice and to teach consent, to change laws and perceptions, and to hold everyone accountable in order to ensure the atrocities of sexual assault do not continue to be commonplace and swept under the rug.
Consent in Acting
Actors are some of the biggest celebrities and influencers of the day. Many of the most prominent figures in the #MeToo movement are in the film industry. This prominence has helped bring the movement to the forefront and it can also serve as a model for the importance of consent. Film, television, and theater frequently depict scenes of an intimate nature. Caught up in the story, we often don’t think about what it took for the actors to create that scene, the sexual acts they engaged in or simulated with someone who is likely not their chosen partner and whom they may not be completely comfortable with or even like.
It is becoming more common for sex scenes to be choreographed and overseen by professionals known as “intimacy coordinators”. They ensure that everyone involved is aware of and consents to all sexual activities in the production. They facilitate discussions, suggest changes, and provide avenues for complaint. This positive influence can help push forward a culture of consent.
Consent in All Areas
As a domestic violence organization, we have been exploring consent as it relates to sexual assault and abuse, but it is something to be considered in all aspects of life. For any kind of touching, from a friendly hug to tickling to tapping someone on a shoulder to get their attention, consent is necessary. Consider consent for non-physical things as well. If a friend tells a personal story, one should get their consent before sharing it with anyone else. When photographing others, get consent before taking a shot and before posting it online. From employment contracts to product terms and conditions of use to seemingly small things like proactively opting in instead of needing to opt out of email lists and internet cookies, issues of consent are everywhere.
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