Sexual consent shouldn't be fifty shades of grey: If it’s not yes, it is no.

The issue of sexual consent has been prominent on campuses across North America over the past few years, with a shift in the surrounding culture from ‘no means no’ to an enthusiastic ‘yes means yes’. Many forms of media have also caught on—just think of the “tea consent” video and all of its offshoots.

I have lectured extensively on this topic, and I usually find myself either “preaching to the converted” or having really difficult conversations with young adults afterwards who realize that they may have been involved in potentially nonconsensual experiences (as instigators or victims). I fully support open discussions like these ones, and am hopeful that the culture around sexual consent will change. Each person that we reach through these discussions has the potential to educate others, intervene in a potentially to-be-devastating situations, and actively make different choices in the future.

Every time I think of the topic of sexual consent, and by extension—sexual violence, I am reminded that we are all touched by it in some way or another, whether we have experienced instances of sexual non-consent first hand and/or know someone who has been violated in some way. Sadly, either way, we don't have to look far to understand that this conversation about body/sexual boundaries is long overdue. In fact, only 1 in 3 Canadians fully understand what sexual consent is (link) so this blog is about the basics of sexual consent.

What is sexual consent? Sexual consent is positive, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement to engage in specific sexual activities throughout a single sexual encounter. Explicit communication about consent with respect to sexual activities is a huge part of the kink scene, and I think that those who partake in more “vanilla” activities can learn a thing or two about the quality and extent of sexual communication in the kink community.

So, by this definition, sexual consent refers to the fact that each person in a sexual encounter must agree to each specific activity throughout the encounter; this means that consenting to one activity (such as oral sex) does not in any way imply consent to other activities (such as vaginal or anal penetration). Each separate sexual act requires consent. It also means that any person involved in that activity can decide at any point that they no longer consent to that activity—and that activity will have to stop, no matter what. Yes, this means that consent can even be withdrawn once penetration (or kissing or oral sex, etc.) has occurred.

Sexual consent only holds for that specific activity/encounter. It does not last after the specific sexual activity or encounter has ended; so, even though you hooked up with Person X one night, there is no obligation (or “leftover” consent from your first hook up) to engage in any activity with Person X EVER again. No matter how much they beg, text, or plead (and please, to those of you who might be that Person X, don’t do that, it is annoying and is a form of sexual harassment after someone has asked you to stop—just accept the no and move on).

The main message about sexual consent is that it is an active, ongoing process that involves explicit verbal dialogue; silence does not imply consent, and physical resistance is not required to “really mean no.” The only way to be sure is to ask the person/people you are with—and although you might think that asking will “ruin the moment”, think again. A charge of sexual assault, the massive damage done to another person/other people, the huge fallout to your reputation and social standing, the harmful changes in the way you might think of yourself—all of that is certainly worth a “check-in” to be sure.

But research shows that most of the time, sexual consent is implied by non-verbal, enthusiastic, active engagement in the sexual activity. And certainly, most of the time, this assumption of sexual consent is not questioned. But, the best way to make sure is to ask—not assume. And most definitely, explicitly obtained, verbal sexual consent should be sought out when the behavior of the person/people we are with changes in some way. Do they seem distant? Hesitant? Disengaged? Non-responsive? Are they staring off into space? Do they seem less enthusiastic? Are they half-heartedly agreeing with the activity while not even looking you in the eye? Best to stop. Worst case scenario: genital congestion, feelings of rejection, concern… but that is really not so bad, is it, when the consequences can be dire for all involved if the activity continues without consent.

If sexual activity is “meant to be”, it can just be delayed to another day when all parties are into it with their bodies and souls. What’s the point of engaging sexually, but one-sidedly, with someone/others? Doesn’t part of the wonderful experience of being with someone/others sexually for you rest on the other person’s/people’s enjoyment/arousal? If not, shouldn’t it?

Another point to bring the importance of explicit verbal communication home is the fact that many people are not great at reading—or even noticing—other people’s body language. Body language is a huge part of all communication. So when that person you are with puts their hand on your thigh during an intense make-out session, it would be great to assume that this gesture means “yes, I want more”. We might want it to mean that, since we want to continue. We might want for it to mean that so badly that we do continue. And maybe, it does mean that. And most of the time, it might mean that. But, what if, in the off chance, it means “I’m getting uncomfortable and trying to pull away”? You won’t know unless you ask. So, you’d better ask. And you’d better respect the answer because the answer needs to be given of free will, which means that you cannot coerce, force, convince, pester, beg, plead, etc. someone into changing their mind.

An enormous issue related to sexual consent is the use of alcohol and other substances that can affect decision-making. Are the people involved in sexual activity actually capable of giving consent? Are they so drunk or high that they can’t even walk in a straight line or form a coherent sentence? Are they singing to a beer bottle on the dance floor? Are they dancing alone in the corner, oblivious to their surroundings? People, this situation does not lend itself to “opportunity”; in fact, you should be more protective of this person whose judgment is rendered moot. They are not capable of making any mindful decisions at this point (they may not even notice that the person they are with is not using any form of STI protection/form of contraception), so sharing their body should likely be off limits until they can—with a clear mind and informed awareness of the pros and cons of getting involved with someone—consciously, passionately, and fully consent.

It’s great that this conversation is being had. But I think we need to do more, especially given the fact that the majority of Canadian provinces do not standardize when sexual consent is taught to students within the sex ed curriculum (ranges from Grade 2 to Grade 10 – link). I think that people who are around kids can have age-appropriate conversations about being aware of, and communicating about, their own body boundaries to others. In families with young kids, this conversation can start with talks about personal space, and how to respect it. So, stop when your (or other people’s) kids ask you to stop tickling them. Don’t force kids to hug or kiss anyone they don't want to; they can opt for a wave, a verbal hello/goodbye, they can even blow a kiss, or whatever. Don’t make a big deal out of them resisting being touched by others; you can, if you feel that you have to, tell the other person that they are just not ok with that right now. It ia also worth making it clear to kids, when they are playing with others and someone asks for something to stop, that they need to stop right away—no matter how much they are enjoying the activity. And feel free to tell them when you are uncomfortable with their actions (especially when they are waving things right in your face and threatening your eyeballs!).

The new sex ed curriculum in Ontario is a good start in terms of opening up this discussion. But we have a long way to go: still today, we are bombarded with stories of people who sexually violate others when they are not sober; we have to listen to people in potential positions of power bragging about “grabbing” body parts of others without asking; we hear about people who engage in sexual violence and who are excused/not investigated or convicted/made into a hero/justified for what they did, while the survivors are blamed, ridiculed, and shamed (and worse) for something that was not in their power to control. Raising awareness is one part of this shift, and I hope to see many more shifts happening at all levels of society.

Link of interest: Ontario PSA #ItsNeverOkay -

Caroline Pukall, Ph.D., C.Psych.