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7 Simple Rules of Sexual Consent

The basics of what everyone needs to know about consent.

Key points

  • Sexual consent is the mutual, freely expressed agreement by all parties involved to engage in intimate activities.
  • A lack or blatant disregard for sexual consent results in sexual assault and rape.
  • For the sexual well-being of everyone, partners and potential partners need to have open, ongoing conversations around consent.

Sexual consent is the mutual, freely expressed agreement by all parties involved to engage in intimate activities. A lack or blatant disregard for sexual consent results in sexual assault and rape.

It never fails to surprise me when I bring up the topic in my classes how many university students are unfamiliar with what constitutes sexual consent. Maybe then it’s less surprising that many adults I talk to have an equal misunderstanding of the details of sexual consent.

There’s a lot of blame to go around—from a lack of comprehensive sex education in our schools to the accepted proliferation of myths about consent in our culture. Few things in the sexual realm lend themselves to a negative impact on individuals’ sexuality, selfhood, and life itself than violations of sexual consent. So, it’s a good time to address some of the most basic rules of sexual consent.

1. One cannot consent if they are underage. An individual categorized as a minor cannot legally offer sexual consent. Even if they say “yes,” consent is not legally given. And one must know the age of consent where they are. The age of consent is not only different from country to country, it varies from state to state.

2. One cannot consent if they are intoxicated. This one is a little complex. Alcohol diminishes one’s capacity to make rational decisions. Therefore, an intoxicated person cannot consent as they cannot offer reasonable judgment or provide clear communication.

The same rule that applies to anyone with mental incapacity. How much alcohol is too much, or how intoxicated is a person before they cannot give consent? It’s a fair question, and there’s a subjective nature to it all.

Does this mean that if you meet someone in a bar and both parties have a couple of drinks, any resulting sex is non-consensual? No, but it may be better to be cautious—especially if it’s someone you are just meeting and do not know well. You would not want to wake up the next day next to someone who doesn’t remember giving consent or who regrets their incapacitated judgment.

If there is any doubt, do not engage in sexual touching or sexual intercourse. Remember, you are responsible for obtaining explicit consent free of complications.

3. One cannot consent if they are unconscious. An unconscious person has no ability to know or understand what is happening. Furthermore, an unconscious person does not have the ability to withdraw consent. Sex with an unconscious person is always non-consensual.

4. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. I do mean anytime. This includes even when you are in the midst of a sexual act. If your partner says “no,” you must stop. You may not like it, but once the stop sign goes up, you no longer have consent.

5. One cannot consent if they are being coerced, threatened, or manipulated. You do not have consent if you threaten or trick someone into having sex. Even if they say “yes,” if they were manipulated into doing so, that is not an offering of consent.

6. Present consent does not indicate future consent. If someone expresses consent one day, this does not mean that offering consent covers all future meetings. If someone consents to sex on Monday, that does not indicate that they consent to have sex with you on Friday. Consent must be offered prior to any sexual interlude. This is true in long-term relationships and marriage—yes, marital rape is a real thing.

7. No is never Yes. Maybe is never Yes. It could not be said more plainly. No is always No. It’s not a flirtation or playing hard to get. If they say “no,” the answer is no. And maybe is not yes. Unless they have the ability to consent and say “yes” on their own accord, you do not have consent. Thus endeth the lesson.

Cottonbro/Pexels
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

And make no mistake about it, the reason for someone disregarding the rules of consent is not just that they have not been educated about sexual consent. There are many reasons why an individual chooses to dismiss when consent has not been offered. Most often, it’s about power.

Rape, after all, is not about sex. It’s about power. For some, it comes from a sense of entitlement. Drugs, alcohol, or peer pressure may play a role. The individual may be adhering to hegemonic scripts, or they may have been socialized in a culture where sexual violence is normalized.

There are multiple paths to sexual assault. Every one of those paths disregards consent. The rules of sexual consent provide a guideline on securing consent when consent is offered freely and explicitly and under what conditions consent cannot be given. For the sexual well-being of everyone, partners and potential partners need to have open, ongoing conversations around consent.

For those who are victims of sexual assault and rape, the following resources are available to you:

  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE)
  • Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN.org)
  • National Sexual Violence Resource Center (nsvrc.org)

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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