Sexual Consent: Saying Yes, is Not Enough

Understanding sexual consent is vital for fostering safe, respectful, and enjoyable sexual environments, upholding personal autonomy, preventing misconduct, and safeguarding well-being in healthy, consensual relationships. This article clarifies consent and its repercussions when misunderstood.

What is sexual consent?

Consent happens when all people involved in any sexual activity agree to take part by choice. They also need to have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

If someone says ‘no’ to any sexual activity, they are not agreeing to it. But, if someone doesn’t say ‘no’ out loud, that doesn’t automatically mean they have agreed to it either.

If someone seems unsure, stays quiet, moves away or doesn’t respond, they are not agreeing to sexual activity. It’s prevalent for people who have experienced sexual violence to find they cannot move or speak.

Image showing safe sex options.

Someone doesn’t have the freedom and capacity to agree to sexual activity by choice if:

  • They are asleep or unconscious.
  • They are drunk or ‘on’ drugs.
  • They have been ‘spiked’.
  • They are too young.
  • They have a mental health disorder or illness, so they cannot choose.
  • They are being pressured, bullied, manipulated, tricked or scared into saying ‘yes’.
  • The other person is using physical force against them.
Image showing drugs

If someone’s not sure whether you consent to something sexual, they should check with you. If they can see or suspect you’re not 100% comfortable or happy with what’s happening between you, they should stop.

Why ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean consent

Because consent has to involve freedom and the capacity to consent, saying ‘yes’ is not enough.

Being forced, pressured, bullied, manipulated, tricked or scared takes away our freedom and ability to choose in many situations. For example, if someone is in an abusive relationship, they might say ‘yes’ to something out of fear for their own wellbeing or the wellbeing of other people – which is a long way away from saying ‘yes’ because they really wanted to. The fear took away their freedom and capacity to make a real choice.

Most of us would recognise that, if someone stands behind you at a cash machine and asks for your PIN number while holding a knife to your back and you give it to them, you aren’t consenting to being robbed.
Well, it’s similar with sex. Although, in this case, the ‘knife’ could be something entirely different – such as the threat of someone sharing a sexually explicit photo of another person. Or spreading lies about them. Or making them feel worthless.

What consent looks like

Here are some examples of what consent does and doesn’t look like in practice.

Consent looks like:

  • Enthusiastically saying ‘yes!’.
  • Talking to the other person about what you do and don’t want, and listening to them in return.
  • Checking in with the other person – for example, asking ‘is this okay?’, ‘do you want to slow down?’ or ‘do you want to stop?’.
  • Respecting someone’s choice if they say ‘no’. And never trying to change their mind or put pressure on them.

Consent is not like a permit or voucher that we can use up until its expiry date or at any point in the future. The person who really wanted to have sex with us last night might not want to have sex with us this morning and that’s 100% their right.

It also makes no difference if you’re married to someone or in a relationship with them. You still need to get their consent. Every. Single Time.

Consent does not look like:

  • Feeling like you have to agree to sex or other sexual activity because you’re worried about the other person’s reaction if you say ‘no’.
  • Someone having sex with you or touching you in a sexual manner when you’re asleep or unconscious.
  • Someone continuing with sexual activity despite your non-verbal cues that you don’t want it to continue or you’re not sure – for example, if you pull away, freeze or seem uncomfortable.
  • Someone assuming that you want to have sex or take part in other sexual activity because of your actions or what you’re wearing – for example, flirting, accepting a drink, wearing a short skirt.
  • Someone assuming that you want to have sex or take part in other sexual activity with them because you’ve had sex or taken part in other sexual activity with them before.
  • Someone assuming that you want to take part in one type of sexual activity because you wanted to take part in another.
  • Someone removing a condom during sex after you only agreed to have sex with one (what is known as ‘stealthing’).

Please know, however, that these are just a few examples of what consent doesn’t look like.

If you didn’t want something to happen then you didn’t give your consent. You also didn’t give your consent if you weren’t capable of deciding whether or not you wanted it – for example, if you were a child or if you were drunk.

And if there was no consent, then it was sexual violence.

If you’re in a sexual encounter with someone and they ask you to stop and you don’t stop, you’re committing a sexual offence. It’s as simple as that.

Myths about rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse and other sexual violence.

Myths about rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence hold a lot of power in our society. And that’s dangerous because these myths do serious harm. They can cause victims and survivors to feel shame or to blame themselves for what happened, and make it difficult for them to talk about or get help.

These myths can also affect how victims and survivors are treated by services and organisations that should be there to help them – and even by their own family and friends.