What Is Consent?

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Generally speaking, the term “consent” means to agree to something. Lately however, the term has become an important part of social and political discourse and it usually refers to consent in a sexual context.

Consent

Giving one’s sexual consent means clearly and freely agreeing to participate in a sexual activity, making it consensual. It’s important for every person involved in the activity to give their consent, otherwise sexual activity without consent is considered sexual assault or rape.

This article explores what consent is, why it’s important, how to ask for it, what it includes and what it does not.

How Consent Works

Consent applies to any kind of sexual activity or engagement, including touching another person, kissing them, or having oral or penetrative intercourse.

These are some important aspects to remember about consent:

  • Consent needs to be freely given: Consent needs to be freely given, without pressure, intimidation, or manipulation. Consent that is given under duress or by someone who is at a disadvantage is not valid. For example, a subordinate may feel forced to agree to participate in a sexual act with their manager, but that is not freely given consent.
  • Consent has to be specific: If someone has consented to one activity, such as kissing, for example, it doesn’t mean the person consents to other activities, like taking off their clothes. Consent needs to be specific and cannot be assumed to include other things as well.
  • Consent can be reversed at any time: Even if someone had given their consent before and agreed to participate in sexual activity, they are entitled to change their mind at any time. At whatever point they want to stop, their partner must respect their wishes.
  • Consent must be informed: If someone is consenting to something, they must have all the information. It’s important for people to disclose whether they have any sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to their partners. Partners also need to discuss and agree on birth control methods. Misleading partners about one’s STI status or birth control use negates consent.
  • Consent should be enthusiastic: When it comes to sexual activity, people should only do things they genuinely want to do, rather than being forced to do things they don’t want to do or doing things they feel they’re expected to do. Therefore, it’s important for people to check that their partner is actively saying “yes,” rather than proceeding just because they haven’t heard the word “no.” Silence or passivity does not mean consent.

Planned Parenthood notes that there are laws regarding who can consent and who cannot. For instance, people who are drunk, high, unconscious, below the legal age of consent, or not in a position to make decisions for any other reason cannot consent.

Why Consent Is Important

Consent is important because if you’re getting intimate with someone, you should be able to share your boundaries with them and say no to anything you’re not comfortable doing, at any time. Similarly, it’s important for you to check that they’re equally on board with being intimate with you and to respect their boundaries.

You have the right to decide what happens to your body, and that right has to be respected by everyone, regardless of whether it’s someone you’ve just met, someone you’ve been intimate with before, or someone you’re in a long-term relationship with.

For instance, if you’ve just met someone, just because you’ve enthusiastically consented and participated in one activity, doesn’t mean you consent to others. Or, just because you’ve hooked up with someone in the past, doesn’t automatically mean you’ve consented to do so again. Even if you’re in a committed relationship or marriage with a partner or a spouse, your consent is not implied for every sexual interaction.

Therefore it’s helpful for you and your partner to clearly communicate your consent and boundaries and regularly check in to ensure that you’re still on the same page. If your partner hasn’t communicated their willing and enthusiastic consent, it’s your responsibility to ask them whether they consent.

A 2022 study notes that consent communication not only improves the quality of the relationship and the sexual activity, it also helps ensure participants’ safety.

Types of Consent

Consent can be verbal or non-verbal.

Verbal Consent

These are some examples of verbal consent:

  • “Yes.”
  • “I’d like that.”
  • “That sounds good.”
  • “That feels great.”
  • “Don’t stop doing that.”
  • “I’m enjoying this.”
  • “I’m open to trying this.”

Verbal consent is the clearest form of consent and, therefore, the safest.

Non-Verbal Consent

Consent can also be non-verbal. These are some examples of non-verbal consent:

  • Nodding your head
  • Giving a thumbs up
  • Making direct eye contact
  • Pulling someone closer
  • Touching someone actively
  • Initiating contact

However, it’s important to note that everyone’s body language is different and non-verbal consent can be misinterpreted. Therefore, it’s helpful to verbally check in with your partner every now and then to make sure they’re on the same page as you are.

How to Ask for Consent

These are some ways to ask for someone’s consent:

  • “May I do this?”
  • “Are you OK with this?”
  • “Does this feel good to you?”
  • “I’d really like to do this, would you be into it?”
  • “How do you feel about this?”
  • “Are you comfortable with this?”
  • “What do you like?”
  • “What would you like to do?”
  • “Is there anything I can do to make you feel more safe or comfortable?”

What Is Not Consent

Like consent, non-consent can also be verbal or non-verbal.

These are some examples of verbal non-consent:

  • “No.”
  • “Stop.”
  • “I don’t want to do this.”
  • “I’m not enjoying this.”
  • “Don’t do that; I don’t like it.”
  • “Don’t touch me.”

These are some examples of non-verbal non-consent:

  • Turning your head or body away from someone
  • Pushing them away
  • Avoiding their touch
  • Avoiding touching them
  • Staying silent and not saying anything
  • Lying still 

It’s important to note that flirting, wearing certain types of clothing, or kissing someone are not necessarily consent or an invitation for more, and to think otherwise is a form of victim-blaming.

A Word From Verywell

Consent is an important concept that is gaining awareness. However, if you or a loved one have been sexually assaulted in any way, remember that it’s not your fault, regardless of the circumstances. Report the assault to the authorities and seek help from healthcare providers if needed.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. NYC Health. Sexual consent.

  2. Planned Parenthood. Sexual consent.

  3. Flecha R, Tomás G, Vidu A. Contributions from psychology to effectively use and achieve sexual consent. Front Psychol. 2020;11:92. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00092

  4. Pfeiffer EJ, McGregor KA, Van Der Pol B, Hardy Hansen C, Ott MA. Willingness to disclose sexually transmitted infection status to sex partners among college-aged men in the United States. Sex Transm Dis. 2016;43(3):204-206. doi:10.1097/OLQ.0000000000000420

  5. Edwards J, Rehman US, Byers ES. Perceived barriers and rewards to sexual consent communication: A qualitative analysis. J Soc Pers Relat. 2022;39(8):2408-2434. doi:10.1177/02654075221080744

  6. University of California, Riverside. What is consent?

  7. Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. What consent looks like.

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.