Consent – when has someone agreed to sex?
By Rachel Rosen
The issue of consent has recently been in the news: Cambridge University is considering introducing classes on consent after a high number of students reported experiencing assault, harassment and unwelcome touching. In the US, dozens of universities are under federal investigation over their handling of sexual assault cases. Sexual violence is a horrific problem and consent has become a fashionable topic of discussion – but what can parents do?
What is consent?
Understanding what is meant by consent is the first step.
Consent means mutual agreement to sexual activity. Sexual contact with someone without their consent is considered assault, but this is complicated by the fact that you must be sure that your partner is both willing and able to consent to sexual activity.
The easiest and best way to determine if someone is willing is to ask!
Increasingly, experts and activists are arguing that the absence of a ‘no’ is not enough – they must actively agree.
What’s more, agreement to one sexual activity doesn't imply that someone has consented to others. Nor does the fact that there has been sexual contact before.
If you’re in the least bit uncertain about a partner’s willingness, you should always ask.
Even if you have a seemingly willing partner, age, intoxication and other factors also play a role in whether they are able to consent to sex.
- In the UK, the age of consent is 16. People under 16 cannot legally give consent (even to someone their own age), regardless of their willingness.
- Young people between the ages of 16 and 18 are deemed unable to consent to sex with someone in a position of trust, like a teacher or a doctor.
- Anyone travelling abroad should also be aware that the age of consent varies by country – in some countries it is 18.
- There are other factors that can prevent a seemingly willing person from giving valid consent. If, for instance, a person is unconscious or so drunk that they are unable to understand what is happening, they cannot agree to sex. It is your responsibility to ensure that your partner is both aware of and comfortable with the situation.
How can parents help?
Consent isn’t just an issue for young people, of course, but it comes up first when we are young and has certainly become increasingly important at universities. There are lots of ways that parents can help children across a range of ages – here are a few:
- Emphasise bodily autonomy One of the best things you can do to teach your child about consent is to emphasise that every individual is the boss of their own body and of who gets to touch it. From a very young age, children understand and internalise these messages. Reassuring your children that it’s okay to say no to unsolicited hugs and pats on the head, for example, can help them feel comfortable asserting their own rights and in respecting those of others.
- Draw clear boundaries. Boundaries about acceptable touch vary by situation. Parents, carers and doctors sometimes need to touch children in ways that would be unacceptable for anyone else. There are other types of touch that a child should never accept - anything intended to hurt, for example. Teaching your kids from a young age about typical boundaries for physical contact may help them build awareness of questionable situations.
- Tell your children to trust their instincts. Even young children may well have strong instincts about safety and danger. Let your kids know that if something is really making them uncomfortable, they should trust their instincts. It’s perfectly OK to decline further contact with a person who seems dangerous or untrustworthy, or to back away from a situation they don’t like.
- Make it clear that no means no… Teach your children that there are certain words that shut situations down. If you’re playing with your child or tickling them and they say ‘no,’ or ask you to stop, find out if they’re really upset or just playing around. If they don’t like what you’re doing, stop. Make it clear that the same rules apply when playing with their friends. Emphasising respect for boundaries when they're playing will set a good example for more serious situations.
- …And yes means yes! Make sure your children know that it’s OK to express themselves when they enjoy something! People who don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves may struggle with making their preferences known, so it’s important to help your kids build this confidence.
- Don’t let troubling jokes go unqueried. Issues like taking advantage of drunk women are often viewed as funny. If your child makes a joke like this in your presence, ask them why they think it's funny.
- Go beyond the birds and the bees. At some point, you’ll probably find yourself having an embarrassing (but very important) conversation about sex with your children. As they get older, consent should become a part of conversations about sex. Talk to them about what we mean by consent, whether it’s possible for someone who is drunk to give consent. Your kids should know about consent and understand that it is crucial.
Image: Bùi Linh Ngân, CC BY