Consent — why it’s more important than ever to know where you (and others) stand

Sexual consent should be pretty straightforward — “yes” means yes, and everything else (“no”, “maybe”, “not yet”, “I’m not sure”, or even silence) should be considered a no.

However, consent can still be confusing for some people and can result in sexual assault: in Australia, 23% of women and 8% of men aged 18 or over have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. 

Let that sink in — almost a quarter of the women in Australia, and almost one in 10 blokes, have been sexually assaulted. About 60% of women and 51% of men who have endured sexual assault have experienced it more than once.

And, both women and men are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a known person than by a stranger. For women, the most common perpetrator is an intimate partner.

Consent then is a vital aspect of your sex life to get right.

What is sexual consent?

Legal definitions of consent vary between Australian state and territory jurisdictions but the Australian Institute of Family Studies states it “is an individual's free agreement to participate in an activity. 

“Consent can only be given if it is free and voluntary, without fear, coercion, intimidation or anything else that inhibits free agreement.

“Consent also needs to be actively communicated in order to establish a free agreement, this is known as 'positive (or affirmative) consent'. It is not enough to say that an individual consented just because they did not refuse or resist.”

The importance of affirmative consent

Debbie Ollis — an Associate Professor in Education at Deakin University who teaches and researches in the fields of gender, respectful relationships and sexuality education — says recent changes to sexual consent laws in several Australian states were a sign of significant change.

The laws state that consent is not presumed and people must give and obtain consent at the time of the act. Also, there must be an ongoing and mutual conversation between participants of sexual activities, and people also have a right to choose to not participate in sexual activities.

Ollis said anyone engaging in sexual activity had to be aware of the changing legal landscape when it came to consent.

“Consent is actually quite complex — there are a lot of nuances associated with what we mean by consent, especially with the recent changes of law in some states,” she says. “What they (the new laws) are saying is, you have to ask — you can't assume that if somebody doesn't say no (then it’s OK to progress). 

“It's going to be a real shift around how people negotiate their sexual relationships. Men can't think 'oh, well, you know, it looks like she's liking what I'm doing' (and not have to ask for consent).”

Ollis added the updated laws meant some men may be charged for behaviour they may have previously gotten away with.

“Something like ‘stealthing’, which is taking off a condom in a sexual encounter without the (other person’s) permission — that is now a criminal offence. So that's why you really need to get your head around things, because there are some behaviours that were always thought of as inappropriate, but they hadn't been illegal (until now).”

Examples of consent — and what isn’t consent

According to Kids Helpline, consent should be ‘clear, enthusiastic and certain’. Examples of that include:

  • “Yes”
  • “Absolutely”
  • “I’d like to…”
  • “I want to keep doing this”
  • “Let’s do that more”
  • “Yassssss”, and
  • “That feels awesome”.

On the flipside, this is what consent doesn’t sound like:

  • “No”
  • “Maybe”
  • “Can we slow things down?”
  • “I’m not sure”
  • “I don’t think I’m ready”
  • Being silent, or not responding
  • Pulling away or resisting.

When is the right time to ask for consent?

Consent should always be given before sexual activity. Check in with your partner before and during the interaction to ensure both of you are happy and comfortable with what is unfolding. 

Can people change their minds after consenting?

Yes. People can change their minds at any stage of a sexual interaction. Communication is vital here, both talking and listening. If someone wants the interaction to stop and says “no” or “stop” or similar, the activity must immediately stop. 

Consent and the law

In the simplest of terms, if you don’t have consent, it’s an offence. 

Kids Helpline states “it is against the law to do sexual things (even kissing or touching) to someone if they have not given or are unable to give consent. This is called sexual assault and it’s a crime. 

“The law also says that there are some situations where it is never ok for someone to do sexual things with you, even if you consent.” These are:

  • If you’re under the age of consent. The legal age for consensual sex varies across each state and territory. To find out more, visit the lawstuff website
  • If the other person holds a position of authority, power or trust over you (such as a parent, family member, teacher, carer, support worker).

If in doubt, talk it out

Ollis said while there were many nuances men and women had to navigate when it came to consent, the main thing to remember was to communicate with your partners.
“It’s absolutely vital to be a good communicator here — young men need to learn how to talk to their partners about what they want, (or it could be) a 60-year-old man who is not accustomed to negotiating sexual relationships,” she says. “Communication is vital.”

Learn more

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