Gettin’ some… consent

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By Charlotte Hings

On the case of consensual coitus

When two or more people engage in a sexual activity, all those involved must agree to what is happening.

This is known as giving consent, and this must be expressed using words and behaviour by everyone involved.

Without consent, sexual activity is considered to be sexual violence.

“Consent is essentially getting permission to engage in an activity,” Amanda Cook, Sexual Violence Response Coordinator at the University of Waterloo said.

To avoid incidences of sexual violence, it is important to increase education on what consent is, how to ensure that it is properly obtained, and how to identify situations where consent cannot be obtained.

This article will provide you with a quick guide into consent.

What constitutes consent?

Consent is unambiguous, multifaceted, and must be perpetual.

“It’s positive, its ongoing, its enthusiastic, and it’s not [like] if you consent to one act that automatically means you consent to the next act,” Cook said. “It means checking in along the way and making sure that the person you are with is okay with everything.”

The act of giving consent must be voluntary, meaning that consent is not valid if a person is being deceived, coerced, or forced into giving it through emotional, psychological, physical, or financial threats.

In other words, consent must always be freely given and those involved in a sexual encounter must feel able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or to stop the sexual activity at any point.

Before and during sexual activities, there are a few essential questions to always be mindful of.

“So things like, ‘is the person able to consent?’” Cook said. “Are they conscious? Are they way beyond drunk? There are limitations to when somebody could potentially consent. Is the consent given without manipulation or coercion or threat? Is there a power imbalance or the person who is seeking the behaviour have authority over the other individual? Is the person of age to consent?”

Consent is not something that can be assumed or provided by anyone else.

“Somebody can’t consent for somebody else,” Cook said. “Your brother or sister can’t say to her friend, ‘oh, yeah for sure, she’d totally be into that.’ Right, that’s totally inappropriate.”

Can consent be withdrawn?

It is normal for someone to change their mind during or before a sexual encounter, for any reason. It is important to communicate with your sexual partner(s): if you wish to withdraw consent, to observe and ask about any changes in body language or behavior of your sexual partner(s) during or before the sexual act that may indicate they wish to withdraw consent, and respect your partner(s) decision when consent is withdrawn.

“Consent cannot be assumed. Yes, consent can be withdrawn,” Cook said.

What words can be used to give consent?

Many people assume that definition of consent is that ‘only no means no,’ which means that unless or until you explicitly say ‘no’, you are implicitly saying ‘yes.’

The correct definition of consent is that someone  must agree, gives permission, or explicitly says ‘yes’ to sexual activity with other persons. Although, Cook explained, this doesn’t mean interactions need to be robotic or contractual. Often, consent is a mixture of verbal and non-verbal cues.

“[Seek] the affirmative, but then also [look] out for the non-verbal body language type cues as well,” Cook said. “Giving consent can look a lot of different ways. But probably if you’re not sure the clearest way is ‘yes’ or ‘yes, I like that’, or ‘for sure’. So again, that enthusiastic, really clear consent.”

Without enthusiasm, it can be assumed your partner is not comfortable with what’s going on.

“When you hear somebody being silent or saying ‘no, I guess,’ or ‘maybe,’ that’s probably not consent and it may be enough for somebody to assume its consent because they’re so focused on what they want to do to the other person,” Cook said. “But those are the moments you can take to say, ‘hey, it doesn’t really seem like you’re into this, we can try something else.”

If you’re uncertain about an experience, pursuing an act, or about your partners comfort, it’s okay to ask. Consent starts with opening discussion channels between partners.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding around consent and what it all involves,” Cook said. “If you’re not sure, ask and opening up a line for communication and feeling comfortable to ask and make sure that the other person is okay. But on the other end, making sure the other person feels okay to say something.”

Can consent be assumed?

Consent should never be assumed. If you are unsure that you have consent, it is always best to ask or to just not engage in, continue or initiate the sexual activity. Some common situations where consent is thought to be assumed, but cannot be assumed are:

1. Through body language, appearance, or attire: It should never be assumed by the way that someone dresses, smiles, looks, or acts that they want to have sex with you.

2. Dating, relationships, or previous sexual activity: It should never be assumed that just because you have had a previous sexual encounter with someone, are dating them, in a relationship with them or married to them, that they consent to having sex with you. If someone consents to one sexual act, it does not mean that they consent to different sexual act or the same act on a different occasion.

3. Silence, passivity, lack of resistance, or immobility: Just because someone is not actively resisting a sexual act, does not mean that they are consenting to it. Passive participation is not an implicit ‘yes’ and physical resistance is a definite ‘no.’ Deciphering consent from body language alone leaves room for error and uncertainty, therefore, establishing consent verbally is ideal. In the case of hearing, verbally or visually impaired individuals, it is important to communicate clearly a manner that they understand and that they usually use to communicate and be aware of any changes in their body language or behavior before, during and after sex.

4. Under the influence, incapacitation, asleep or unconsciousness: If a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, incapacitated, asleep or unconscious, their capacity to make informed sexual decisions is impaired. They are legally incapable of giving consent and any sexual act performed with them is by default sexual assault, no matter their words or behavior.

How can make sure that I have consent?

It is really quite simple. Just ask.

“Consent doesn’t have to be complicated,” said Cook, “We want sex and any kind of sexual intercourse to be pleasurable and fun and enjoyable. It’s just about being respectful of your partner and just always making sure everyone’s okay with what’s going on.”

I feel that I may be the victim of sexual violence. What do I do?

Sexual violence represents a wide variety of incidences.

“Sexual violence is  … any unwanted act of a sexual nature,” Cook said. “It can range anywhere from an unwanted hug or like a butt grab or sharing of nude photos online of somebody, taking pictures of somebody without their consent… using sexually crude language all the way up to unwanted intercourse and rape essentially.”

The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone and it is not your fault.

If you have been impacted by sexual violence and your physical well-being has been compromised, a medical examination is advised in order to protect yourself against the possibility of sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy, or any other physical injuries.

The Waterloo Region Sexual Assault Treatment Centre is located at St Mary’s Hospital and has resources to assist those who have experienced sexual assault and are able to collect evidence if criminal charges are pressed.

If you feel comfortable, consider reporting the incident to campus or local police. Amanda Cook can be reached at 519-888-4567 ext. 36869 or by email at amanda.cook@uwaterloo.ca. Contacting and speaking with Amanda will not initiate an investigation without given permission. No personal information will be shared, unless that individual is in clear and serious danger.

The Waterloo Regional Police service can be reached by calling 911 (for emergencies only) or 519-653-7700.

For support, contact UW Counselling Services at 519-888-4567 ext. 32655 to schedule an appointment or call the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region at 519-741-8633 (24-hour support) or 519-571-0121 (office).

You can also visit: https://uwaterloo.ca/police/campus-safety/sexual-assault for more support services.

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