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Consent and sex: What you need to know

Close up to two peoples' shoes

College students around the country have lots of questions about consent and sex. So let’s talk about it. WSU has a specific definition of consent when it comes to sexual activity: it must be clear, knowing, and voluntary. Consent is important because it involves giving and getting permission. This ensures both people feel comfortable and makes the experience that much better.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to have an awkward conversation that completely ruins the moment or sign a contract to get consent. Getting clear, knowing, voluntary consent is easy. Getting and giving consent is ongoing and involves checking in with your partner both verbally and non-verbally. For example, ask yourself:

  • Do they look happy to be there?
  • Do they say “yes” when you ask if they like what is happening?
  • Do they know what they are consenting to?

Alcohol or drug use can impact the ability to give consent.  When someone is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, they lose the ability to be fully aware of what’s going on around them. If someone doesn’t know what’s going on, then they’re unable to give consent. Ask yourself, “Do I feel comfortable letting this person drive right now?”  If your answer is not a definitive and instant ”yes”, then it’s a good time to step back and assess whether or not that person is able to give consent.

In a nutshell, consent means giving and getting permission to engage in sexual activity.  It means you and your partner both really want to be doing what you’re doing, and you’re both excited about it and enjoy it. Getting and giving consent is about being a good partner and making sure everyone is in agreement.

Want to learn more? Check out this video by sex educator Laci Green entitled, Wanna Have Sex? (Consent 101). (Please note this video includes strong language and sexual content.)

 

Your guide to verbal and non-verbal consent

When it comes to sex, consent should always be clear, knowing and voluntary. We’ve talked about this definition of consent in a previous post, but let’s talk specifically about what voluntary means.

Voluntary consent means everyone feels like they’re making their own choice, rather than someone else making it for them. If someone says “yes” because they’re too afraid to say “no”, they’re not giving voluntary consent.

Coercion is the opposite of voluntary consent. Coercion can mean pressuring someone to do something they don’t want to, making threats, using force, or blackmailing someone into having sex.

People communicate about sex in different ways. While some of us are candid and direct, some of us are more indirect. If you aren’t sure if you have voluntary consent, listen for some of the key words and phrases outlined below.

Consent sounds likeNon-consent sounds like
YesNo
I'm sureI'm not sure
I knowI don't know
Don't stopStop
I want toI want to, but...
I'm not worriedI feel worried about
I want you/it/thatThat hurts
Can you please do (whatever)Maybe
I still want toI love you/this, but...
That feels goodI want to do this, but not right now
I want to do this right nowI don't know how I feel about this
I feel good about thisI don't want to do this anymore
I want to keep doing thisThis feels wrong

People can also communicate non-verbally with their actions and body language. Look for some of these behaviors:

Possible non-verbal signs of consentPossible non-verbal signs of non-consent
Direct eye contactAvoiding eye contact
Initiating sexual activityNot initiating any sexual activity
Pulling someone closerPushing someone away
Actively touching someoneAvoiding touch
Nodding yesShaking head no
Laughter or smilingCrying and/or looking sad or fearful
"Open" body language: relaxed, loose and open expressions, turning toward someone "Closed" body language: tense, stiff, or closed expressions, turning away from someone
Sounds of enjoymentSilence
An active body"Just lying there"

Adapted from Partners in Social Change

If you’re not 100 percent confident that everyone agrees to what is happening ­­– then stop. Check in, and ask the other person how they’re doing. Ask “do you want to stop?” or “do you want to keep going?”

Interested in learning more about consent? Request a workshop for your group, chapter, residence hall or department.

Alcohol, sex and getting consent

When it comes to drinking alcohol and having sex, at what point is a person unable to give clear, knowing, and voluntary consent? The short answer: when someone becomes incapacitated.

Incapacitation, as defined by WSU, means someone can’t fully comprehend the details of the situation and has lost the ability to make rational, informed decisions.

It’s important to understand that having sex without consent is sexual assault. And alcohol can diminish someone’s ability to give and get consent. So let’s talk about consent when alcohol is involved.

Sometimes, it’s obvious when someone is incapacitated, like when they are asleep or passed out. Other times, it may appear less clear. Someone’s age, sex, body composition, experience with alcohol and food intake play huge roles in how they are affected by drinking.

If you feel like you’re getting mixed messages, or you’re not 100 percent confident you have consent, stop and reassess. It’s helpful to ask yourself these questions:

  • Can they clearly communicate with their words?
  • Can you carry on a coherent conversation with each other?
  • Can they walk in a straight line, or are they wobbly?
  • Would you feel comfortable giving them the keys to your car?

If you answer “no” or “maybe” to these questions, then it’s best to assume they can’t give clear, knowing, and voluntary consent. Be sure to also regularly check in with the other person. Keep in mind that people can appear coherent even when they’re not. It only takes a moment to check in and ensure the other person is able to consent.

If you’re initiating sexual activity – drunk or not – it’s always your responsibility to get consent. Even if you’re both drunk, it doesn’t mean both of you are incapacitated. Just like we’re not okay with someone hurting others by drinking and driving, being drunk is not a valid excuse for sexually assaulting someone.

Interested in learning more about consent? Request a workshop for your group, chapter, residence hall, or department.