Consent: What does it really mean?

“NO. Is a complete sentence.” ~ Anne Lamott

I recently had a male client tell me that something had happened to him on a date and he had a hard time putting it into words. He was embarrassed to talk about it and said he felt yucky even just thinking about it. As he slowly and painfully shared his experience with me, it quickly became clear that he had not given consent. He easily minimized his experience because he was a male, and the other person was a “friend.” To me, this incident highlighted two important factors in consent: The first being that everyone has the right to give or take away their own consent; and the second, no one has the right to take away another’s consent.

Teens, adults, and young children alike need to understand the concept of consent in their relationships. Consent is kind of a buzzword. We heard about it a great deal during the #MeToo movement, but what does it mean and how does it apply to kids, teens, adults…everyone? Let’s start with the basics and break this down so you (and your kids) walk away feeling enlightened and empowered. For simplicity’s sake, I have used a Q&A format.

Q: What is consent?

A:   Consent is an ongoing process of discussing boundaries and what you are comfortable with in your relationships–especially romantic or sexual relationships.  Sexual consent is an agreement to participate in a sexual activity. Before being sexual with someone, you need to know if they want to be sexual with you, too. It is also important to be honest with your partner about what you want and do not want.  Consent goes beyond the sexual, though. It is when one person agrees to or gives permission to another person to do something. Consent means agreeing to an action based on your knowledge of what that action involves, its likely consequences and having the option of saying no.

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Q: Who needs to consent?

A:   Anyone, male or female, young or old! Consent cannot be given by individuals who are underage, intoxicated or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or asleep or unconscious. If someone agrees to an activity under pressure of intimidation or threat, that is not considered consent because it was not given freely. Unequal power dynamics, such as engaging in sexual activity with an employee or student, also mean that consent cannot be freely given.  

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Q: So I understand that consent means saying yes or no to something that I am not comfortable with. Is there more to consent?

A: Yes, let me use the following acronym to further explain consent, F.R.I.E.S*:

  • F–Freely given. Consenting is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • R–Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if you have done it before, and even if you are both naked in bed.
  • I–Informed. You can only consent to something if you have the full story. For example, if someone says they will use a condom and then they do not, there is not full consent.
  • E–Enthusiastic. When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do, not things that you feel you are expected to do!
  • S–Specific. Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to make out) doesn’t mean you said yes to anything else (like having sex). *adapted from Planned Parenthood’s FRIES acronym.

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Q: What is the difference between consent and enthusiastic consent?

A:    Simply put, enthusiastic consent means looking for the presence of a “yes” rather than the absence of a “no.” Enthusiastic consent can be expressed verbally or through nonverbal cues, such as positive body language like smiling, maintaining eye contact, and nodding. 

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Q:  Melissa, you say that consent is relevant for all ages. How? I usually hear it only about adults or college students. 

A:   I have written in the past about protecting children from sexual predators and sexual abuse. Part of that includes teaching children that there are certain body parts that are private–they do not touch others nor do others touch them. My brother taught his children that it is always okay to say know when someone wants to hug them; likewise my brother taught us to ask his children if we could have a hug, instead of demanding that they give one. It allows the child to check in with themselves and give or not give consent to physical touch.  Consent for teens means knowing that just because they *like* someone (or are “going out” with someone), that does that mean they owe them anything (ie. sexual favors after Spring Fling, etc). Obviously, adults need to understand consent in order to keep themselves safe in dating, marriage, the workplace, etc. In general, understanding consent and having boundaries keeps you, your children and teens safe from sexual abuse and predation.

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Q: How do I say what I consent to?

A:   It will require ongoing conversations! When you are engaging in sexual activity, consent is all about communication, and it should happen every time for every type of interaction. Consenting to one activity, one time, does not mean someone gives consent for other activities or for the same activity on other occasions. For example, agreeing to kiss someone absolutely does NOT give that person permission to remove your clothes. Having sex with someone in the past does not give that person permission to have sex with you again in the future. It is important to discuss boundaries and expectations with your partner prior to engaging in any sexual behavior.

In summary, you get the final say over what happens with your body, sexually or otherwise. It does not matter if you have been physically intimate before or if you said yes earlier and then changed your mind. You are allowed to say “stop” at any time, and you have the right to be heard when you say NO.  Consenting and asking for consent are all about setting your personal boundaries, respecting those of your partner, and then asking for clarification when things are unclear. Both people must agree to intimacy for it to be consensual. This is the biggest takeaway I want my readers to glean from this blog post–both parties need to give their consent each time in order for the encounter to be consensual!

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.

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Melissa Cluff, MS, LMFT, CSAT

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.