Commentary by Paula D. Krause
Schriever Air Force Base Sexual Assualt Response Coordinator
During the Bystander Intervention Training, as well as other SARC briefings, the most asked questions and ones that seem to cause the greatest confusion and uncertainty are questions about consent. What is consent? How do I know if I have consent? The heartening part is young men and women alike want to make sure they have consent before engaging in sexual activity; unfortunately they don’t always seem to understand what consent is and isn’t. So today I would like to spend a few moments to clarify this issue.
Let’s start with clarifying what consent means. Consent is an active process and a responsibility shared by both partners. Consent is giving permission, approval or agreement to a course of action. When applied to sexual contact, it means that at the time of the act, there are actual words or physical conduct indicating freely given agreement. Consent is also an ongoing process, regardless of who initiates. Consent isn’t implied nor assumed. Just because someone consents to kissing, heavy petting, going into your room, laying on your bed, etc., it does not mean you have consent for anything further! Even if they had sex with you previously, it does not mean you have implied consent to have sex with them again! You need to obtain consent for each and every sexual act, each time it occurs.
And remember- if a person is intoxicated, incapacitated or unconscious, they may not be able to give consent. Ask yourself: “Would this person have sex with me if he/she was sober?” If the answer is ‘yes’, then there is no reason you can’t wait until they are sober before you initiate sex! On the flip side if the answer is ‘no’ then you should find someone else, who is willing to have sex with you when they are sober.
Now that we’ve defined consent, how do you truly know when your partner has given consent for sex? Do you ask, or do you assume they’ve consented if they don’t say anything? Do you watch for body language? The best way to obtain consent is to ASK! If you simply ask you won’t have to worry about whether you are interpreting body language or other non-verbal communication correctly. Sure, initially the conversation might be a little awkward. However this awkwardness can be overcome just like most things in life: the more you practice, the easier it will become. If you can’t talk about sex and what your desires and limits are with your intended partner then maybe your sexual intentions should be placed on hold until you are ready to talk about it.
Regrettably though, both men and women are often embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about sex with their intended partner. This may lead to a lack of clear and open communication about sex. Men have told me they don’t want to ask for permission because they don’t want to ‘ruin the mood.’ Men, I’m here to tell you, I have yet to meet a woman who feels it is a turn-off for a man to ask her permission! Usually women report quite the opposite. They feel when you care enough to ask and then respect their answer; you are an amazing individual and one they may want to get to know better. I believe the real reason people don’t ask is they are afraid the answer will be “no,” which when it comes to consent is the very reason one should want to ask! Remember: the lack of a “no” is not a “yes.”
Now let’s talk about how “not” to obtain consent. Has anyone ever been in a situation where someone tried to “help you relax,” if it seemed like you weren’t consenting? That person might have been trying to manufacture consent. This happens when someone uses coercion, convincing or charm (sweet-talking or persuading) to try and change someone’s mind. Coercion may look like this: a “no” is given but ignored. The person continues to ask and ask until defenses crumble and a “yes” is given, either verbally or through ceasing to resist, just to “get it over with.” Convincing or charm may include things like giving a massage, kissing while pushing boundaries in the hopes the potential partner doesn’t notice how far hands are wandering, or clothes being undone. This type of behavior does not lend itself to healthy, consensual relationships where both partners feel they have a choice in making the decisions.
Sexual assault is about power and control — even if you don’t intend to exert that power, the effect on the victim is the same. Every sexual assault can be prevented, and every victim suffers in ways the rest of us can only imagine. I urge each and every one of you to resist the impulse to put physical gratification over morality, over responsibility, and over accountability. Communicate with your partner to ensure you have continuous clear consent!