Normally, most people associate the idea of consent with sexual assault awareness. Because sexual assault often involves threats, coercion, and off-balance power dynamics, all of which are present in domestic violence, we should also consider the idea of consent as it applies to domestic violence awareness.
Consent is a highly-debated subject both socially and legally, so it is important to first determine what consent actually means in the context of romantic relationships and sexual activity.
What is consent?
The legal definition of consent (or lack thereof) varies by state. This can make it difficult to help victims of sexual assault or rape in court and elsewhere. Sometimes, it is hard for people who want to do the right thing to fully comprehend what consent means.
Luckily, several different organizations across the United States and the world have taken on the challenge of defining consent in simple terms. Some have compared consenting to sex with consenting to drinking tea someone made for you. Planned Parenthood emphasizes the fact that rape is not always accompanied by someone screaming “no” or fighting back.
The University of Michigan Sexual Assault and Awareness Center plainly defines consent as “…when someone agrees, gives permission, or says ‘yes’ to sexual activity with other persons. Consent is always freely given and all people in a sexual situation must feel that they are able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or stop the sexual activity at any point.”
According to the Loveisrespect project by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, “It’s not consent if you’re afraid to say no. It’s not consent if you’re being manipulated, pressured, or threatened to say yes.”
Domestic violence and consent
Consent is absent in cases of domestic violence. In fact, people who have sexually assaulted others often had known their victim or were in a romantic relationship with them. Abusers use tactics to groom and manipulate their victims into going along with various activities, including sexual activities, without getting consent.
Abusers use manipulative strategies when they are disrespectful of their partners and the consent process. They may make their victim feel guilty or like they owe them something, which may coerce the victim into saying yes when they in fact do not consent to the act, whether the activity is sexual or nonsexual. Abusers may take things further by confiscating belongings or taking access to important information away from victims, like cell phones or access to bank accounts, without the victim’s consent.
Consent in healthy relationships
In healthy relationships, all persons involved pay attention to the verbal and nonverbal cues from their partners when determining if they consent to doing any type of sexual activity. If a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, passed out, or asleep, they are not able to give consent. A person in any of these states therefore gives an automatic “no” to any type of sexual activity.
No means no AND yes means yes. Again, it is important to remember there is no such thing as implied consent to continue doing a particular activity with a partner, even if both partners have agreed to do it in the past. This applies to people who are married, in long-term relationships, or in new relationships.
People may change their minds about their sexual preferences over time, and that is okay. Partners in healthy relationships always respect each other’s fluid and flexible preferences. They also tell each other honestly what they want and do not want.
Making someone feel guilty for not consenting to sex is manipulative and unfair to that person. If someone in a healthy relationship says “no,” to a sexual activity, the partners will talk about what they would prefer to do instead, without a guilt trip.
People in healthy relationships are also honest with each other regarding their birth control choices (if applicable), their status regarding sexually transmitted infections (STIs or STDs), and if they are currently having sex with other people. This information is important for all parties involved to know so they can make informed decisions on whether to consent to a sexual activity with the other person.
Why is it important to understand and respect someone else’s boundaries?
Pressuring someone into doing something they are uncomfortable with is never the right thing to do. To do so would be to disrespect that person’s boundaries. This idea applies to any type of personal interaction, but especially to sexual activities.
Any partner in a relationship has the right to stop any activity at any time. If partners trust each other to respect the other’s boundaries and wishes, everyone involved will feel happier, safer, and more respected.
Everyone deserves to feel safe and respected in their relationships. If you or someone you know does not feel safe or respected in a relationship, or have experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, or both, you can reach out to the following for help:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1−800−799−7233
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673