Addressing the Confusion Surrounding Consent

The confusion of what consent really is stems from a long history of cultural and interpersonal disregard for a person’s own autonomy. Perpetrators tend to be in control of a situation and will hear whatever they want to hear, regardless of what is actually being said. These tendencies are rooted in our cultural ideals, and bringing awareness to the harmfulness of these ideals will help stop us from raising dangerous individuals. For example: we have a culture which likes to uphold risky stereotypes, like the outdated concept of “when she says no, she really means yes, she’s just trying to be polite.”

Survivors also have a difficult time with consent because our culture teaches the notion that we must be polite and non-confrontational. As kids, we learn that “he only teases you because he likes you," is acceptable. All of these deeply ingrained ideas make the initial idea of consent become a blurry one. But the lines are actually extremely clear; you just have to be actively looking for them.

To answer the question of what consent really is, it is much easier to address what consent is not. First, in any sexual encounter, the best way to clear up any fuzziness: ASK. Any intimate or sexual situation should occur in an environment where it is okay to ask questions and make sure everyone involved is comfortable with what is happening. To ensure that there is consent, be sure to start by asking the person if they are comfortable or if this is something they want to do. Here are some good ways to be actively looking for the line and to make sure it is not crossed:

  • If they say no, STOP. There is not consent.
  • If they hesitate or stay silent, STOP. There is not consent. The absence of a no does not mean yes.
  • If they say maybe or seem unsure, uncomfortable, afraid, etc., STOP. There is not consent. Ask them what they would rather do instead, and respect their request.
  • If they feel pressured or coerced by any means to say yes, STOP. There is not consent.
  • If they have not said yes, but are also not physically resisting, STOP. The absence of no as well as the absence of resistance does not mean yes.
  • If they are under the influence, STOP. An intoxicated individual is not capable of true consent.
  • If they are under age, STOP. An underage individual cannot legally consent, even if they say yes.
  • If they are dressed suggestively or have been flirting but have not said yes, STOP. Just because a person seems to want sex does not necessarily mean they do. Ask and be very clear and sure before continuing.
  • If they are your significant other or spouse but they do not say yes, STOP. There is not consent. Automatic unspoken consent does not come with the relationship.
  • If they said yes earlier, but have changed their mind, STOP. There is no longer consent.

The best way to be sure that consent is there is to ask, and subsequently receive an active, informed, and enthusiastic YES. True consent is mutually agreed upon, without any confusion of what is being consented to, and it is given freely. Anything less than yes means no. When interacting with anyone you may know or have heard of who is a survivor of sexual assault, keep these factors in mind to help reduce victim blaming and to fight back against harmful cultural ideals. Consent is the most important factor in any and all intimate and sexual encounters, and we must build a society and culture that is educated in how to respect that. “However you dress, wherever you go, yes means yes, and no means no.”

Sam McDaniel

Sam McDaniel is a sophomore Social Work major at The University of South Carolina. She enjoys being part of STSM's office team and supporting advocacy and awareness throughout South Carolina. She has been an office volunteer for STSM since February 2015, and is interested in educating others to prevent sexual assault and domestic violence in our community.