Consent and sex

Consent and sex

Monday, 30 August 2021

‘Consent’ is another word for ‘agreeing to’. We use ‘consent’ a lot when we talk about sex. In that context, consent means both people fully understand and agree to what they’re about to do.

It is really about communication, respect and awareness of the other person.

In this article, we’ll cover what you need to know about consent and sex.

Consent in Ireland

You might have heard the word ‘consent’ lately. Maybe your student union has been running consent workshops on your campus. Or maybe you picked up a book like Louise O’Neill’s bestseller Asking For it.

Consent has become something we talk about more openly, and that’s a good thing. Talking about consent reminds us all if we’re having sex, we have a responsibility. We’re responsible for making sure the other person is enjoying it as much as we are.

In some situations, the law decides whether someone is able to give consent. We’ll get into law and consent later on.

When do you have to consent?

Consent is needed for any sexual activity. ‘Sexual activity’ covers a lot of things, from kissing, touching, touching under clothes and touching genitals, to oral sex, sexting, sexual talk or penetration.

You might want to kiss someone. But it doesn’t automatically mean you want sex. It definitely doesn’t mean you have to have sex.

Everyone is different in what they like, what they want, and what they are ready for. Consent means you get to decide what you are comfortable with doing or not doing.

It’s also OK to not want to do anything sexual at all. As Pip Keogh on Spunout put it, “sometimes ‘Netflix and Chill’ literally means Netflix and chill”.

Consent and sexting

Sending intimate photos and videos is a sexual activity. Consent applies here too.

If someone sends photos of themselves to you, they have consented that you, and only you, look at them. That’s where the consent ends. You cannot show those photos or videos to anyone else.

It’s your body and you get to say what happens to it.

How to give and get consent

Asking for consent is not going to kill the mood. People can give consent verbally by saying it out loud, and non-verbally with actions and body language.

Consent without talking

Consent doesn’t always need words.

If someone leans to kiss you and you lean in and kiss them back, you are giving them consent to kiss you. But if you pull away or turn your head, you are letting them know this is not something you want. They have to respect that.

If someone puts their hand somewhere on your body and you move it, you’re saying you don’t want to be touched there. If you move their hand to another part of your body, you’re letting them know it’s OK to touch there.

Look at your partner’s body language. Ask yourself ‘do they seem into this?’ If they are freezing up or pushing you off, stop what you’re doing and talk.

Consent by talking

You can also look for consent by asking for it.

This doesn’t have to feel forced or awkward. Communicating about and during sex can make it more enjoyable. Use these questions to check in and make sure your partner is having a good time.

You can put any of these questions in your own words:

  • Does that feel good?
  • Do you like that?
  • What would feel good to you?
  • Is that OK?

The answers should be an enthusiastic yes. If you get silence in response, or any hesitation, stop what you’re doing and talk.

If you’re not feeling comfortable with what’s happening, you can say any version of these phrases:

  • Let’s take a break
  • I need a minute
  • I need some air
  • Can we talk for a few minutes?

It’s your body and you get to say what happens to it.

a image of two young people having a conversation
Remember, it's your responsibility to make sure whoever you're having sex with is on board with what you’re doing.

Can consent be taken away?

Yes. Consent is something that can be withdrawn at any moment. If you think you want someone to touch you, then decide you don’t, you can change your mind.

Just because you were into something last week, doesn’t mean you have to do it again if you don’t feel like it. Consent is not getting one ‘yes’ that applies forever. Consent is a continual conversation.

Situations when someone can’t consent

There are times someone might seem they’re up for it, or they are not saying no. But the situation means they can not consent:

When someone is bullied or threatened

It’s not consent when someone tries to persuade or coerce another person to have sex with them. Using guilt trips, bribery or manipulation to have sex with someone is not consent.

Saying things like, “You liked it last time… but I really want to… we’ve going out for months… it’s not a big deal… ” can’t be used to get someone to consent to sex.

When someone is really drunk or high

If you’ve drunk a lot or taken drugs, you’re not fully aware what’s going on and so can’t give consent. Some people can seem grand and in control, when in fact they’re so drunk they don’t remember anything the next day. Let someone sober up first.

When someone is asleep or passed out

We shouldn’t need to say this, but if someone is asleep or passed out, that is a no-go. It is a crime to touch someone sexually in this state.

If you’re under 17 and you have sex with someone older than you, that can be considered statutory rape.

Consent and the law

There are laws that apply to sex and consent in Ireland. These are there to protect us, especially young people. There might be situations when even if you feel you’ve given your consent, the law sees things differently.

Here are two:

The age of consent

The age of consent in Ireland is 17. This means you can’t legally consent to sexual activity before the age of 17. That applies to people of all genders and sexual orientation.

The age of consent is 16 in Northern Ireland. If you’re under 17 and you have sex with someone older than you, it can be considered statutory rape.

Sex with a person in authority

If you’re under 18, and your teacher, employer, coach, or another adult who is in a position of authority has sex with you, that’s illegal. Even if you consented and enjoyed it, the law sees this person as having power to manipulate or coerce you.

If you’re under 18 and your teacher, lecturer, boss, trainer or doctor comes onto you, what they’re doing is wrong. Distance yourself as best as you can from them. Then tell an adult you trust as soon as possible.

Close up of a gavel used by judges in court
It’s not a fantasy or a game if both people haven’t consented. It’s a crime.

The difference between sexual play and non-consensual sexual activity

Books like “Fifty Shades of Grey” spawned some terrible movies, but they also spread some confusing messages about sex. Some people think books and movies like this say it’s OK to have sex with someone who doesn’t want it. Porn can also include dynamics like this and give the wrong impression.

As you should have gathered by now, it is never, ever OK to force someone into sexual activity.

What these videos and storylines actually show is sexual play between two consenting adults. Some people have sexual fantasies about submission and domination. That’s fine. When they act out these scenarios with their partner, they always get their partner’s consent first.

Couples talk beforehand about what’s OK and what’s not. They might have a code word they can use if they’re ever uncomfortable. If this code word is used the other person will immediately stop. The result is both people feel safe.

People who have any kind of sexual activity forced on them don’t feel safe. Sexual play is the opposite to being forced to have sex.

It’s not a fantasy or a game if both people haven’t consented. It’s a crime.

Remember, it’s your responsibility whoever you’re having sex with is on board with what you’re doing. If you’re not sure, ask.

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