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Consent in Sexual Relationships

What it means and how to recognise it


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in life


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What is consent?

When having sex, consent is an agreement between both partners that they definitely want to have sex, or do any sexual act. Both partners need to fully and clearly agree to it, and it must be continuous for the duration of sex. That means that either partner has the right to change their mind at any time. It includes vaginal, anal or oral sex, mutual masturbation, sexual touching or shifting. Consent can be expressed both verbally and physically - so it can be with words, as well as actions and body language. It must be enthusiastic, conscious and voluntary. If consent is not expressed, this is not sex - it is assault.

Bear in mind that from a legal perspective, the age of consent in Ireland is 17, for people of every sexual orientation and gender. That means, before the age of 17, you can't legally give your consent. It's 16 in Northern Ireland.

So as long as someone hasn’t said no, does that mean they consent?

Well, not necessarily. Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without pressure, coercion, or manipulation. That means consent can be expressed in a variety of ways, and a lack of consent can be expressed in just as many ways. Someone may not say the word “no” with their voice but they may say it with their bodies or tone of voice. Furthermore, consent is not the absence of a "no", it is the presence of an enthusiastic "yes". Consent is about communicating to make sure you are both on the same page at all times. 

It's really important that consent is enthusiastic and clear. If your partner doesn't seem sure, open up and talk to them about it.

But if they don’t say no, how do I know if they don’t consent?

Here are some things to look out for:

  • Is your partner not responding to your touch?
  • Are they pushing you away?
  • Are they holding their arms tightly around their bodies?
  • Are they turning away from you or hiding their face?
  • Are their muscles stiffening?
  • Do they seem upset?
  • Are they remaining silent?
  • Do they seem un-enthusiastic and not into it?
  • Have they said that they’re feeling too tired or sick?
  • Are they changing the subject away from sex, or trying to concentrate on other activities?

If the answer to any of the above if yes, then you should stop immediately, and talk about it. If you’re not sure and you’re getting mixed signals, just ask your partner if they want to proceed, and how far they want to go. 

There are some things you might wrongly mistake for consent

It's super important to think about consent, and challenge your attitudes towards it. We have a responsibility to look after each other, and make sure our partners are comfortable, safe, and fully consenting. As such, it’s really important that everyone can identify when a partner is providing consent, and when they are not. Respecting those wishes is a really big deal. For example, some of the following situations  are sometimes mistaken for consent:

  • A partner staying over at your house.
  • Someone kissing you at a nightclub, or flirting with you.
  • Someone deciding to sleep in the same bed as you.
  • Someone wearing a short skirt or clothing that you might think is sexually suggestive.
  • Just because someone is too drunk to say no, does not mean they are consenting to sex. In fact, if someone is drunk or on drugs, they cannot legally give their consent. Just because someone has had sex with you before, does not mean they are consenting to sex this time. Consent has to be given each time.

None of the above mean someone is consenting to sex. You still need to make sure. Furthermore, even if someone is in a relationship with you, has had sex with you before, or has consented to a certain sex act, that doens't mean that they consent to every sex act, or will consent every time, so make sure to communicate clearly around this.

If you think you’re getting mixed signals and you can’t tell how far your partner wants to go, the only way to find out if they consent is to simply ask them, for example, “Is this ok?” or “do you want to continue?”. 

If they say no, listen to them and accept their decision the first time. Do not pressure them to turn their ‘no’ into a ‘yes’. They are not trying to trick you. 

Remember, if someone is drunk or intoxicated on drugs, they can't legally give their consent.

What should I do if someone withdraws consent and changes their mind?

  • Don't continue with the sexual act. Even if you feel hurt, you need to behave in a way that is respectful, polite and understanding.
  • Don't say things like “Why did you get me excited just to say no?” or “If you loved me, you would…”. This is coercion and manipulation. If your partner decides to have sex under these circumstances, it is not full consent.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, react aggressively or violently.
  • Don’t necessarily take it personally. Your partner may simply be feeling tired, sick, or simply not in the mood. However, it is also possible that they may not want to have sex because of a specific reason to do with you. Either way, you need to respectfully listen to their wishes. If you're in a relationship with this person, you could ask to talk about it further. Find out why they don’t want to have sex, or do a certain sex act. This could open up communication and make your relationship stronger.

Communication is a healthy and vital part of having sex. Not only does it make things sexier and makes sure that everyone is having their needs satisfied, but also it makes sure that both partners are comfortable, safe and consenting. Everyone has the right to conduct their sex life in an consensual environment that is both physically and emotionally safe, and everyone has a responsibility to provide that environment for their partner.

Remember: The age of sexual consent in Ireland is 17. If you're over 16, you can consent to medical treatment including any treatment or tests needed.

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Published November 28th, 2014
Last updated March 30th, 2017
Tags sexual health consent respect
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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