Why it’s so important to talk about consent

Consent must be ongoing, mutual, freely given and enthusiastic.

Written by Criodán Ó Murchú


Sex. The world revolves around it. Without it you wouldn’t exist – as much as we try not to think about your parents doing “it.” It’s a fundamental part of being a living thing – to reproduce, to continue our lineage and pass on our genes.

Whilst sex was originally intended to merely pass on our genetic information from one generation to the next, somewhere along the way it changed from being a necessary part of survival for organisms into something…well, different.

Humans are one of the only animals to engage in sexual activities for pleasure. We have dissociated the need for continuing our species from the ability to have fun and enjoy ourselves and our partners. Whilst this change has taken place over thousands of years, it has become especially prevalent over the past few decades. Sex has become about people doing what they want, when they want with who they want.

Unfortunately, as with all change in society, some use it to fulfil their own needs. Some people seek out to get what they want without care for any other person. So, while sex has become normal and a part of growing up, there are people who do not realise that sex must be consensual.

I’ve volunteered as a SMART consent facilitator in NUIG. We ran a pilot scheme this year for first years where we took groups of 20-30 students and ran through scenarios and discussed what consent is.

Sexual consent is a phrase used to describe agreeing to engage in any sexual activities. This could be sexual touching, oral or penetrative sex, a person needs to obtain consent before engaging. This helps ensure that both parties are in agreement about what’s taking place.

Consent must be

  1. On-going: Consent needs to be gained for any sexual activity and if you wish to try something or do something else. Someone may be entirely comfortable with one thing and not comfortable with another. It’s important to make sure you still have their consent.
  2. Mutual: Both parties must agree to what they’re doing and getting involved in. If one person does not consent, then that’s where it stops being mutual.
  3. Freely-given: No one should feel forced or coerced into sexual activities. It’s not consent if you have to force, beg, threaten, etc.
  4. Enthusiastic: Both parties should be interested and happy about the activity they’re undertaking. It should be what you want to do and not what you’re forced to do.

Ultimately, it’s about communication which can be verbal and non-verbal. Consent must be obtained each time sexual activity takes place. Agreeing to something at one time does not mean you automatically consent the next time. Consenting to kiss someone does not mean you consent to having sex with them.

Consent can be removed at any time too. Someone may become uncomfortable or lose interest. They are well within their right to withdraw from the activity.

The concept of the “grey area” is discussed a lot. Common questions arising from this include:

  • How much drink is too much drink? When is someone too drunk to consent?
  • Is being invited back to someone’s house an invitation for sex? Is asking someone home after a night out basically like saying “let’s have sex”?
  • How does flirting fit in? Is flirting consensual?

If you’re interested in any of the concepts above, check and see if your local university or youth group is running consent workshops. You can learn a lot just from the discussion. Or check out SpunOut.ie’s “What is consent?” article which include some scenarios.

One area where we have to remain careful is to not dismiss consent as childish. A popular video used compares consent to tea drinking. I dislike this video quite a lot. We should not have to dumb down something as important as consent to this level. People need to take responsibility for what they do and seeking consent is one of those things.

There is a lot to be learned about sex and consent. We’re just opening the floodgates to hopefully a more righteous society. Sex is normal and sex is fun, but we must remember to take our partners into account at all times too. Your partner isn’t there just to aid your needs, they are human too.

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