In the wake of the #MeToo movement, women and men are more willing to break taboos and talk more openly about their sexual experiences including sexual assault and rape. This is good news. However, it does highlight one important issue – do we understand what consent is in a sexual context? How do we give consent and when does a sexual activity veer into sexual assault or rape?
We need to be clear about definitions. Sexual consent means actively agreeing to sexual contact with someone. Sexual contact without consent is assault. This can include any form of physical, psychological or emotional violation using force or manipulation. However, giving consent to one act does not mean that the person is agreeing to everything. Nor does it mean that consent cannot be withdrawn at any point.
Rape is defined as penetration of a person’s vagina, mouth or anus with a penis without the other person’s consent. Rape always involves a penis and both men and women can be the victims of rape. Sexual assault by penetration involves penetration of a person’s vagina, mouth or anus with a part of the body or an object without the other person’s consent. Other non-consenting intentional sexual contact is sexual assault.
Where does the law stand on consent within marriage? The Sexual Offences Act in 2003 expressly lays out the law on marital rape which is that a partner cannot be forced into having penetrative sex or any sexual activity even if they are married or in a relationship with the other person. Despite this, a major survey conducted by the End Violence Against Women Coalition revealed that a staggering 33% of people in Britain think it isn’t usually rape if a woman is pressured into having sex but there is no physical violence.
Silence is not consensual. If a person is drunk, high or has passed out, they are not able to give their consent and so it is still rape or sexual assault to have sexual contact with someone in these circumstances. This follows too if a person is under age as they are not considered old enough to give informed consent. In the UK, a person is considered under age if they are under 16. According to the Sexual Offences Act, it is illegal for two 15 year olds to have sex or for a 15 year old to have sex with a 16 year old. However, the law is really intended to protect children from adult predators and not to prosecute teenagers. However, any sexual activity with under 13s is a criminal offence and will be dealt with seriously.
How can consent be communicated? It can be as straightforward as asking ‘Is this OK?’ or ‘Do you want to carry on?’. Both partners should watch out for non-verbal cues to show that they are happy with what is happening. A person can demonstrate a non-verbal cue by stopping kissing, tensing up, backing off, not wanting to be touched for example. It is not consensual if the person says no, even if penetration has already happened. If someone is wearing a short skirt, is flirting or kissing, it is not an agreement to sexual contact. It is wrong to assume consent for a sexual act because it’s been consented to in that past.
What do young people know about sexual consent? According to a study carried out by Lindsay Orchowski, Associate Professor at Brown University and published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, verbal and non-verbal communication is key. Professor Orchowski’s study involving 33 high school students showed that teenage boys felt that it was OK to continue as long as their partner did not actively say no. Girls however, felt that sexual refusal could be conveyed using non-verbal cues. This highlights the need for young people to clearly communicate with each other and to be aware of verbal and non-verbal cues.
It also highlights the need for children and young people to be fully aware of their rights and responsibilities in regard to sexual relationships. In accordance with the Children and Social Work Act, from 2020 both primary and secondary schools will be required to teach pupils about Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) including sexual consent as well as other PSHE topics such as marriage, family life, grooming, harassment, exploitation and sexual health. The aim is for children to understand what giving consent means in a sexual context so they can take charge of their own bodies as well as acting responsibly with others’ too.
By understanding what consent is and how we give it and by following each other’s verbal and non-verbal cues, we are a step closer to clearer boundaries, more respectful relationships and a greater sense of autonomy.
Further information can be obtained from:
A Qualitative Analysis of Beliefs About Sexual Consent Among High School Students link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0886260519842855
Article by Shelia Harrington