How to navigate sexual consent

Aug 22, 2018 at 1:00 am
How to navigate sexual consent
Lee DeVito

Sometimes, especially when you're young, it can be hard to tell if rape is rape, and I have typed "Was I raped if..." into Google on more than one occasion. I went to Google because, for me, it didn't look like how I thought rape looked. It wasn't a stranger in a bar. It was a friend in one case, and significant others the other times. As for consent, I said no, I said that I wasn't ready, and in one case, said nothing at all.

Having lost my virginity through rape, despite explicitly communicating that his advances were unwelcome, the idea of healthy and honorable consent seemed to me, for a long time, akin to a unicorn. Since my assaults, though, there have been an increase in the number of proactive and educational efforts spotlighting the importance of consent and how to navigate communication during sexual encounters. Most notably, there's been the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has been a vital force in providing visibility for victims.

The reality is consent is mandatory, and sex without it is rape. And no one understands consent better than those who have been raped. Let's change that.

So, what is consent?

Silence is never consent. Ever. Consent is all about communication. It is clearly — and enthusiastically — expressed agreement to participate in sexual activity, and must be given without pressure or coercion. And consent to one activity does not mean "yes" to everything. All parties must feel that they can express their approval without fear of repercussions.

What does consent sound like?

Giving consent means making it clear that you are freely and happily agreeing to the activity. Always ask before initiating, moving forward, or changing pace or activity.

It doesn't have to be hard. You can say:

"Do you like that?"

"Do you want me to ____?"

"Is this OK?"

"Are you open to that?"

"Does that feel good?"

"I'd like to do _____. Do you?"

"What do you want to do next?"

In terms of giving consent, you can say:


"I like that."

"Let's keep going."

"Let's try that."

"I'm open to that."

Alternatively, there are ways to decline:

"I don't like that."

"I'm not into that."

"I'm not ready for that."

"I don't feel like it today."

"I like you, but I don't want to do that right now."

"I'll only do that if we use a condom."

"How about we do ______ instead?"

If you say "no" or "stop" and your partner continues, that is sexual assault.

What is checking in and should I do it?

Checking in is the act of reconnecting with your partner with clear communication in regard to each others' needs or wants throughout the sexual encounter. Both partners should "check in" before moving on to another sexual activity. In addition to verbal consent, which is the clearest form of communication, you should be mindful of physical signs, body language, and other nonverbal cues to gauge whether or not the experience is consensual and that your partner is comfortable. Next day check-ins are also great ways to facilitate communication around consent.

Can consent be revoked?

Absolutely, 100 percent yes. People are allowed to change their minds at any point, for any reason, during a sexual encounter. If you do not want to do something, if you are not ready to do something, or you no longer want to participate in the activity, you have the right to revoke your consent and for that revocation to be heard and respected. Consent applies to all sexual relationships.

What about consent with my boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse?

Romantic or sexual involvement is never permission to have unwanted sex. Rape is not limited to one-night-stands, hookups, or casual dating. In fact, 29 percent of all sexual assaults of adult women were perpetrated by a husband or lover. Having frequent sex, or sharing a home or even a last name are not license to negotiate consent. No still means no.

What if drugs/alcohol are involved?

Sex under the influence of alcohol is not automatically nonconsensual, but substances make it difficult to understand if you have been given consent or if you yourself have given it. If someone is not capable of communicating their needs, you should not proceed with sexual activity, even if consent was given when sober.

Ask yourself: Can this person communicate clearly? Are they coherent? Are they sober enough to know fully what is going on? If you answered no or have any doubt that the answer is a no, then you should assume that the other person is too drunk to consent to sex.

Outside of the sexual experiences themselves, a lot can be done in helping move the conversation of consent into the spotlight. First, normalizing consent with your peers and partners is key. There's a social pressure to appear to be "down for anything" and that to talk about sex in the moment is considered a "mood killer." The stigma against consent only further perpetuates dangerous rape-culture norms that silence victims, survivors, and anyone seeking a healthy sexual experience.

Secondly, look out for one another. Though you may understand consent, the likelihood that you will have to educate a friend or date about what constitutes consensual sexual activity is high.

Lastly, put an end to victim blaming. It is never the victim's fault and if you are the victim, then know that it is not your fault. Though it has taken years for me to understand, I now know that it wasn't my fault, either.

If you are a victim of sexual assault or want more information on sexual assault, you can contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network at 1-800-656-4673;

From the 2018 College Guide.

Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.