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What is Consent?

Ask for consent: it’s a common phrase with a lot of different definitions. So what do we really mean when we talk about asking for consent?

Image shows a yellow circle with a check mark. Text reads, "Do you have consent? Consent means that at the time of the act (what you are doing together), there are words and physical actions that show both people freely agree and really want to do the same thing"

When it comes down to it, consent is all about communication. Consent is checking in to understand another person’s wishes. It’s ensuring that everyone involved in an activity feels comfortable and that they actually want to participate. Although we most often use the term “consent” around sexual activity, it’s applicable to any social situation. Asking people if they want a hug, if it’s okay to come over later, or if they’d like a glass of water all demonstrates consent as well.

Okay, so what does consent look like with sexual activity?

Consent isn’t just a “yes” or the absence of a “no”, it’s an ongoing conversation. Consent is checking in with your partner, or partners, to ensure that everyone is getting what they want. Consent is ensuring that no one is being forced to do anything that they don’t want to. Consent is expressed overtly, whether through speech, sign language, writing, or screen reader. Positive body language, such as acting engaged and enthusiastic, may add more clout behind consent; however, just positive body language is not enough to express consent.

Consent is also needed each time for each sexual activity. There is no such thing as implied consent. Just because people are in a relationship or are married does not mean that they consent to a sexual activity. Just because someone has done one activity once doesn’t mean they consent to something else, or the same activity again. Asking and communicating is important to ensure people feel supported and safe.

Consent is required for any sexual activity, not just sexual intercourse. Whether you are engaging in sex, kissing, sexually touching, or sending images to each other: you always need the other person’s consent. Here are a few examples where people are not able to offer consent to sexual activities:

  • Children:

    • A person’s ability to give consent also depends on their age. The age of consent in Vermont is 16 years old. Someone who is younger than 16 does not have the ability to consent under Vermont State law. The only exception is that someone who is 15 can consent to sexual activity with someone who is between the ages of 15 and 18. Even if a child verbally agrees to sexual activity, that is not valid consent

    • Children cannot consent to sexual activity, which means that viewing child sexual abuse material (child pornography) is sexual assault, as it was the filming of actual activity where a child could not consent

  • Under the influence, asleep, or unconscious:

    • If someone is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they cannot consent to sexual activity. Similarly, people who are not awake and aware cannot consent to sexual activity

  • Imbalance of power:

    • If there is a substantial imbalance of power, people may not be able to offer valid consent. Some examples of this may be if one partner is much older, is an authority figure, serves as a caregiver, or is the perpetrator in an abusive relationship. If one party fears potential consequences or is complying out of respect for authority, then that doesn’t constitute true consent

  • Unaware of the consequences:

    • In order to engage in sexual activity, people need to be aware of the potential consequences, including knowledge of the risk of STI’s or potential for pregnancy (if applicable). If someone is not aware of the potential consequences of a sexual activity, they cannot consent to that activity

    • There needs to be agreement over what type of activity is okay for each person and what kinds of protection will be utilized

    • Deliberately hijacking birth control, such as “stealthing” (removing, poking holes into, or otherwise sabotaging a condom when consent was only for sexual activity with a condom), are forms of sexual abuse

  • Unsafe to say no:

    • Someone saying “yes, I want to have sex” means nothing if they are not allowed to say no. In abusive relationships, there may be punishment, or implied punishment, for not complying. If you are not allowed to refuse a sexual activity, you are not truly able to consent to it

    • It also must be safe for people to change their minds. If one person decides partway through that they no longer want to have sex, then they revoke their consent and the activity should stop. Even if this is an activity someone has given consent for before, consent is still needed every time

The following video is a great example of the intricacies of consent:

Do you have more questions about consent, healthy relationships, or sexual assault? Ask Safeline via email ( or give us a call at 1-800-639-7233.


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