If you haven’t seen the excellent video clip comparing sexual consent to drinking a cup of tea, watch it now and let your teens watch it too. It certainly provides a fun and memorable summary of the important points. However, it’s only the proverbial tip-of-the-iceberg for an issue that’s a lot more complicated.
What consent is
Sexual consent is an explicit and enthusiastic agreement to participate in a sexual activity.
What makes is tricky is that even if your partner said yes to one type of sexual engagement, it doesn't automatically imply their consent to a different sex activity. For example, they may consent to kissing but not to touching, to or kissing on the mouth but not on the throat, and so on. In practice, it could be a bit of a mood killer when you have to break away from a kiss in order to ask: “Is it all right if I touch your boob now?”, but that’s the law, and yeah, you have to ask.
Some questions that can help along the way include:
- “Are you happy with us doing this?”
- “Are you comfortable to go further?”
- “Do you want to stop?”
- “What things don’t you want to do?”
- “Take my hand and put it where you want it.”
Every. Freaking. Time.
What consent is not
- “No” – means NO.
- “I’m not sure” – means NO.
- “Maybe later” – means NO.
- “Um” – means NO.
- Silence – means NO.
- “Yes” given under pressure, as a result of blackmail (“Say yes or else”), or in a threatening situation – means NO.
- It’s important to realise that some people may have a hard time expressing themselves, and that they may not have the skill to say no explicitly. They may not want to hurt the other person’s feelings, too embarrassed to appear uncool, too overwhelmed (wow, the person I had a crush on for six months is kissing and undressing me, wow). If they seem passive or not enthusiastic, it’s a NO.
Consent is temporary
Everyone person has the absolute right to decide whether or not they want to do something sexual with a particular partner at any given time and place.
They also have the absolute right to change their mind at any point. They can say no to something they’ve done before. They even can say no during the activity, even if they’ve just said yes to it three seconds ago.
Even if you’re in a long-term committed relationship, either of you has the right to say no at any time.
How to say no
If things are moving along too quickly or not in the right direction, you can use body language as well as words to withdraw your consent. Make your body rigid, put out your hand in a stop sign, pull away. If you feel safe, you can do it graciously and with a smile, saying something along the lines of: “Sorry, I’m not ready for that”, “We need to slow down”, “Can we take a break?” or “Can we stop here?”, escalating all the way to “You need to stop RIGHT NOW” if necessary.
If the other person isn’t getting the message, it’s time for more drastic actions, such as raising your voice or calling for help (shouting “Fire!” draws more attention than shouting “Rape!”, unfortunate but useful to know). You can also use self-defence techniques and physical violence to get away. If that happens, it’s a good idea to speak to an adult, Life Line or the police. It’s not over-reacting: the person needs to learn about consent or they will end up hurting someone (as well as ruining their own life).
Why consent is important
Unwanted sexual activity can have a severely damaging long-lasting impact in the form of depression, anxiety, impaired interpersonal relationships, and/or substance misuse. What feels like fun to one person could feel intrusive and abusive to their partner, which is why consent is such an important aspect of any sexual activity.
Performing a sexual activity without consent is also illegal, and can result in an arrest, prosecution and jail.
What the law says
A person cannot legally give consent if they are incapacitated in any way (drunk, under the influence of drugs, sleeping), or if they are too young.
The legal age of consent in New Zealand is 16 (or 18 if there is a guardian-dependant relationship between the parties). This is the minimum age at which a person is considered legally old enough to consent to sexual activity.
People aged 15 or younger are not legally able to give consent. New Zealand law has no “Romeo and Juliet” provisions (which would waive criminal liability for consensual sex that occurs between two minors). In other words, even if you yourself are underage, it’s still illegal for you to have sex with someone under 16 (and it’s equally illegal for them to have sex with you).
The take-away message
Sexual consent is yours to give, refuse or take back at any time, every time.
3 things to remember
· Consent has to be explicit and enthusiastic.
· Either party can always change their mind at any stage, even within a relationship.
· Drink and drugs affect consent.
In their own words
- “Consent is something we talked about in Health. Boys especially are always expected to want sex, so I think society pressures them to do it before they might be ready.” So, consent is not as simple as the other party saying yes: even the person initiating sex should ask themselves whether it’s what they really want.
- “I know a girl who was raped by her boyfriend when she was 13 because she didn’t know how to say no, so I think the [consent] conversation should happen – the younger the better.”
- “Ever since PRIMARY we’ve been told about how to say no to peer pressure and why smoking is bad for you. Remember Harold the Giraffe?” In other words, from an early age, parents can engrain the message that it’s okay to say no to any activity your peers may suggest, be it smoking, alcohol, drugs or sex.