Illustrations of couples talking about sexual consent

Illustration by Emma Günther

Dating & Partnership

8 things to know about sexual consent

Consent is the key to safely and enjoyably getting it on

Top things to know about consent:

  • Consent is given with enthusiasm

  • You can withdraw consent at any time

  • The best way to know you have someone’s consent is to ask them

Even if you’ve heard of sexual consent, you might be unsure of how to give it or ask for it. Whether you’re down to kiss, touch, or to simply just sext, we’re here to help! For the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the terms sex and sexual activity to refer to the whole range of sexual intimacies that require consent, including (but not limited to) phone sex, kissing, dry humping, genital rubbing, oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex

1. What is sexual consent?

The legal definition of sexual consent changes based on where you are located, but the principle is always the same. Sexual consent is an agreement between people to have sex or to engage in a sexual activity together. You have the right to choose what you do, with whom, and how—giving your full consent requires the communication of your expectations, boundaries, and desires to your sexual partner(s), as well as their understanding and acknowledgement of these preferences.

Sexual consent should be:

  • Enthusiastic: You want to have sex or engage in a sexual activity with a partner. 

  • Mutual: Your partner also wants to have sex or engage in sexual activity with you. 

  • Voluntary: You have decided to have sex or engage in a sexual activity without external pressure, expectation, or guilt. You understand what’s going on and are not incapacitated by alcohol or drugs.

  • Informed: You understand the terms and boundaries of having sex or engaging in a sexual activity. If at any time, the terms of the situation change (say, if your partner removes their condom during sex without telling you) then your original consent becomes invalid.

  • Ongoing: There is no such thing as blanket consent, even if you have had sex or have engaged in sexual activity with a partner, before. Saying yes to one sexual activity doesn’t mean you agree to do it again in the future, or that you consent to other sexual activities. Consent is needed each time for each specific activity.

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2. How do I give consent? 

The clearest way to give consent is directly and verbally. While it may feel daunting to give consent each time you have sex or engage in a sexual activity, it doesn’t have to be a long discussion. Here are some ways you can express your consent: 

  • Say yes or use an affirmative phrase like, “I want to,” or “Let’s try that.” 

  • Give positive feedback if you’re comfortable, by using affirmative phrases like, “That’s good,” or “Keep going.” 

  • You can also give consent in nonverbal ways, like nodding if you’d like your partner to continue what they’re doing. Be wary, however, that physical cues may be misunderstood or ignored, so it’s a good idea to use words in addition to nonverbal cues. 

3. How do I withhold or withdraw consent? 

The best way to say no is directly and verbally. You can say no when a partner proposes sex or a sexual activity, or anytime during sex or a sexual activity. It is never too late to withdraw consent. You can express that you do not consent to a sexual activity in the following ways: 

  • Say “no” or “stop,” or use phrases like, “I don’t want to,” “I need to think about it,” or “Can we discuss that later?” 

  • Give feedback using phrases like, “I don’t like that; can you try this,” “That doesn’t work for me,” or “I’d rather…”

  • You may feel more comfortable withdrawing consent through physical cues. For instance, stopping or moving your partner’s hands away can express that you do not consent to an activity (1). Be wary that physical cues may be misunderstood or ignored, so it’s a good idea to use words in addition to nonverbal cues. Your partner should be responsive to all signs that you aren’t consenting—if you aren’t sure if they understand, try communicating verbally, instead. 

4. How do I make sure I have a partner's consent? 

The best way to know that you have consent is to ask. Clear verbal communication and being attentive to a partner’s needs, mood, and body language are all important to ensure consent. Communication is often easier if we know our sexual partners well, so it’s especially important to be attentive with new partners. Here are some ways to make sure you have a partner’s consent:  

  • Always ask for consent before you begin having sex or engaging in a sexual activity. Don’t just assume that you know what a partner likes, or that they will like something because you or a previous partner liked it. Instead, ask them about it! 

  • Check in with a partner during sex or a sexual activity. Ask if they want to keep going or if you should do something differently. Let your partner know that you can stop at any time.

  • Be attentive to nonverbal cues from partners. If a partner becomes quiet; distracted; uncomfortable; upset; or is not reciprocating, pause and check in. Sexual violations can occur when partners are not alert to nonverbal cues (2).

  • Don’t have sex or engaging in sexual activity with partners who are intoxicated. People cannot give consent if they are incapacitated by drugs, alcohol, or for other reasons.

  • Discuss triggers. If you know that your partner has experienced relationship violence or sexual trauma, discussing their boundaries, triggers and how they’d like to be treated during sex or sexual activities can help them feel more at ease (3).

5. Can I change my mind after I’ve already given consent? 

Yes! You can change your mind at any time. You do not have to continue with anything that is uncomfortable, painful, or unenjoyable in any way. It’s also okay to simply not feel like doing it anymore.

6. What if a partner tries to change my mind?

You should never do something just because someone else wants you to. If the idea of a sexual activity or a partner makes you feel anxious, uncomfortable, or unsafe, say no. 

7. What if a partner is offended when I say, "no"?

Saying,“no,” is the expression of a personal boundary, not a rejection of the other person. That boundary helps you maintain your bodily autonomy and is a line between safe and unsafe. 

It is also okay if a partner’s feelings are hurt when you say, “no.” You can explain the importance of boundaries in any relationship and encourage them to communicate their boundaries, too. It is not okay for a partner to use feeling hurt or offended to manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do. Doing so is a form of sexual coercion and may be a sign of an unsafe relationship. 

Sexual coercion describes any instance of a person pressuring or forcing someone else to have sex against their will, and can take many forms. Sexual coercion in a relationship is a form of intimate partner violence, or “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” If you are concerned about intimate partner violence, speak to a counselor and take steps to ensure your safety. 

8. What if I gave consent but feel weird after sex or a sexual activity?

Don’t panic. Consent is a big part of having a positive sexual experience but giving consent doesn’t always guarantee it. We are complex, our feelings change, and our bodies can be unpredictable.

All kinds of evolving factors can impact how you think about your experience, in the moment and in the future — a partner’s responses, power dynamics, your feeling of trust, your menstrual cycles, your self-esteem. Some experiences you think you might like, or are okay with, turn out not to be fun or enjoyable, for you. You can’t always know in advance and that is part of learning about your own desires and boundaries. Talk with your partner or someone you trust about your feelings to learn from them. Would you like to try having sex with a particular partner under different circumstances? If so, consider how you might communicate that to them so they can help you have a more enjoyable experience next time.   

If you realize that you agreed to engage in a sexual activity, because you felt pressured or to avoid a fight, then your consent wasn’t freely given. This may be an opportunity to discuss your needs and how your partner may be pressuring you without intending to. If your partner is not receptive to having this conversation, or if this is a pattern of behavior, it may be a sign of an unsafe relationship. Consider the warning signs of unsafe relationships and steps you can take to ensure your safety or speak to a counselor

Lastly, if you have been sexually assaulted, or subject to any type of sexual activity you did not consent to, you can speak to a counselor and receive guidance on what to do next by calling the USA National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or contacting Rape Crisis in the UK. You can find resources in other countries on Hot Peach Pages.

If you are using Clue Birth Control, you do not have to share that information with anyone. On days when you might be fertile, you can let your partner know that you need to use protection to avoid pregnancy. Just because you may have consented to having sex without protection on other days, you can withdraw that consent and request using protection during high risk days.

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