More Than Words: Looking at the Context of Consent

By: CLC Staff

With a rapidly growing cultural emphasis on equality and freedom from discrimination and violence, the issue of voluntary consent has taken center stage in many discussions, particularly those on campus.

As the essential first step in any sexual experience, voluntary consent is a core tenet of all discussions concerning sexual activity. Looking at the context of consent means looking at the big picture: the effect your relationship might have on giving consent, situations where consent might be invalid, and certain responsibilities partners must uphold in establishing voluntary consent.

  1. Consent must be unimpaired. A common issue with establishing valid consent on college and university campuses is the widespread presence of inhibiting factors. A great deal of social interaction in post-secondary environments is done in bars, clubs, and other places where alcohol is often part of the equation; indeed, it can sometimes be difficult to find settings where this is not the case. Despite this, giving consent while impaired is not valid consent. Both parties must be free from any substances that can impair one’s judgment, such as alcohol and drugs, in order to establish voluntary consent. Not only is the person giving consent at risk of making a decision they might never have made while unimpaired, but the initiator’s ability to correctly judge the giving of consent is also thrown into question.
  1. Consent is impermanent. Sometimes it is assumed that once consent has been established in a sexual relationship, this consent extends to all future sexual activity. This is not a permissible way to approach consent – it must be established on a case-by-case basis. A person who felt comfortable giving affirmative consent the first time may not feel the same way when involved in a second encounter, for a great number of possible reasons. In establishing consent every time, you ensure each other’s safety and freedom of choice.

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  1. Consent is autonomous. This key tenet builds from the previous one – consent must be established for each instance of sexual activity, regardless of whether or not it has been given before. Some people believe that once a relationship has been established, such as dating or marriage, it is no longer necessary to establish consent for each sexual activity. This is wrong, and doesn’t take into account each person’s wants and desires, which are always subject to change. There are countless factors that can influence a person’s decision to give sexual consent in one instance and not another – even in a secure relationship – and these factors need to be acknowledged and respected.
  1. Consent is equitable. Perhaps more so than any previous point, ensuring equitable consent requires a close look at the context involved, particularly the context of the involved parties’ relationship outside of sexual activity. Valid consent cannot be established if the initiator wields some manner of power or authority over the other in an external setting, such as on campus or at the workplace. For example, a college professor who attempts to initiate sexual activity with one of their students cannot obtain valid consent – the same applies for a manager and one of their employees.

The ability of the initiator to positively or negatively affect the other participant’s performance in these settings is a dangerous influencing factor, one that may lead to a sexual relationship the participant would be unwilling to engage in otherwise. Of course, consent is also rendered invalid if one of the participants is under the legal age of consent – this requires no great explanation.

Establishing voluntary sexual consent is more than a simple matter of “yes or no.” We need to pay attention to the context of the consent: our relationships outside of the bedroom, our mental and physical states of being, and our desires and limitations at a particular moment in time. All of these factors are necessary considerations when it comes to affirmative sexual consent, and only by respecting each and all of them can we ensure the respect and fair treatment of one another. 

Do you have something to add to the discussion? What are some other factors in a relationship that might render consent invalid? Share in the comments below.

Source: Yes Means Yes, 10 Ways to Distinguish Consent by Connie Kirkland.


Be sure to download your free one-sheet by Connie Kirkland, a top expert on sexual assault and threat assessment.

>> 10 Ways to Distinguish Consent: A Guide for Students and Advisors on Campus< <<


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