Consent (for parents and guardians)

Group of young students together

Adapted with permission from an article by Saleema Noon, Sexual Health Educator

Parental consent for a field trip. Informed consent to participate in a study. We throw the word consent around without thinking about it too much, but what about sexual consent? What is it and what do we need to teach our kids about it?

A while back, I set out to do some research before writing an article about sexual consent when I came across an article on (an amazing sexual health website for teens and people in their 20s). The article, Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent, gives the most comprehensive discussion of sexual consent I have ever come across (not shocking, Scarleteen explains everything so much better than I ever could!).

According to Scarleteen, sexual consent is: “An active process of willingly and freely choosing to participate in sex of any kind with someone else, and a shared responsibility for everyone engaging in, or who wants to engage in, any kind of sexual interaction with someone. When there is a question or invitation about sex of any kind, when consent is mutually given or affirmed, the answer on everyone’s part is an enthusiastic yes.”

So what exactly does that mean?

Well, “willingly and freely choosing” means that both partners are making sexual decisions in a safe, respectful environment in which they have equal power. They don’t feel pressured or manipulated, and are comfortable with the consequences of their decision.

“An enthusiastic yes” reflects a strong desire that a person wants to act on. They are not indifferent or uncertain. There are many ways to express a ”yes,” but the safest and clearest way to do it is with words. Consent is best when it’s a verbal, enthusiastic “YES!”.

But sexual consent is not just a one-time thing. It is fluid, it can be revoked, it is not one size fits all.

Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of Yes Means Yes, explains that well when she says:

“Sexual consent isn’t like a light switch, which can be either “on” or “off.” It’s not like there’s this one thing called “sex” you can consent to anyhow. “Sex” is an evolving series of actions and interactions. You have to have the enthusiastic consent of your partner for all of them. And even if you have your partner’s consent for a particular activity, you have to be prepared for it to change. Consent isn’t a question. It’s a state.

“If, instead of lovers, the two of you were synchronized swimmers, consent would be the water. It’s not enough to jump in, get wet and climb out—if you want to swim, you have to be in the water continually. And if you want to have sex, you have to be continually in a state of enthusiastic consent with your partner.”

So what does all of this mean for us as adults and as parents? Scarleteen does a great job of highlighting the must-have information for people of all ages about this very complex concept. Now that’s sexy!

The essential rules of the consensual road

Consent is about everyone involved in a sexual or possibly sexual interaction. Not just one gender, not just young people, not just whoever didn’t initiate sex to begin with, not just the person whose body part someone else’s body part may be touching or going into. For sex to be fully consensual, everyone needs to seek consent, everyone needs to be affirming it, and everyone needs to accept and respect each other’s answers, nixing sex or stepping back, pronto, if and when someone expresses a stop.

Consent can ALWAYS be withdrawn. Consent to any kind of sex is not a binding contract nor does consent obligate anyone to follow through. It is also one-time-only: because someone consented to sex Tuesday does not mean they were giving consent for sex on Thursday.

Nothing makes consent automatic or unnecessary. Being someone’s spouse or romantic partner doesn’t give anyone consent by default. Someone loving you or saying they love you doesn’t mean they have your sexual consent or you have theirs. No one kind of sex means consent to another, or that anyone is “owed” any sex. For instance, someone who engages in oral sex is not asking for or consenting to intercourse; someone who says yes to kissing is not saying yes to any other kind of touching. Because someone has had any kind of sex in the past does not mean they will have sex or consent to sex again with that same person or anyone else nor that they are obligated in any way to do so.

In some situations, full, informed and free consent cannot truly be given or shared. Those include: being drunk or wasted, being asleep, being unable to really understand what one is saying yes to, including possible risks and outcomes; being under severe duress, like when seriously upset, ill, grieving or scared, or being unable to understand another person’s words or other means of communication. Consider things like these to be a red light to even asking about sex: sex should usually be off the table entirely in these situations. Legally, when someone is under the age of legal consent, with someone of an age where sex is not lawful, and in most of the above situations, sex is a crime.

Nonconsent means STOP. If someone is NOT consenting to something or says no with their words and/or actions, the other person MUST stop trying to do that thing AND must not try to convince that person to do that thing in any way. If they do not stop, or exert emotional or other pressure and that person gives up and gives in, they are sexually assaulting that person. Sex is not sex if everyone is not consenting. If anyone is not consenting or not asking for consent, then what is happening is or may be rape, sexual abuse or assault.

A lack of no does not mean yes.

Learn more

Videos Saleema recommends

UBC resources

Sex and sexual health information and resources, including information about consent.