Consent: What it is and how to get it

Consent is more than sexy — it’s the defining line between fun, awesome sex and sexual assault. But do you know how to get it? Read our handy guide to become well-versed in consensual sex, learn how to support survivors and combat rape culture.

Rape culture

From Jian Ghomeshi’s rape accusations to the misogynistic statements made on a Dalhousie student Facebook page, the topic of sexual violence is rampant.

The issue of widespread sexual violence is closely tied to the idea of “rape culture” — the normalization of sexual assault — that we experience today. Rape culture sees sexual assault as an accepted societal norm instead of a problem to be fixed. Saying that an exam “raped” you and articles instructing women to avoid getting sexually assaulted (rather than teaching people not to sexually assault) are both examples of rape culture.

Our rape culture minimizes the perceived severity of sexual assault. By asking a survivor questions such as, “Why didn’t you fight or scream more?” people inevitably place the blame on the victim of the crime and make the perpetrator seem innocent. This kind of messaging implies that the person committing the sexual assault didn’t mean to sexually assault someone, and that all people automatically want sex unless they say “no.”

While it’s difficult to completely eradicate sexual assault, providing education and knowledge around concepts of sex and consent is our best tool for combating it. Until it no longer exists, our most effective way of coping will be supporting survivors and spreading accurate knowledge.

Defining consent

Consent is a voluntary, affirmative and ongoing process during sex. According to the Canadian Criminal Code, consent is not valid if it is given by someone else, the person is incapable of consenting (i.e. unconscious, sleeping, drunk, or stoned), if it is an abuse of power, trust, or authority, if the person does not say yes or says no (or through words or behaviour implies no) or if the person changes their mind.
That is, we need to be continually checking in on our partners — even though they may have consented earlier, they may change their minds later.

It’s important that when discussing consent, our terminology around sexual assault are as harsh as the act itself. Merely defining sexual assault as “non-consensual sex,” can minimize the experience of survivors. For example, we wouldn’t call robbery “gift-giving without consent” — it’s robbery.

Ultimately, performing a sexual act without consent is not sex — it’s a stripping of one’s power in favour of your own. So, when discussing a non-consensual sex act, call it what it is: sexual assault.

Consent and alcohol

So where is the line when alcohol is involved in sex? The idea of drunk sex is often a point of contention, with victims often being blamed if they had been drinking, or associated with a less savoury idea of “well, if they regret it the next morning, they can accuse me of sexual assault.”

Drunk consensual sex is definitely possible, and isn’t against the law — though it may not be the best sex that you’ve ever had. The defining moment when sex involving alcohol becomes sexual assault comes when someone is too drunk to give consent — a lack of a verbal “no” does not imply “yes.”

There are several signs to look for to see if someone is too intoxicated to give consent. If someone is slurring their speech, struggling with motor coordination or having trouble walking straight, their ability to give consent is compromised.

As well, if a person isn’t actively participating in a sex act, or indicating they don’t want to participate — like trying to push their partner away, keep their clothes on, or saying “this is going too fast for me”— they are not giving consent.

Sexual assault and men

One facet of sexual assault that is often overlooked is that it can, and does, happen to men.

We live in a culture where masculinity is often defined by a man’s sexuality. Stereotypically, we perceive men and masculinity as being lucky to have sex, to be always wanting sex and if they didn’t want sex, they would be able to fight off the attacker. Many mainstream television shows that show male sexual assault either have a laugh track behind them or minimize people’s experiences with humour.

On a physiological level, men also can feel that they weren’t sexually assaulted if their body responded to unwanted touching — there’s a belief that you can’t sexually assault a person with a penis if they have or had an erection.

However, people of all genders respond to sexual contact — even if it’s unwanted. It’s not that they want the touch, but rather a physiological response to that stimulation. This is a dangerous perception of sexual assault towards males, and keeps many male survivors from speaking out when it does occur.

What is consent?
A voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It can’t be implied. You have to either look for body language cues or get verbal cues.

What is sexual assault?
Having sexual contact with a person who has said “no,” has said nothing, or has been convinced to say yes due to threats or feeling obligated.

Where can you go for help?
University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre (SUB 2-705)
Drop in for anonymous counselling or call any time between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. from Monday to Friday

Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton
24-hour sexual assault crisis line (780-423-4121)
Counselling available by appointment (780-423-4102)

How to support survivors

Sexual assault survivors often don’t go to formal support — they turn to friends. So, this is how to offer support if someone reaches out to you.

Let them share as much or as little as they want, uninterrupted.
Don’t ask “why” questions. They inadvertently can turn the situation into one of blame.
Don’t ask questions for your own curiosity. Are you interested in details or are you actually receiving information that will help you help them?

We don’t need to seek truth or criminal conviction — just be there for them and be supportive.

Explore options
Restore their feeling of choice.
Ask, “What do you want to do now?” Do they want to report it, or not? Do they want to seek medical attention, or not? All options are valid.

Sexual Assault on campus
21% of students at the University of Alberta reported at least one unwanted sexual experience at some point in their life up until now (Survey of Unwanted Sexual Experience Among University of Alberta Students by LoVerso, 2001).
– 90-95% of survivors who come to the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre are sexually assaulted by someone they know (University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre Statistics, 2013).

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