As defined by Planned Parenthood, sexual consent is the active agreement to be sexual with someone, including the sexual acts that take place during contact. The absence of sexual consent constitutes rape or sexual assault.
Many people involved in higher education have at least had the opportunity to come into contact with this concept due to modern advocacy efforts, and many students could muster up a definition slightly along those lines if asked.
That said, approximately 1 in 6 men and 1 in 4 women are victims of sexual violence or assault in their lifetime.
For such a simple concept, why are these statistics so severe?
There is more than just one answer to that question, but a large portion of them are based in a concept no one—be it victims, aggressors, allies and bystanders—hate to address: the "grey area" in consent.
The "grey area" should be considered the miscommunication that can happen between two or more sexual partners which might allow someone to perform a sexual act without the others' consent. Unfortunately, it has increasingly become an excuse used against sexual assault survivors by people who refuse to believe them if the survivor is brave enough to share their story.
While consent is truly a cut-and-dry concept, oftentimes people enter into the "grey area" by pure ignorance for where boundaries lie and how rules should be upheld.
The breadth and severity of the "grey area" is not easily measured, nor can anyone have all the answers about what falls under that scope, be it morally or legally.
With that said, there is one simple answer to how it can be dissolved, which is the age-old solution to all forms of ignorance: education.
To eliminate the threat of the "grey area", it's every individual's duty to educate themselves, their partners and everyone around them on what consent is, what it looks like and how to apply it.
Again, it's a lot more simple, and a lot less awkward, than people would assume.
1. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Though sexual consent is infinitely more of a priority than consent applied to other areas, consent should also be employed in day-to-day activities. In fact, this is the easiest way to practice communicating to others what you're comfortable with, as well as establishing comfort zones; or even just practicing communication in general.
People often underestimate the value of getting consent in common interactions. Providing people with options within regular communication has a tremendous effect not only on the other(s)'s comfort but on setting your own boundaries as well. Examples of this are as follows:
"Can I get your number?" vs. "Give me your number."
"Do you have a minute to talk?" vs. "We need to talk."
"Do you mind if I....?" vs. performing an action without comment.
Even, "Is it cool if I post this of us?" can be more appreciated than you'd ever expected.
Small efforts like these can completely recalibrate the quality of your interactions as well as allow you to practice getting consent in a situation with far lesser consequences. At the very least, everyone can do with a little more politeness in their lives.
2. Give Consent Thoughtfully
Another way to refine your relationship with consent is by practicing defining your boundaries in both social and physical situations.
This step was the most helpful for me when recovering from my rape, as it helped totally restructure my relationship with consent. For a while, I hated all physical contact with others altogether, even the innocent kind like hugs and handshakes.
Basically expressing my comfort zone with a casual "hey, I really prefer not to be touched" lets people know in a respectful, non-confrontational way how they can contribute to us both leaving the interaction feeling comfortable and respected.
In more intimate relationships, consent starts before it even gets to the bedroom. Talking about sex conversationally (not in graphic detail) with potential partners using phrases like, "It makes me uncomfortable when..." or "I'm very sensitive about...." checks unwanted contact during sex before its right in front of you.
A good rule of thumb for giving consent in sexy-settings is to do so as explicitly as possible. While this may sound thoroughly unsexy, consent is a two-way street, so phrases like "I'm willing to try.......if you are", and "I'm feeling........Do you feel the same?", signals an openness that can go both ways. After having a conversation about consent out of context, this introduces consent in the appropriate setting in a fun, responsible way.
3. Good Rules Of Thumb For Getting Consent
Obviously, the best way to get consent from a potential partner is to ask for it directly.
When in doubt, if you've read this whole article and are still iffy on the concept, stick with "Do I have your consent to.....?" if attempting to make any physical contact, sexual or otherwise.
However, we all know there are more playful, yet clear, ways to gauge what your partner is OK with.
I'll never forget the butterflies I got when an ex climbed into bed with me while I was napping at her apartment and said, "Can we cuddle?"
Those who say consent can't be sweet, fun, funny and, yes, even sexy, clearly aren't doing the dirty right.
Simple comments like "I want to kiss you", "Are you OK with this right now?", "What if I...?" and "Are you in the mood for....?" can be exciting as well as direct.
The main thing to remember is that consent should never feel "grey." The more unsure you feel about what they want, what they're comfortable with and how into you they are, the more direct you should be when getting consent. Opening the door not only makes sure that you both are on the same page but allows your partner(s) the opportunity to leave the situation if they aren't feelin' it.
Consent, and sexual encounters should never be anything less than enthusiastic. If it isn't, again, you might not be doing the dirty right.
Considering these steps and putting any of these tips into practice helps reduce the "grey area", which gets us one step closer to a safer society. If you want more information about consent, sexual assault or advocacy work, I strongly encourage you to reach out to your local resources.
State schools are all equipped with a Title IX department designed to address cases of sexual misconduct on college campuses and provide resources. If your school doesn't have one, Sam Houston State University's Title IX website has links to resources and information covering a vast range of misconduct, sexual or otherwise, that may be helpful.
If you are not a student, many domestic abuse shelters in the area feature similar opportunities to learn, whether on their websites or through events, programs, and campaigns.
Finally, as we broach this Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I encourage everyone to seek out a local calendar of events so you can either teach, learn, share your story or hear others. Hopefully, if everyone makes an effort to get involved, the "grey area" in consent can get that much smaller.