Understanding consent in sexual activity

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Consent is an active agreement to engage in sexual activity with someone. This isn’t exclusive to intercourse. Oral sex, kissing, inappropriate touching, even sending unsolicited sexual photos without direct approval from the receiver are all considered violations of consent. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “It’s a scary time to be a man,” reads one tweet. The sexual assault allegations hounding Harvey Weinstein, and later, dozens of other powerful men in Hollywood, have created a ripple effect. We’re experiencing a wave of exposés, industry after industry, with our own local indie music scene taking the most recent hit.    

What’s “scary” about this time is that abusers are finally being held accountable for their actions. Major music events are pulling bands out of their lineups, brands are cutting ties with their artists, and people have taken to social media to publicly denounce their support.

From a woman’s perspective, it’s selfish, and perhaps even suspicious, for men to dwell on this fear. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about, right? Yet for a lot of men, the line between what’s okay and what’s not is blurry. For a lot of men, consent is an abstract concept. After all, it’s not something that is discussed in sex education classes, nor is it something most parents are willing to bring up with their kids. This lack of open discussion on the very concept that works to protect people from acting out and experiencing sexual abuse is what is truly terrifying.

What follows is a primer on sexual consent, drawn up from various sources, but mostly following Planned Parenthood’s helpful guide. This is written in the hopes of leading people into acting responsibly when engaging in any form of sexual activity.

Defining consent

Consent is an active agreement to engage in sexual activity with someone. This isn’t exclusive to intercourse. Oral sex, kissing, inappropriate touching, even sending unsolicited sexual photos without direct approval from the receiver are all considered violations of consent, and more technically, acts of sexual assault. To avoid this, both parties have to be clear about what they want and what they’re comfortable with before and during sexual activity.

What does consent look like?

Consent must be given freely. Many people don’t realize that begging, pressuring, and guilting someone into having sex with them is a violation of consent, even if it seems playful. When you say “If you love me, you’ll do it,” you’re manipulating your partner into engaging with you.

Having sex with someone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, unconscious, or has fallen asleep in the middle of a sexual act is a violation of consent. Drugs and alcohol can impede one’s judgment and decision-making. Naturally, an unconscious person cannot give you their consent. Even if they had implied or specifically mentioned that they wanted to engage with you before becoming unconscious, they cannot inform you of how they feel during their state of unconsciousness.

This is what it means to be in a society that is patriarchal, a society that favors male dominance and aggression, and subjugates women as second to men.

Consent must be enthusiastic. If the person you wish to engage in sexual activity with seems anything but sure, do not continue. Some people will feel pressured to participate, or guilty about backing out, and might find it difficult to give you an explicit “no.” If the person is undecided, do not try to persuade them. If the response feels half-hearted or forced, the responsible thing to do is to stop.

Consent must be informed. Minors are not considered to have the legal competency and mental capacity to provide you with an informed choice when it comes to sexual activity. No matter how mature a minor seems, engaging in sexual activity with a minor is considered statutory rape.

Lying to your partner and going against their wishes during a sexual act are also considered  violations of consent. Recently, “stealthing” or the act of discreetly removing one’s condom during sex, had become a point of discussion when a Swiss court convicted a man of rape for doing just that.

In line with being clear and honest, you must also be specific and ask for consent in every activity. A “yes” to a kiss is not the same as a “yes” to intercourse. Do not expect a person’s consent to encompass the full range of sexual activities, as comfort levels vary with each person and situation.

Consent is reversible. Remember that there is no such thing as “sealing the deal.” A person should be able to change their mind before and during the act.

It’s important for people to realize that consent should never be assumed unless verbally expressed. What someone is wearing or doing should not be assumed as an open invitation to violate their consent. Being in a relationship also does not entitle you to your partner’s body no matter how long you have been together. Although the popular saying goes “Silence means yes,” in the case of sexual activity, silence must never be taken as a yes. Yes means yes.

Growing up, boys are taught certain things about what it means to “be a man.” Boys are told to be aggressive and assertive, and told that women are prizes to be won. To this day, we celebrate the persistence of suitors depicted in films and T.V. shows, disregarding clear signs of overstepping boundaries. This is what it means to be in a society that is patriarchal, a society that favors male dominance and aggression, and subjugates women as second to men. It’s what’s allowed sexual violence to persist and become normalized, and it’s what keeps us from having clear and open conversations about consent.

It might be a scary time to be a man right now, but it’s always been scary to be a woman. And until more people — men, women, and otherwise — open themselves up to change, fear will continue to dominate us.