What is consent?: How to understand and talk about personal boundaries

understanding consent

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The National Institute of Justice’s 2005–2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study of almost 7,000 undergraduate students indicates that one in five women and six percent of men experienced attempted or completed sexual assault during college. Defining and discussing the meaning of consent is a powerful way to prevent sexual violence.

According to a recent survey conducted by Student Health 101, more than 45 percent of respondents have talked with a romantic or sexual partner about what sexual consent means, and more than 50 percent have talked about it with their friends. Have you?

What Is Consent?

The Ohio State University in Columbus, a leader in the field of sexual violence prevention, has a succinct definition of sexual consent: The act of knowingly, actively, and voluntarily agreeing to engage in sexual activity.

Sexual consent isn’t just about asking if someone wants to have sex; it involves asking about specific physical interactions, every step of the way, in every circumstance—and respecting the answer. Consent must be a clear and engaged “yes.”

What Is Not Consent?

  • If someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or intellectually disabled, she or he can’t provide consent, no matter what she or he says.
  • Silence is not consent.
  • A “yes” that came from being pressured, manipulated, physically threatened, or forced in any way is not consent.
  • A history of past sexual behavior is not consent.
  • Engaging in some sexual activities does not imply consent for others.

Nonconsensual sexual activity is sexual assault.

What is Sexual Violence?

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights:Sexual violence refers to physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent due to the victim’s use of drugs or alcohol. An individual also may be unable to give consent due to an intellectual or other disability. A number of different acts fall into the category of sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion.
  • Michelle Bangen, wellness coordinator for sexual violence education and support at The Ohio State University in Columbus, explains, “An impaired person can’t give consent, no matter what he or she verbalizes.”
  • Nicole Green, director of Prevention and Campus Assault Resources and Education at University of California, Los Angeles, emphasizes that being assaulted is never the victim’s fault, even if he or she has been drinking. “It’s illegal for a perpetrator to take advantage and hurt somebody,” she says.
  • Coercing, pressuring, or threatening until a person says “yes” is sexual assault.
Consider some real-life scenarios

If you or someone you know has experienced nonconsensual sexual activity, there is help.

Get help

If you or someone you know has experienced nonconsensual sexual activity, there is help. It’s never the victim’s fault.

Your school and community have many resources available, such as:
  • Counseling and health services
  • Emergency medical care
  • Assistance from campus security and/or community police
  • A local rape crisis center
  • Peer advocates
For free support, 24/7, contact:
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network
National Sexual Assault Hotline

1-800-656-HOPE (4673)

Consent = Dialogue

Understanding how to request and give consent can be an empowering experience.

Nicole Green, director of Prevention and Campus Assault Resources and Education at University of California, Los Angeles, says it’s a good idea to have this conversation before you get caught up in the moment. “You need to have a conversation way before [sexual activity starts] about what’s okay,” she explains.

Michelle Bangen, wellness coordinator for sexual violence education and support at The Ohio State University in Columbus, says partners need to ask for consent continually throughout any sexual interaction, not just once at the beginning.

Maura H., a graduate student at the University of Missouri in Columbia, agrees. “It’s just as important for both parties to consent throughout sex as it is in the beginning,” she says. “Just because one person starts doesn’t necessarily mean he or she wants to keep going.”

Dialogue = Desirable

Bangen says asking for consent doesn’t have to be awkward. She suggests that it can even be foreplay. “You don’t have to say it creepily,” Bangen says. “I like to give the example that if Ryan Gosling asked me if it was okay if he took his shirt off, it would be sexy. If you act naturally, you can actually turn your partner on. He or she will feel respected,” she explains.

Struggling for words?

Consent Is Sexy

Talking with your partner about what he or she is comfortable with can make sexual intimacy more comfortable and enjoyable for both of you. Michelle Bangen, wellness coordinator for sexual violence education and support at The Ohio State University in Columbus, says there are many ways to talk about consent in a sexy way.

If you feel awkward, don’t be afraid to verbalize that. Communicate to your partner that you want to have the conversation because you respect him or her. Here are some lines Bangen suggests:
  • I’d really like to hug / kiss / [fill in the blank] you. Would you like to?
  • Do you like it when I do this? Do you want to do it to me?
  • Is it okay if I take off my shirt / top / bra / pants / [fill in the blank]?
  • What would you like to do?
  • What would you like me to do for you?
  • It makes me hot when you kiss / touch / [fill in the blank] me there. What makes you feel good?
  • I really feel like making love / having sex with you / [fill in the blank]. Do you feel like it too?
  • Have you ever [fill in the blank]? Would you like to try it with me?

Steven M., a junior at Binghamton University, The State University of New York, says talking—like Green suggests—is necessary. “I want to make [my partner] feel comfortable. The result is more comfort and trust in our relationship.”

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..you will apply to everyday life?

..caused you to get involved, ask for help,
utilize campus resources, or help a friend?

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How can we get more people to read Student Health 101?
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HAVE YOU SEEN AT LEAST ONE THING IN THIS ISSUE THAT...

..you will apply to everyday life?

..caused you to get involved, ask for help,
utilize campus resources, or help a friend?

Tell us more.
How can we get more people to read Student Health 101?

First Name:

Last Name:

E-mail:

Phone Number:





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