What does it really mean to consent to sex?

I’m pretty sure whipping out a form to sign half way through the ‘build up’ would ruin the mood a bit… so how do you know if you have given or received consent?

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“Please stop you’re scaring me”

Those were the last words spoken by a 19 year old girl to the man above her, before she slipped back into drunken unconsciousness. He didn’t listen. He was gone when she woke up.

This girl had always thought that it was so black and white. There was sex and there was rape. It was obvious which was which, right? So she told no one. After all, surely it was her own fault for saying yes and passing out!? A few years later a news story about a footballer and a similarly drunken young girl hit the headlines. Suddenly everyone was discussing whether saying yes while drunk and then changing your mind counted as consent! The footballer went to court and the judge decided it did NOT count. Years after the incident, and our now 20-something year old girl finally realised why she had felt so broken the next morning.

So what does it really mean to consent to sex? I’m pretty sure whipping out a form to sign half way through the ‘build up’ would ruin the mood a bit… so how do you know if you have given or received consent? One of the most complicated times for this question is when the person who needs your consent is actually your partner. How do the rules of consent work within a relationship? If you’ve said yes every time willingly for the last 3 months, can you really say no now? If you’ve already said no for the past 2 weeks for any reason, can you really keep saying no? If they’ve taken you on a romantic and expensive date night, is it unfair not to reward them? If you’re simply not in the mood, should you just pretend for the sake of your relationship? The questions go on forever.

As you look back at past times with a partner where you’re not sure if you consented, think about how you felt afterwards. Did you take yourself off to the loo just to be alone? Did you roll away from them and pretend to fall asleep? Were you wanting it to be over with at any point? These all suggest your consent was not enthusiastic. Your partner should be wanting your enthusiastic consent each and every time. Sex with someone who’s willing but not keen should not be attractive to anyone. I’m willing to do the laundry most weekends. That doesn’t mean I want to do it! If sex feels like a chore, it’s not consent.

Maybe it’s more serious than this. Take yourself back to that time with your partner. What might have happened if you said no? Would they have got angry? Upset? Questioned your love or commitment to them? Would they have pestered you until you eventually gave in? Could they have even broken up with you? Saying yes to avoid something you fear is not consent.

I don’t want you to read this and panic that I’m throwing the ‘R-word’ into your relationships. I simply want you to see consent for what it is. If you’re not sure you gave it, then you didn’t.

If you’re still reading, then something in this article might have hit home for you. I’m so sorry for that. And I want to tell you that we are here (literally) for you. CEASE is a team here support young people who have experienced questionable, controlling, coercive, or abusive behaviour in their relationships. CEASE is also here to educate anyone and everyone on issues like consent in relationships, and many other healthy boundaries. If you have been affected by what you’ve read here, there are a few ways you can connect with us. This could be for a one-off chat, or to meet with a practitioner more regularly and talk through some of your experiences. We can also provide advice on practical ways to stay safe in relationships, whether past or present.

So how can you find us?

  • Follow and message us on Instagram @cease_remedi
  • You can email us on ceasederbyshire@remediuk.org
  • We are on the Kedleston Road campus from 9.30am-12.30pm every other Wednesday in Advice Room 1 (near the Union reception). Drop in and say hi!

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