There seems to be more stories every day about sexual assault and harassment among celebrities, teachers, college students, athletes, and politicians. The conversations around these stories reveal many people struggling to understand sexual assault — perhaps incorrectly assuming these stories always involve violence. Sexual assault means performing any sexual activity without consent from the other person. If you believe you were sexually assaulted please visit our resources here.

What is consent?

In general, consent is not exclusive to sex — it’s about respecting personal and emotional boundaries. Consent is about getting and giving permission. However, it is more than a question and answer, but a universal right to your own body and boundaries regardless of age, ability, gender, identity, or race.

In a sexual context, consent is:

  • Freely given  A choice made without pressure, manipulation, or while under the influence of drugs/alcohol.
  • Informed – Both people need to understand the full story. For example, if the agreement is to wear a condom and your partner pulls it off, that is not consent.
  • Enthusiastic – Yes means yes. During sex, you should only be doing things you want to do. Beyond verbal confirmation, consent is paying attention to your partners’ actions and reactions throughout.
  • Communication – Communicate every step of the way, don’t assume anything goes. Ask: “Is this okay? Do you want me to go further? Should I slow down?”
  • Reversible – Either person can change their mind at any time. If you decide you don’t want to do something anymore you are not obligated, even if it’s something you have done in the past.

What is not consent?

Consent is not the absence of a no, but an enthusiastic and informed yes. Consent is not an assumption.

Consent is not…

  • The absence of a no – Silence is not consent. Victims may be in shock, afraid to react during an assault, or feel they have no choice.
  • When a person is a minor – A minor is not developmentally able to make sexual decisions and therefore is not able to give consent.
  • When a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol – Regardless of saying yes, a person under the influence is not of sound mind and therefore can not consent.
  • Assumed – based on someone dressing sexy, flirting, accepting a ride, or accepting a drink, gift, etc.
  • Coerced – When the yes is coerce Hearing a “yes” after you’ve complained or kept asking after hearing a “no” is coercive and not an enthusiastic yes.
  • Consent to something else – Consent is for a specific act; kissing or removing clothes is not the same as consenting to sex.
  • Given out of fear – of what might happen if you say “no.”
  • A duty – just because someone is in a relationship with you.

The Disconnect

These concepts sound clear, yet college-aged adults surveyed had very different interpretations of consent (College Students divided on Consent). For instance, when asked if undressing or getting a condom indicated consent, 40% said yes and 40% said no. This ambiguity poses challenges for preventing sexual assault on campuses and exposes the need for teaching consent.


Consent should be taught early in life and continue throughout adolescence. Discussions on consent need to begin with conversations on healthy sexuality. Sex is an inherent part of life, and it is important we learn to navigate it in a healthy way. We need to feel comfortable expressing our desires and boundaries in order to have healthier relationships.

Read more about talking to children about consent here.



  • Megan Osborne

    Megan is passionate about prevention education and community. She strongly believes in social justice and ending violence. Megan works as a digital educator at HCWC where she uses social media, our podcast, and community presentations to promote gender equality, advocacy, consent, and healthy relationships. She is also passionate about advocating for peace, equality, and youth empowerment. She enjoys research, watching movies, playing roller derby, and spending time at the river with family.