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What is the true meaning of consent?

Updated: Nov 13, 2023


Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and rape culture.


Last year, the #teachusconsent movement pushed consent into the spotlight and prompted the government to mandate consent education in all schools across Australia. Age-appropriate consent education will now be rolled out to all year levels across Australia. But for those who missed out on consent education during their own schooling, let’s take a look at the meaning behind what consent really is.



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It’s not just about sex


Consent is a knowing and voluntary agreement to do something, be a part of something, or have something done to you. To do something consensually means to understand exactly what you’re being asked to do or be involved in, and choose to participate freely, without any pressure from the others involved.


Often, when people talk about consent, it’s in relation to sexual activities. In Victoria, the law defines sexual consent as "free agreement" and makes clear that a person must actively take steps to establish consent. These laws are based on what's known as the affirmative consent model. The laws were updated this year in order to ensure that scrutiny is placed on the perpetrators of sexual offences, not on victim-survivors.


Obviously, consent is vital for sex, but it’s also important in a range of other contexts if we want to be respectful of one another and ensure personal and emotional safety.


At Let's Talk About X, we use the following definition of consent in our consent education training:


A willing agreement between everyone involved in something.


We've chosen these words for a number of reasons. Firstly, the language is brief and simple; it avoids the wordiness of legal or dictionary-style definitions. Secondly, it's designed deliberately to prompt discussion of what "willing agreement" looks like. We unpack this later in the post.


Our final reason for choosing this as our working definition is that the word "something" is deliberately broad, which again, prompts discussion. Discussing that "something" allows us to talk about the many situations consent applies to. Because consent applies to so much more than just physical touch and sexual activity.


For instance, some scenarios where you might need to provide or check for consent include sharing somebody’s belongings, receiving medical treatment, taking someone’s photo, or posting it online. It is these everyday scenarios that can be used to educate children on respectful practices from a young age.


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Always check for consent before sharing photos online.



Why is consent so important?


When practised well, consent can help ensure someone isn’t taken advantage of or pushed into doing something they don’t want to do. That’s why ensuring people understand and have tools to establish consent is important. It can help us have safer, more respectful relationships with one another.


The statistics on sexual violence are alarming, with 11% of Australians having experienced sexual assault since the age of 15. The majority of these assaults were perpetrated by an intimate partner. We know this is similarly reflected amongst young people. And it is widely accepted that through a better understanding of consent, we can change this narrative.


Since its launch last year, a petition led by activist Chanel Contos calling for consent to be included in Australian schools’ sex education earlier garnered over 45000 signatures and over 6700 harrowing testimonies from young people who have suffered or witnessed sexual assault. The petition was successful, with consent education to be mandated at every year level, in all schools nationwide from next year.


With an age-appropriate, cross-curricular approach and plenty of investment in training for teachers, Let's Talk About X is hoping the mandate will drive big shifts towards safer, more respectful relationships in Australia in the future. But for those of us who may have missed out on a comprehensive consent education ourselves, let's take a moment to examine some of the basics.



What does consent look like?


Currently in Australia, laws and education are moving towards an affirmative consent model, with Victoria and New South Wales both having recently changed their laws. This means we've shifted away from the ‘no means no’ slogan you may have grown up with, to a ‘yes means yes’ approach. Affirmative consent requires individuals to actively check for consent.


While previously the law may have allowed for the excuse that ‘they didn’t say no’ to be used as a defence by perpetrators accused of sexual assault, the requirement for affirmative consent makes it clear that the absence of a ‘no’ is not consent. One must actually take steps to establish an enthusiastic ‘yes’.


So what does a ‘yes’ look like? What are we looking for when seeking consent?


When it comes to sexual consent in Victoria, the law has made it clearer than ever before. Establishing consent "can include, but isn’t limited to verbally asking and getting a ”yes”, a physical gesture like a nod or reciprocating a move such as removing clothes."


However, they also make clear that congruent body language is required for a person to have reasonable belief in consent:



These new laws are a great first step towards clarifying what sexual consent looks like, but if we want people to be able to practise consent with ease, we need to go beyond the bedroom and understand what willing agreement looks like in a range of scenarios.


Whether you’re asking someone to have sex with you, or whether you can post that selfie of the two of you online, consent should look the same. You should only proceed if you get an enthusiastic yes that’s offered freely, by someone who understands what you’re specifically asking. They should also be able to change their mind at any time.


So if you’re asking to share that selfie on Instagram, they should be enthusiastic about giving you permission, without any pressure from you. They should also understand which photo you’re talking about and what Instagram is.


If you’ve pushed them into it, then they’re not really consenting, and you can’t just decide to cross-post to Facebook without checking about that too. Should they change their mind later and ask you to take it down, you should respect that, regardless of how many likes it got.


To help you remember all of these facets of consent that you need to be mindful of, a useful mnemonic developed by Planned Parenthood is FRIES: Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic and Specific. Each element is unpacked in more detail in the section below.


what is consent, how to check for consent, how to say no

Source: Planned Parenthood




Understanding FRIES


In this next section, we unpack each aspect of the 'FRIES' model using a range of examples both sexual and other everyday scenarios, to give you a clearer understanding of each facet of consent.


Freely Given


The F reminds us that consent must be granted freely. Any pressure or coercion makes the agreement invalid. If your sister threatens to disown you if you don’t loan her your denim jacket, consent is not freely given when you finally say yes. If your boyfriend pressures you into a blow job, that’s not consent.


There are some situations where a power imbalance renders one partner unable to give consent freely. For instance, when your boss goes in for a hug and you don’t feel like you can say no.


Reversible


Consent can be withdrawn at any time and nobody should be made to feel they have to apologise or give a reason. In fact, when it comes to sexual activities, the responsibility is on both partners to continually check in and ensure that other feels comfortable. If a person asks to stop or pause, they’ve withdrawn consent. It also can’t be assumed that just because someone agreed earlier they are still interested. So if you texted your booty call at 3pm, make sure you ask whether they’re still up for it when they arrive after work.


Informed


The I reminds us that a person must understand exactly what they are agreeing to. So if you didn’t tell your sister you were planning to wear that denim jacket to a bonfire, her consent isn’t valid and her anger is justified when it comes back smelling like smoke.


Any attempt to mislead a person defies the principle of informed consent. For instance, removing a condom during sex without informing your partner is rape. On a side note, you might hear this colloquially referred to as 'stealthing', however we discourage the use of this term as it has connotations of being sneaky and getting away with something which diminish the severity of an act that is legally rape and should be labelled as such.


Informed consent often arises in the medical field, where doctors will prescribe certain treatments only when the patient understands and agrees to the risk. Informed consent also comes into play when one partner may have a cognitive impairment that may prevent them from understanding and giving consent. In these cases, the law is pretty clear, any sexual activity with someone who cannot give informed consent is criminal.


Enthusiastic


To be sure the person is consenting, you should secure an enthusiastic, verbal yes, and check for congruent body language. In recent years we’ve moved away from the view that sex is something done to someone, towards the belief that it should be something two people are enthusiastic about engaging in together.


Tense posture, avoidant gaze or hesitation are all signs that a person might not be too enthusiastic about whatever you’re asking them to do. Look out for signs like this and check in to make sure they’re actually up for it. Make it clear that there’s no pressure.


Specific


You must seek consent for each specific act. Saying yes to one thing does not mean a person is willing to do another. For instance, a partner agreeing to touch you does not mean they want to be touched themselves - you should always ask first. You can’t ask to borrow your sister’s denim jacket and then decide to wear her brand new boots instead.


Limitations


While FRIES provides a valuable framework for understanding different facets of good practice when it comes to consent, there are also limitations to this model and how it plays out, particularly when it comes to sex.


For instance, the ideal of ‘enthusiasm’ is often contested. People have sex for a variety of reasons. Those who’ve had kids may cite their baby-making sex as something they were a consenting participant in, but not necessarily enthusiastic about every time. Some asexual people may lack enthusiasm for sex, but still choose to engage for a variety of reasons.


The focus on enthusiasm also garners criticism by some who suggest it's not trauma-informed, can be alienating for those who are neurodiverse, and doesn't take into account responsive arousal. The debates are multifaceted; nonetheless, many concerns can be overcome with good communication.


We need to teach people to be explicit. It's important to learn the skills to talk about what you're comfortable with, what enthusiasm looks like for you, and how to let your partner know the ways in which you communicate.


Like all frameworks, the way in which we enact them needs to be guided by the context of each individual interaction. However, this doesn’t negate the importance of teaching the next generation practices that are safer, more communicative and respectful.


Where to from here?


When we start to look closely at consent, many of us may recognise that some of our own sexual experiences were non-consensual. You may even find yourself feeling resistant or unsure of how to enact more consensual practices in your sex or everyday life. This is perfectly normal.


Learning to actively practise consent is a process. If you’d like to learn more, read our guide on How to Check for Consent or check out our training programs.



Let's Talk About X offers training for schools and workplaces.

Frank discussions. Meaningful change.


If you need support, you can contact 1800 RESPECT or Blue Knot Foundation.


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