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What is Consent?

Pillow Talk. Communicating Consent, presented by CARE

What is Consent?

Consent is an affirmative, unambiguous, and conscious decision by all individuals involved to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity. Consent is voluntary and must be given without coercion, force, threats, or intimidation. This means that someone cannot be pushed or pressured into sexual activity and that all people involved are choosing to engage based on their own free will and interests.

The following content is presented in our workshop "Pillow Talk: Communicating Consent". Get in touch with us for a tailored presentation for your organization or group at our workshop request form!

Affirmative Consent

Affirmative consent--also known as "yes means yes"-- means that all individuals involved in sexual activity agree to participate. It is the responsibility of each person involved to ensure they have consent from the other individual(s) involved. This can be as simple as asking or checking in with the other person to ensure that they are comfortable and interested in participating in the sexual activity. 

Why "Yes Means Yes"?

Affirmative consent legislation is intentionally survivor-centered and is an active shift away from the problematic concept of "no means no". Affirmative consent shifts the responsibility of consent person potentially harmed (i.e. survivor) and instead has each person involved equitably hold the responsibility of checking in with one another. This means that consent is never silent and that the absence of a "no" does not mean "yes". This is what makes consent affirmative.

Consent is...

Consent is revocable, never assumed or implied, free from coercion, threats and intimidation, and is ongoing.

This means that anyone can change their mind at any time and no longer consent to the sexual activity. If consent is revoked, sexual activity should immediately stop.

Never Assumed or Implied
Being nice, flirting, dating, or even hooking up in the past does not mean that consent can be assumed or is implied. Consent to sexual activity on one occasion is not consent to engage in sexual activity on another occasion. A current or previous dating or sexual relationship, by itself, is not sufficient to constitute consent. Even in the context of a relationship, there must be mutual consent to engage in sexual activity.

Free from Coercion, Threats and Intimidation
No one should ever be pressured into engaging in any form of sexual activity. Asking multiple times or repeatedly trying to coerce someone into having sex through either words or action is NOT consensual. If someone does not consent to sexual activity, responding with aggressive behavior, anger, threats, or guilt is NOT acceptable, neither is intimidation. Intimidation includes using social status, age difference, or discrepancies in power to try to compel consent.

Consent does not stop when sexual activity begins--it is not a one time question. Consent must be ongoing throughout sexual activity, particularly when sexual activity escalates. Consenting to kissing, for example, is not the same as consenting to oral sex.

Consent and Alcohol

Consent cannot be given when a person is incapacitated, unconscious or coming in and out of consciousness. A person cannot consent if their understanding of the act is affected or impaired. Consent cannot be given whether one person or all people involved are intoxicated. Alcohol impacts all people differently and it is not up to one person to interpret or decide how it impacts someone else. It is inherently manipulative to assume that another person would consent to the same sexual activity if they were sober and had sober judgment and decision-making capability.

Let's talk about sex!

Our students have shared that asking consent might be something that might seem a little bit awkward. We live in a culture that has taught us confusing messages about how sex should be initiated.

Here are students, just like you, at NYU talking about consent.

Consent--like good sex--requires communication. Communication in sexual activity doesn't have to be awkward, in fact it can be sexy.

"Consent with words is about mutually voicing what [each person] wants and doesn't want, what [their] desires are and are not, and what [they] do and don't feel ready for. Sometimes it's about one person asking for something and the other replying, sometimes it's more organic. The way we voice sexual desire matters when it comes to consent, though: we need to be mindful of how our words express what we want while still leaving room for others to express what they want, especially since we won't always want the same things or want them at the same times. There are ways to voice desires and seek consent that support consent and good sexual communication."

Citation from Scarleteen: Communicating Consent

Starting a Conversation

  • May I [do whatever sexual thing]?
  • I'd like to [do whatever sexual thing]: would you like to? If not, what would you like to do?
  • How do you feel about doing [whatever sexual thing]?
  • Are there things you know you don't want to do: What are they? Mine are [whatever they are].
  • Is there anything you need to feel comfortable or safe when we do [whatever sexual thing]?
  • I'm really interested in doing [whatever sexual thing] with you, and it feels like the right time for me: do you want to do that and does the timing feel right to you?
  • I'd like to have sex tonight, would you? What do you want to do or try?

  • Citation from Scarleteen: Communicating Consent

    Navigating Consent

    Columbia University Health Service's Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Program provides these consent traffic lights:

    RED: Signs to Stop


    Either partner is too intoxicated to gauge or give consent.

    Either partner is asleep or passed out.

    Someone hopes their partner(s) will say nothing and go with the flow.

    Partner intends to have sex by any means necessary.
    YELLOW: Signs to Pause and Talk


    Someone is not sure what the other person wants.

    Someone feels that they are getting mixed signals.

    Partners have not talked about what they want to do.

    Someone assumes that they will do the same thing as before.

    Partner stops or is not responsive.

    Partners come to a mutual decision about how far they want to go.

    Partners clearly express their comfort with the situation.

    Everyone feels comfortable and safe stopping at any time.

    Partners are excited!