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Prevention and Risk Reduction

Consent and Sexual Communications

What is Consent?

Consent is an important part of healthy sexuality.

According to the Northwest College Sexual Misconduct Policy, consent is giving permission to another to act in specific ways (in this case, sexually). Consent must be informed, given freely, and with full knowledge and understanding.

Consent can be verbal and/or nonverbal; it is given in mutual agreement through understandable words and actions (NWC Sexual Misconduct Policy). 

Verbally agreeing to different sexual activities can help you and your partner set, maintain, and respect each other’s sexual boundaries.

For a quick (and humorous) overview of consent, watch this video:

How Can You Ask for Consent?

Consent education mottos have included “no means no” and “yes means yes.” Before getting a “no” or a “yes” for sexual activities, it is important to be able to have the communication skills to be able to effectively and comfortably ask for consent.

Remember that consent needs to be specific. You may have consent to kiss a person, but kissing someone does not automatically give you consent to have sex with that person. You need consent for specific sexual activities.  The following are some ideas for how to ask for consent:

  • I would like to …… (specify action). Is that okay?
  • Would you be comfortable if I….. (specify action)?
  • Is it okay if I….. (specify action)?
  • Do you want to keep going?
  • What would you like me to do to you?
  • Is there anything you’d like me to do differently?
  • Is this too much?

Practicing good consent is using good communication skills.

If your sexual partner seems uncomfortable, check in with him/her verbally. “Are you okay?” or “Do you want to stop?”


Consent and Coercion

Consent is invalid when a person is coerced into sexual activities. Coercion involves unreasonable pressure for sexual activity. When someone makes it clear to you that he/she does not want sex, wants to stop, or does not want to go past a certain point of sexual interaction, continued pressure beyond that point can be coercive.

Coercion is typically measured by the frequency, intensity, and duration of the pressure applied for sexual access. Someone might take advantage of another person’s naiveté, but to show that an action is coercive, you would have to show that the pressure applied was so intense or concentrated that it was unreasonable (ATIXA, 2016).

Examples of sexual coercion include:

  • Continuing to apply pressure after being told “no”
  • Applying emotional pressure or using threats to gain sexual access
  • Taking a person out to the middle of nowhere and threatening to leave him/her there if sexual actions are not performed
  • Insisting on having sex when a partner is asleep, tired, ill, or incapacitated
  • Claiming sex is owed—because you are in a relationship, because you’ve had sex previously, because they spend money on you or bought you gifts, because you went home or into a bedroom with them

Healthy sexuality is rooted in respect, consent, and good communications. Coercion creates an unhealthy relationship


Consent and Incapacitation

If an individual is mentally or physically impaired or incapacitated so that she/he cannot fully and clearly understand the nature or extent of the sexual situation, there is no consent. Consent cannot be given in conditions resulting from incapacitation from alcohol and drug consumption, being asleep, and if a person is unconscious (NWC Sexual Misconduct Policy).

What is incapacitation?

Determining if a person is incapacitated focuses on whether the person has the physical and/or mental ability to make informed, rational decisions and judgments.  Having sex with a willing yet intoxicated person is not an offense when that person is aware of what he/she is doing and can give consent; that person is intoxicated but not incapacitated.

When is sex with a drunk or drugged person an offense?

Culpability rests on two factors, 1) the incapacitation of a person and 2) the person accused of committing sexual assault or rape having knowledge of that incapacitation, whether that knowledge is actual or inferred. The following are signs that a person may be incapacitated and thus unable to give sexual consent when the person is:

  • Stumbling or exhibiting a loss of equilibrium
  • Slurring speech or confusing words
  • Having bloodshot, glassy, or unfocused eyes
  • Vomiting, especially repeatedly
  • Showing disorientation or confusion as to time, place, or who people are
  • Having a loss of consciousness or coming in and out of consciousness
  • Showing any signs of alcohol poisoning, such as the person cannot be roused, is vomiting, is having seizures, has slow or irregular breathing, is pale or has a bluish skin color, is in a coma.

Alcohol can affect people differently. If a person is drinking or using drugs and you are not sure if that person has the capacity to give sexual consent (even if that person gives a verbal “yes”), be cautious; wait until that person is sober. The NWC Sexual Misconduct Policy states:

If at any time during a sexual act any confusion or ambiguity is or should reasonably be apparent on the issue of consent, it is incumbent upon each individual involved in the activity to stop and clarify the other’s willingness to continue and capacity to consent. Neither party shall make assumptions about the other’s willingness to continue (NWC Sexual Misconduct Policy)


Changing Your Mind about Consent

If you feel uncomfortable or decide you are no longer okay with engaging in sexual activities, you can withdraw consent at any point. It is important to clearly communicate the withdrawal of consent verbally and/or physically. Verbally, you can say “Stop” or “I change my mind.” Physical withdrawal could involve pulling away or pushing a person from you. If consent is withdrawn, all sexual activity is to immediately cease.

More Information

For more information about consent, sexual coercion, and how to respond to sexual coercion, visit the Office on Women's Health's Sexual Assault page.

Still need more information on Consent, watch this video by Laci Green: