Why is Consent So Hard to Understand?


February 27, 2023

When we think about consent in our heads it seems simple, but then when we try to explain and understand consent it suddenly becomes difficult, and controversy fills the conversation. We all think that we know what it means. And when someone asks us, or we have to sit in a consent class, we all dismiss it as patronising, and unnecessary because we already know exactly what consent means.

However, explaining consent is one thing. But do we really understand consent? And so we really all practice consent? If you think that consent is a simple thing, then we have missed the point entirely, and you should brush up on your knowledge of consent. Because even though in theory consent should be a simple thing, it is not. If it was simple then we wouldn't repeatedly be having to have this conversation. In order to break this conversation down, we need to think about it in two parts:

  1. Why consent is hard to explain/understand  
  2. Why is consent hard to practice

First things first, let's define what consent in a sexual relationship actually is:

According to RAINN, 'consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent should be clearly and freely communicated. Consent cannot be given by individuals who are underage, intoxicated, or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or asleep or unconscious. If someone agrees to an activity under pressure of intimidation or threat, that isn't considered consent because it was not given freely. Unequal power dynamics, such as engaging in sexual activity with an employee or student, also mean that consent cannot be freely given.'

It should be noted that this is a very large conversation, and not one that can be given justice in a two-page article. There are lots of elements to this discussion. Consent is one of those things that we think we all know exactly what it is. But then when we are put on the spot and have to explain it, we miss something, or lack some knowledge. We all like to assume we know what consent means, and then we block ourselves off from learning the true meaning of consent.

From a legal perspective consent is pretty straightforward. It is a concept at the center of criminal law and sexual assault. But it can be challenging to develop a decent understanding about consent because there are so many myths and claims surrounding it, which in turn dilludes our understanding.

For example, when someone has been accused of harassment or assault, how many times have you heard them say 'it was 100% consensual'? But then they don't explain what that consent means. Or heard a reply about how it is a 'false accusation'. There's a lot of noise which takes away from our understanding of consent. Likewise, we often hear the defence of 'we can't tell' or 'we aren't mind readers. This also misses the point entirely.

Why is consent challenging in practice?

So, what does consent look like in practice? Sounds like a simple question, but a lot of people are confused about it. Indeed, in my own sex life whenever I've asked someone formally for consent, I've often been met with a weird reaction. Where they almost seem creeped out that I asked for consent. This is a good place to start. We need to normalise this. It is not weird to ask someone for consent, and it does not take away from the sexiness. People should be asking for consent. Just ask yourself, when was the last time you specifically asked someone: are you okay with this, do I have your consent? If you haven't done that in a while or you never had, then it's time to properly start practicing consent and not just think that you do. There is nothing patronising about starting a conversation about the importance of communication and of establishing boundaries within a sexual encounter or relationship.

Moreover, consent is ongoing, consent can change. And just because you consent to having sex does not mean you consent to deep throating or slapping. In addition, a lot of people do pressure their partner to do certain sexual acts, even if they do not realise it. For example, anal. But what people don't realise is that even the act of pressuring is coercion.  And yes, you may think, oh that's obvious. But then why is it such a problem? Clearly, there is a lack of understanding of consent be it consciously or subconsciously. And clearly, too many people subconsciously or consciously prioritize their pleasure over others feelings and this is intertwined with entitlement resulting in intentional or unintentional harm. Especially when it comes to 'pressuring into sexual acts'. What we need to do is start educating ourselves on the importance of consent and the importance of consensual, mutual and pleasurable sex.

How do we improve our understanding and practice of consent?

We've established the problem, but then how do we solve it? Well there's a couple ways that this can be done:

  1. Better sex education on consent in schools, universities and governments. We all need to put more pressure on these institutions in order for this to happen. We have to demand it in order to get a positive change. 
  2. More pleasure based sexual education.
  3. Normalise asking for consent. It is not unsexy to ask for consent, quite the reverse it is sexy!
  4. Have a discussion. Talk to your friends, talk to your family, talk to your partners about consent. Talking is what will normalise and help to solve this problem and create a better understanding for all. 
  5. Stop normalising drunk sex. 
  6. Learn how to read both verbal and nonverbal cues. 
  7. Read up on the basic guidelines of consent. 
  8. Know how to support and understand someone who has been sexually assaulted. 
  9. Produce and promote healthy pornography and characters in movies, who do not romantizise violence and unconsensual acts.


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