A Clear Understanding of Consent, in Sexual Situations and Beyond

By Erica Smith

If someone kisses you, does that mean they’re also consenting to sex?

What if they go home with you and kiss you?

If someone has had sex with you before, can you safely assume that you have their consent for another time?

If someone made it clear last week via text that they want to have sex with you, does that give you the green light when you next see them in person?

The answer to all of the above questions is NO, but it turns out that a lot of people disagree, or at the least, feel very confused by these situations.

A 2015 poll by the Washington Post- Kaiser Family Foundation found that college students largely disagree on what consent is, and a 2017 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that regardless of the situation, college aged men tended to confuse sexual interest with consent [1,2].

College students are usually the only population whose attitudes toward consent are studied, but they’re certainly not the only people who disagree on what consent looks like. These study results reflect our larger cultural misunderstanding.

We’re having many long overdue conversations about sexual harassment and violence thanks to Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement. Stories about celebrities like Harvey Weinstein outline cases of sexual violence and coercion that almost everyone agrees are sexual violence. But what about the murkier situations that don’t look like clear cut cases to everyone?

Note: sexual violence is an all-encompassing, non-legal term that may include sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. For more detail on the types of sexual violence, please see RAINN’s definitions [3].

I was working on this piece when the story about a young woman’s alleged night with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari hit the news. “Grace,” alleges that Ansari continued to engage with her sexually and try to take things further despite her lack of clear consent. In her account, Grace gives many verbal and nonverbal indications that she is not interested in having sex, such as repeatedly moving her hand away from his body when he continues to place it there and saying “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.”

It is a story of a man repeatedly pushing a woman’s boundaries for sex without seeming to notice or care what she wants, focusing on his own desires without acknowledging his partner’s needs. Even if you don’t consider this sexual violence — and especially if you don’t — we really need to examine this scenario further.

Maybe not all of us have experienced what Harvey Weinstein’s accusers have experienced, but many of us have experienced a night like Grace describes. Grace’s account of her night seemed so ordinary to a lot of people, and that is why we have to talk about it.

Our culture sends messages to men, boys, and masculine people that they’re supposed to push for as much sex as they can get. That it’s OK to badger women and feminine people about sex until their resistance wears down, often through small, repeated violations of their boundaries. This message is reinforced by pop culture in countless movies, songs, and music videos.

We also receive cultural messages that women and feminine people don’t have as much sexual desire as masculine people, hence the need to push or convince them to have sex.

Some people focused on Grace’s actions: why didn’t she just leave? Women are taught not to offend and alienate men, and we learn from the world around us that we may be at risk of violence if we do so. Sometimes giving in may feel like the safest option. Sometimes we like the men in question and don’t want to hurt their feelings. Women are so used to fending off unwanted advances, sometimes we’re just tired of doing so. The more relevant question is why did the man in question keep pressing?

What Is Consent?

In a sexual context, consent is a clear agreement between parties to engage in sexual activity. Though the narrative of consent usually involves a masculine person pushing a feminine person’s boundaries, understanding consent is important for all of us, regardless of our gender or the gender of those we date and have sex with.

Consent has as much to do with setting personal boundaries — for yourself and others — as it does with preventing sexual assault.

Project Respect defines consent as “a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games.” They add that consent is a “whole body experience,” not just a verbal agreement. Consent involves “paying attention to your partner as a person and checking in with physical and emotional cues.” [4]

When engaging in sexual activity, consent is all about constant communication between the parties involved. And it’s mandatory. This means before you engage in any sexual activity with someone, you have to make sure that they consent to do it. If you’re trying to move further along in what activity you’re doing, you have to make sure your partner is with you. And if your partner wants to stop — you stop. No exceptions.

The easiest way to get someone’s consent is to ask them for it verbally. Verbal consent is saying either “yes” or another affirmative statement like “I’m into this” or “I’m into trying.” While verbal consent is best, there are other ways that work, too. Nonverbal cues can look like a head nod, pulling someone closer, making direct eye contact, and enthusiastically and actively touching someone back.

If your partner doesn’t help you to advance the sexual encounter, it is your responsibility to slow down, stop, and check in. If they appear to be disinterested, move away from you, freeze up, look vacant or distant, stop and check in [5,6].

Let’s break it down even further.

Consent Is...

  • A clear agreement to engage in sexual activity
  • Ongoing throughout the whole encounter
  • Mutual (everyone involved has to agree)
  • About communication
  • Mandatory every time
  • Something that can be revoked even in the middle of a physical encounter
  • Still required among people in committed relationships and marriages

Consent Is Not...

  • Simply the absence of no
  • Ignoring or pretending you didn’t hear someone say no
  • The way someone is dressed or the way someone flirts
  • Assumed if someone comes back to your place or you go to their place
  • Assuming you have permission to engage in a particular sexual act because you’ve done it with that person in the past
  • Assuming consent for one particular sexual act is consent for other sexual acts

If you are unsure about whether or not you have consent, ask. If you are still unsure or didn’t receive a satisfactory response, always err on the side of caution and assume you don’t have consent. A simple “Is this okay?” goes a long way.

Consent Cannot Be Acquired...

  • With pressure and intimidation
  • When a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • When a person is unconscious
  • When a person is disabled in a way that affects their ability to understand you, which would include intellectual or developmental disabilities
  • When a person is under a certain age

The legal definition and legal age of consent varies by state, and you can check out your state’s consent laws in RAINN’s database. But we don’t need to understand all of the legal definitions to understand how consent works in real life. And what is or isn’t legal isn’t the point here.

If we’re only worried about the legal implications of consent, we’re ignoring the opportunity to improve the overall culture surrounding sex and dating — and frankly, to be good lovers, partners, and people.

Many commenters on social media posts about the allegations against Ansari stated that it wasn’t rape or assault, and that Ansari’s actions were not breaking any laws. But is this good enough?

As a sexuality educator, I wholeheartedly vote no. “Not illegal” is a pretty low bar for sexual encounters. We can, and should, deserve more.

Some people worry that insistence on enthusiastic consent takes the sexiness out of sex with partners. To Dr. Timaree Schmit, sexuality educator, it’s the exact opposite. Schmit emphasizes that consent is “an innate part of good sex.”

“If you're ‘good’ at sex, it means you're looking for cues continually, through both verbal and non-verbal communication,” she says. “Are they [your partner] enjoying themselves or do they seem vacant and disinterested?”

“Good sex, like consent, is not a thing you obtain, it's a collaborative activity, like a duet...You're constantly communicating and creating together.”

If you practice getting affirmative consent from partners, Schmit says, “You'll never have to worry about someone looking back on a sexual situation with you as anything but positive.”

Talking About Consent With Kids

Parents and caregivers should talk about consent with kids years before sexual relationships are an issue, and the conversation should be an ongoing process as kids grow up, change, and learn. Understanding consent at a young age is formative for adult relationships, and teaches children boundaries and how to stand up for each other.  It may also help young people speak up if someone touches them inappropriately.

If you have or work with children, let them make the decision about who touches their bodies. Don’t force them into hugs, for example, with people they don’t want to hug. Respect their “nos.”

Children should receive the message that they are allowed to hold their boundaries; just because someone asks nicely to hug them doesn’t mean they have to say yes.

Teach children how to ask for consent and respect others’ boundaries as well, including gracefully accepting someone else’s “no.” This conversation can be adapted to a child’s age and what is happening in their lives developmentally and socially. For example: if you’re tickling your friend and they say stop, stop. If you’re chasing your friend on the playground and they say stop, stop.

The examples should grow and evolve as the children themselves do. Explaining consent to small children has little to do with sex, but can set a foundation for when sex does enter the equation. In teen and preteen years, the conversation about consent can be connected to sex, but the overall foundational message remains the same.

Consent in Fitness Spaces

There is a growing conversation around consent in fitness and wellness spaces, namely in yoga studios. Many studios now require their instructors to get the explicit consent of students before providing hands on adjustments, in order to prevent injury and also to respect people’s personal boundaries.

Raechel Anne Jolie is a yoga instructor at Corepower in Boston, a studio that requires its teachers to ask verbally if students are comfortable with hands on adjustments and assists.

“Yoga is an incredibly vulnerable practice and while it has the amazing power to heal trauma, it also has the potential to trigger it,” says Jolie. She explains that trauma is “embodied,” meaning people who have experienced trauma often hold the memory of it in their bodies. An instructor touching someone without their consent when they’re in the middle of such a vulnerable practice, especially someone who is a survivor of trauma, could be harmful.

“By centering and valuing consent, teachers can work to create a safer-space and empower students to say what does and doesn't feel okay for them during practice,” Jolie says.

At Corepower, this is how it works: when students are in child's pose at the beginning of class, teachers use this time to ask if students are comfortable with hands on assists. Asking while students are in child’s pose affords them privacy when they raise or do not raise their hands.

At Studio 34 in Philadelphia, there is a basket of small yellow “consent” cards in each classroom. Students are asked to place one at the top edge of their mat if they are open to hands on assists.

Owner and instructor Angie Norris wants to normalize the concept of people asserting their personal boundaries around their bodies, which is why the ask isn’t done more privately. “I want it to feel like no big deal,” says Norris, emphasizing that ideally, we should feel good about setting boundaries for ourselves. Using the consent cards formalized something that Norris had long done informally.

Jesse Brajuha, who received his teacher training at Studio 34, says “In the past, I didn’t really think twice about a teacher coming over and adjusting me without asking. I feel really different about that now. Much of that is because of what I learned at Studio 34, both from the instructors and from participants who talked about how lack of consent in yoga studios had a negative impact on them.”

The response to yoga instructors asking for affirmative consent has been overwhelmingly positively both at CorePower and at Studio 34. Students appreciate knowing that others can’t touch them without permission while they’re in a vulnerable practice, in a place where folks are encouraged to feel safe and present in their bodies.

The conversation around consent in yoga studios has implications for other fitness spaces, too. The policies for obtaining explicit consent set a great example for gyms, fitness studios, and coaches.

If you train folks in any sport, consider how unwelcome or uninvited touch could make your clients feel, especially if they’re survivors of trauma. Ask for permission before you move in to touch or adjust them.

Consent Is for Everyone

We all need to be mindful of consent in any situation. Strive to be a more communicative and attentive lover. Practice asking for consent in a variety of scenarios, not just sexual ones. Always make sure you have it before proceeding.

And remember that it’s OK to hold your boundaries, and that you don’t owe sex or touch to anyone. Even someone who asks nicely or repeatedly.

Other GGS Articles to Read


Become the go-to health, fitness, and nutrition expert for women.

Imagine having compassionate and empowering answers to your clients’ questions about nutrition and diets, body image struggles, and body transformation goals right at your fingertips…

Feeling qualified to write effective training programs, coach nutrition habits and skills, and use women-specific behavior change psychology to empower women to reach their goals...

With our GGS Women’s Coaching Specialist Certification, you’ll gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence you need to help any woman — at any stage of life — who comes to you for help.

From disordered eating and other important psychological considerations to pelvic floor, menopause, and hormonal issues, our Certification dives deep into often-overlooked topics that affect women’s health — and teaches you exactly how you can help while staying within your scope of practice. Feel confident and prepared to coach any woman who comes to you for help.

Interested in learning more? Join our free, no-obligation pre-sale list. Get all the details on how you can save up to 40% and secure your spot before the general public.

Impact women’s lives. Create a rewarding career. And join thousands of health and fitness professionals dedicated to changing the standard of care for women.

Don't miss out!

Enrollment opens October 1st, 2024.

Get on the pre-sale list today and become a Certified Women’s Coaching Specialist.

We'll send you more info about the Certification, give you the chance to enroll early, and save up to $600 off the general price.

Enrollment opens only twice a year. Spots are limited.

GGS 1 Pre-Sale (With Phone)

About the author:  Erica Smith

Erica Smith is a feminist sexuality educator, counselor, and consultant based in Philadelphia. She holds a M.Ed. from Widener University’s Center for Human Sexuality Studies and has over 17 years of practical experience. She has written for SexEtc.org, PlannedParenthood.org, and Ferine Magazine, as well as consulted and presented widely on a variety of human sexuality topics. Erica works primarily with young women and LGBTQ adolescents. She believes that access to compassionate, evidence-based, comprehensive sexuality education is a key component to wellness and equality for all. You can connect with Erica on Instagram and Twitter.


  1. Bianca DiJulio, Mira Norton, Peyton Craighill, Scott Clement, and Mollyann Brodie. Survey Of Current And Recent College Students On Sexual Assault. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. https://www.kff.org/other/poll-finding/survey-of-current-and-recent-college-students-on-sexual-assault/. Published June 6, 2016.
  2. Lofgreen AM, Mattson RE, Wagner SA, Ortiz EG, Johnson MD. Situational and Dispositional Determinants of College Men’s Perception of Women’s Sexual Desire and Consent to Sex: A Factorial Vignette Analysis. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. February 2017 http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0886260517738777
  3. Types of Sexual Violence. Types of Sexual Violence | RAINN. https://www.rainn.org/types-sexual-violence
  4. Consent. Project Respect. https://www.yesmeansyes.com/consent
  5. What Consent Looks Like | RAINN. https://www.rainn.org/articles/what-is-consent
  6. Parenthood P. Rape and Sexual Consent | Information For Teens. Planned Parenthood. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/teens/sex/all-about-consent

More Resources

envelope-oclosechevron-upchevron-downbookmark-otwitterfacebookchainbars linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram