Real talk about consent and sexual assault

Key takeaways:

  • Consent should happen before holding hands, kissing or having sex.

  • There must be a discussion about what each partner wants and needs.

  • Sexual violence affects millions of women every year.

  • April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

[5 MIN READ]

 

True or false: Consent only applies to sexual intercourse.

Answer: False.

Some people may be surprised by that answer. But it’s important to understand that consent should happen before holding hands, kissing or having sex. Consent is a vital part of intimacy between two people whether they are just starting to date, in a long-term committed relationship or married.

Here’s what consent is

Consent (giving permission) is when the person being asked clearly says “yes” to sexual or intimate activity. When it comes to consent, there are no blurred lines. Even if a partner doesn’t say “no” outright, that isn’t a clear agreement to a request. There must be a discussion about each partner's wants and needs and the comfort level with each sexual activity.

A woman is giving consent when she knows what she wants to do, is able to say what she does or doesn’t want to do and isn’t impaired by drugs or alcohol — nothing is keeping her from being aware that she’s giving consent. She knows and understands what’s going on because she hasn’t passed out, fallen unconscious or asleep, and doesn’t have an intellectual disability. She isn’t being coerced, forced or manipulated.

Consent doesn’t begin and end with a one-time ask – it’s an ongoing dialogue. 

Consent doesn’t begin and end with a one-time ask – it’s an ongoing dialogue. If you agree to sexual activity, you can choose to stop at any time, and it’s okay to change your mind even after you’ve begun to engage in sexual activity. If your situation does not allow that, you may become a victim of sexual assault.

Here’s what consent is not

Asking for consent isn’t about checking the boxes. It isn’t about one partner trying to get the other to give permission to do something they don’t want to do. And it doesn’t mean taking silence as a sign that means “yes.” Consent is also not:

  • Having to say “yes” just because you’ve said it in the past. If you’ve said “yes” in the past, it doesn’t mean you always have to say it in the present. As mentioned before, consent is an ongoing dialogue that must be part of each sexual activity, each time.
  • Having to say “yes” because of your relationship. You may be married. You may be dating for a while. But even if you’ve had sexual contact with your partner before or you have a certain relationship status, it doesn’t mean you automatically have to be sexually active with that partner again. Consent is about where you are in that moment, not where you are in your relationship.
  • Having to say “yes” because you’re flirting or wearing certain clothing. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or how you’re behaving. It’s only when you say the word “yes” that your partner should expect sexual contact. Anything but a verbal “yes” should be taken as a “no.” Period.
  • Having to say “yes” to all sexual activities because you said “yes” to one. You should consent only to the sexual activity that you’re comfortable with, not what your partner is telling you to be comfortable with. If you consent to kiss someone, that doesn’t mean you consent to other actions.

Consent means nothing without the word “yes” and without talking it through, even as you continue to engage in each sexual activity with your partner.

Consent means nothing without the word “yes” and without talking it through, even as you continue to engage in each sexual activity with your partner. Sexual contact without consent is considered sexual assault and sexual violence.

Sexual violence affects millions of women every year

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one in three women have been the victim of sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes.

More than one in three women have been the victim of sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes.

Unfortunately, those numbers are probably higher because victims don’t always tell others about the violence. A victim may be embarrassed, afraid or ashamed to tell family, friends or the police, or she may not think anyone will help her even if she does tell. Another possible reason for silence about sexual assault is because the victim has been threatened with even more harm if she tells anyone.

Sexual assault takes many forms

Many adults don’t realize that sexual assault takes many forms besides rape. For instance, Work2BeWell (W2BW) says verbal harassment is one example, and that men are less likely than women to know that inappropriate words are sexual assault. Examples of verbal sexual assault are when someone:

  • Makes sexual jokes
  • Describes sex in graphic terms
  • Comments on your physical appearance
  • Stalks you through phone calls or other types of messaging
  • Calls you names
  • Engages in sexting

Voyeurism is another form of sexual assault, according to W2BW. A voyeur used to be thought of as a “peeping Tom” who would look through windows to catch women undressing or doing other private activities. With modern technology, voyeurs now have a way to capture even more intimate moments. Web cameras have been found in dressing rooms, bathrooms and other public and private spaces. These videos have also been distributed anonymously online and serve as an ongoing invasion of the victim’s privacy.

Sexual assault takes an emotional and physical toll

W2BW states that the cost of sexual assault reaches further than many realize when it comes to the survivors' mental, emotional and physical health. About 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress — this is a larger percentage than for any other violent crime. While less important, there’s also an economic burden because of their recovery, such as the lifetime cost of rape per victim: $122,461.

Sexual violence often impacts a woman’s physical, emotional and mental health, including the pursuit of lifelong goals such as education, work and hobbies. Beyond that, a victim’s relationships with family, friends and peers may be greatly impacted.

If you are someone who is caring for a sexual assault victim, it is important to know that the healing process entails a depth of emotional support, time, effort and understanding. 

For instance, if you are someone who is caring for a sexual assault victim, it is important to know that the healing process entails a depth of emotional support, time, effort and understanding. As a support person, remember that there will be advances, and sometimes there will be setbacks. You’ll need to be patient, but also ensure you are taking care of yourself. Beyond family and friends, a local rape crisis center is a confidential place that can offer resources to help.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) created Sexual Assault Awareness Month (#SAAM) to empower survivors and use education to help prevent sexual violence.

As mentioned above, online spaces have become places where sexual harassment, assault and abuse are happening regularly. This year’s SAAM focuses on building safe online spaces. The campaign is designed to help users learn to practice consent online. As we connect virtually, we can learn how to practice digital consent, take action when we see harmful content or behaviors, and make sure that online workspaces, classrooms, social media platforms and otherwise are respectful and safe.

One of the many things you can do to take part in SAMM is to organize an online event. Decide on the goal that fits your intended audience. For instance, you can educate and teach consent or provide a safe space to support survivors. You’ll find templates for event options on the NSVRC site, or you can create your own online event.

RAINN: When you need resources or help with recovery

Many organizations can help if you or someone you care about are a survivor of sexual violence. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) will help you search for resources and help with recovery.

Call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). When you do, you’ll have access to free services that include:

  • Confidential support from a trained staff member
  • Help finding a local health facility that’s trained to care for survivors of sexual assault and offers services like sexual assault forensic exams
  • Someone to help you talk through what happened
  • Local resources that can help with your next steps toward healing and recovery
  • Referrals for long-term support in your area
  • Information about the laws in your community
  • Basic information about medical concerns

Consent starts with trust

The healthiest relationships are built on trust. And trust contributes to the real talk that’s needed for consent to be part of your relationship.

With clear, verbal consent, your partner doesn’t have to try to guess what you’re thinking, and neither of you has to pretend you can read minds.

Sure, talking about sexual activity can be awkward, but to paraphrase Work2BeWell, “We often feel awkward when we’ve entered a new and unknown situation. The best way to dispel that awkwardness is to be genuine and honest. With clear, verbal consent, your partner doesn’t have to try to guess what you’re thinking, and neither of you has to pretend you can read minds.”

Real talk about consent honors your wishes. It allows you to stay safe and stay true to yourself.

Do you want to be part of the conversation about consent and sexual violence? Share your thoughts @providence.

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About the Author

The Providence Women's Health team is committed to providing useful and actionable insights, tips and advice to ensure women of all types can live their healthiest lives.

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