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(sex)uality: consent is necessary

Recently, there was a sexual ‘consent’ campaign around my university campus.  It was great that somebody was focused on the issue and trying to make it a topic of conversation. The posters were placed in the bathrooms around the campus. The campaign slogan was ‘Consent is sexy’. As one prominent psychology lecturer questioned, ‘Shouldn’t it be consent is necessary?

In a legal setting, consent is defined as an act of reason and deliberation. In order to consent, the individual must possess enough mental capacity to make a decision to act or permit of an action. In the context of sexual activity, how would you define consent?

I personally believe that consent in a sexual encounter involves both people wanting to engage in the behaviour and saying ‘yes’.  I think sometimes it is assumed that the absence of a ‘no’ constitutes consent. However, in some situations an individual can feel threatened to the point they feel their resistance will be futile and submit as a result. This is not consensual.

In recent years, there have been a number of alleged incidents of sexual assault involving Australian footballers. The situations described usually involved a woman thinking she was going to engage in sexual activity with one footballer and ending up in a sexual situation with multiple players of the team. Let’s say I found myself in a situation where I been drinking at my local and met a footballer I was very attracted to. He had invited me to the toilet cubicle to fool around. Next thing I know, I am in a cubicle with not one, not two, but three professional footballers. Possibly with someone filming on his mobile phone as well.

If I found myself in a situation like this, I would feel like I had two options. The first is say, ‘No, stop. This is not what I signed up for’. The alcohol fuelled, sexually aroused, twice my size, incredibly strong footballers could stop, apologise and leave me alone. Or, they could continue, perhaps not hearing my protests or perhaps too aroused and inebriated to take heed.

My second option is to not say anything. This is a way of avoiding potential violence and the sure knowledge that I had been raped. It is a coping strategy. This way, I am left to carry the lifelong ramifications of the experience and the self-blame that I did not say no and therefore “it could not have been rape”.

I believe there is a point where the absence of a ‘no’ no longer qualifies as consent. I don’t believe it is too much to ask that the question, ‘Is it okay if I invite my two friends and a budding filmmaker to join us?’ be necessary.

We need to change the culture around consent. Men and women need to understand that consent is not as simple as yes or no. The Men Can Stop Rape website and movements like Slutwalk are opening the dialogue about rape myths. Kaylia Payne’s article about the #ididnotreport hashtag discusses the more subtle situations of harassment and abuse that we ignore and disregard. We can’t ignore and disregard any form of harassment as that sends the okay to disregard the rest.

The meaning of consent changes in situations where there is a strong power imbalance. This includes, but is not limited to, situations like the one described above, instances involving minors, being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and circumstances involving individuals with intellectual disabilities. On these occasions, the individual is not always able to understand the consequences of acquiescence.

People with an intellectual disability should have the right to safely express their sexuality. However, it is important that in this situation no one is being taken advantage of. I think the first most important step in a situation like this, is education. The individual and their carers need to learn about and discuss sexual health, relationships, and boundaries in an open and informed way. If this is a situation that applies to you or someone you care for, get in contact with Family Planning Australia, or the organisation applicable to your local area to find out more information. Knowledge is power.

Fun fact, in Queensland the age of consent for anal sex is 18 years of age when the age of consent for all other sexual activity is 16. Should both parties be under the age of consent and engaged in “normal” sexual exploration, that is parties of a similar age and there is no evidence of a power imbalance, then it is not a legal issue. These laws are in place to protect individuals who may not have the emotional maturity or psychological capacity to consent (well, not the law about anal sex, that one just discriminates against homosexuality). But laws do not always prevent individuals from taking advantage of power imbalances and engaging in exploitation and abuse. Learning self-protection can help children be aware of high-risk situations and how to get out of them. Body awareness, assertiveness, and knowledge of ‘rules’ about touch can be some important aspects of the learning. Remember that most sexual assault is perpetrated by someone the victim is familiar with, so telling children to avoid getting into cars with strangers is not adequate. There are resources available to help parents and carers protect their children. You are not alone. Ask for support.

In Australia, we have a culture of measuring how good a night out is with how drunk you get. If this is your chosen method for having a good time, then you need to prepare for your night out, not just with some lippy and great heels, but by talking about expectations with the people you are going out with. Stay together with the people you went out with. If picking up is on the cards, have a talk in advance about safety. If someone in your group decides they want to go home with somebody, what are the parameters in which this is allowed? If you are too drunk, we won’t let you go. If we get a bad vibe about the person you are going home with, we will stop you. If you are going home with someone, tell us, introduce us. Ask the individual taking your friend home if you can take a photograph of their driver’s license (I actually did this recently). This should make them think twice before taking advantage of your friend. If you or someone you know wants to engage in casual sex under the influence, no one can stop you. But please remember that it puts your safety in question. Have people around you who prioritise your safety. Have a plan for ensuring your friends know where you are. Also, use condoms. Understand that you could be putting yourself in a situation where you aren’t fully able to give consent. This is dangerous.

Consent is necessary. So is awareness and knowledge. If any of these situations in which consent can be more complicated than a yes or no is applicable to you, I would encourage finding out more information and planning to optimise your safety. The emotional ramifications of being involved in sexual activity that you didn’t consent to or understand can last a lifetime.

My call to action for you, dear reader, is to talk to a teenager or young adult you know, male or female, about the issue of consent. Help start the discussion that changes the perception of consent being sexy to consent being necessary.

(Image credit: 1.)

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