Couple talking about consent

How Do You Ask for Affirmative Consent?

5 min.

Partaking in sexual activity without asking for consent is sexual assault. In this article, we define affirmative consent and how to obtain it.

By: Dr. Rasna Kaur Neelam

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini

April 16, 2023

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Table of Contents

In this article, we will discuss and define “consent.” First, let’s test our ability to recognize when consent was and was not obtained. Read the following scenarios and ask yourself if consent was obtained. The pronouns used in these scenarios will be “they/them” to represent that the individuals can be male, female, non-binary, or other. 

Scenario 1: Individuals A and B have gone on a few dates and have had sexual intercourse on two occasions. One night, A invites B over. A initiates sexual activity, and B reluctantly participates. Because B does not say “no” to the activity, A assumes the sexual activity is mutually desired. A few weeks later, B tells A that they felt uncomfortable that night and did not want to engage in sexual intercourse that night. A is shocked. 

Scenario 2: Individuals C and D are meeting up for a first date at a bar. Over the course of the date, C and D have many alcoholic beverages. By the end of the night, C is extremely inebriated and is unable to stand up. D offers to drive C home, and C agrees. Once C and D get home, they participate in sexual activity. 

Scenario 3: Individuals E and F have been in a committed relationship for several months. One night, E and F are partaking in sexual activity. E and F communicate their mutual interest with positive body language and communication. Halfway through, E’s body language changes, and they become quiet. F asks if E would like to continue, and E doesn’t answer. F stops all activity, asks E if they would like to discuss the reason for the change, and reassures E that they can continue sexual activity again at another time if they both wish. E feels guilty for not wanting to engage in sexual activity at that moment but feels relieved that F understands and did not push for more. 

Scenarios 1 and 2 describe situations in which affirmative consent was not obtained. Scenario 3 describes a scenario in which affirmative consent was obtained. 

Consent is an agreement between individuals to participate in sexual activity. Consent can be expressed verbally, through body language, or both. When two people agree to have sex or participate in sexual activity, both parties should speak freely without fear or intimidation.

You can withdraw your consent at any point during sexual activity if you feel uncomfortable or change your mind. If you feel comfortable and safe, clearly communicating your desire to stop is one way to withdraw consent. Non-verbal cues may also be used. 

To make sure that communication, verbal or non-verbal, is not missed between two individuals engaging in sexual activity, it is important to check in with your partner periodically when escalating sexual activity.  

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Affirmative or enthusiastic consent focuses on consent as an act that is portrayed positively. Affirmative consent can be expressed verbally or with nonverbal cues like positive body language, smiling, maintaining eye contact, nodding, etc. Because nonverbal communication can be difficult to interpret, if you are unsure what your partner is thinking, ask for clarification.  

Enthusiastic consent means looking for your partner to say or show you “yes” instead of looking for the absence of a “no.” 

Asking for consent if you’re not used to it can feel awkward or unnatural. Here are ways that you can create a safe environment for your partner. 

  • Ask for permission when you change the type of sexual activity or escalate the sexual activity with a phrase such as “Is this ok?” 
  • Let your partner know before starting activity that you can stop at any time if they feel uncomfortable. 
  • Periodically check in with your partner during sexual activity by asking, “Is this still ok?” 
  • Take turns initiating or escalating sexual activity. 
  • Look for explicit agreement to participate in sexual activity, such as looking for a “yes” instead of the absence of a no.  

If you are unsure whether you have obtained affirmative consent from your partner (for example, if your partner is disengaged, nonresponsive, visibly upset, or sending mixed signals), it is best to ask. If you are still unsure, do not continue with sexual activity. 

Couple laying down on a bed

Some bodily responses, such as erection, lubrication, arousal, or orgasm are involuntary, meaning they happen outside your control. These signs do not necessarily represent consent. Sometimes perpetrators of sexual assault will use the fact that one of these physiologic responses occurred in their victim to say that the victim “enjoyed” the sexual assault. 

As stated above several times, without a clear, enthusiastic, and freely given yes, ideally verbally, the answer is no. 

If you have been sexually assaulted and had one of the above responses, what happened to you was not an indication that you “allowed” the assault to happen. It is not your fault. 

The following individuals are not able to give consent; therefore, you should not engage in sex with these individuals at any time:

  • Individuals who are underage. The age of consent within the United States varies from 16-18, depending on the state. The age differential between the two individuals is also important and state-dependent
  • People who are intoxicated by drugs or alcohol. 
  • Those who are asleep or unconscious. 
  • Someone who agrees to sexual activity only because they feel pressured or intimidated. 
  • Individuals who have a power dynamic between them. Examples include an employer and employee, teacher and student, etc. This is because the individual with less power may feel intimidated or pressured into sexual activity. 

Having sex with any of the individuals above is sexual assault. 

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I’ve been sexually assaulted. How do I get help? 

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault and would like to immediately contact a trained staff member from a sexual assault service in your area, contact 1-800-656-HOPE(4673). 

Helping you feel healthy both mentally and physically is our goal at Charlie Health. We understand that this often requires time and the coordination and support of therapists, doctors, family members, friends, partners, and – at times – social workers, case workers, lawyers, or law enforcement. 

At Charlie Health, we have trained clinicians who specialize in coping with the long-term mental health impacts of sexual assault and trauma. 

We’re available 24/7 to get you started on your healing journey.

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