The most important rule of sex: consent
Tuesday 15 February 2022
In Australia, 23% of women and 8% of men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
Chances are you not only know one person who has been sexually assaulted, but you probably know multiple people. Often, sexual assaults involve a person the victim knows, or even has a romantic relationship with.
Consent is an important part in making sexual activities safe, mutual, and enjoyable experiences where the boundaries, feelings and choices are respected by all parties. It plays a huge role in everyone’s health – both physically and mentally, and is a part of our sexual health strategy. Consensual sexual activities also play a huge role in maintaining good mental wellbeing. Without consent, one’s mental wellbeing can be affected quite drastically.
It’s important to remember that everyone should ask for and clearly receive consent before and throughout engaging in sexual relations. This applies to people of all genders and sexual identities.
You should only ever do something that you really want to do, not what you believe is expected of you.
What is consent?
Understanding consent is essential to enjoying a healthy, pleasurable sex life where everyone is respected.
Consensual sex is an agreement and willingness to take part in sexual activity (including oral sex, genital touching, and vaginal or anal penetration). Consent must be informed, voluntary and revocable. Without consent, sexual activity is sexual assault or rape.
Informed: Informed consent means you are of an age and state to provide consent and that you understand what you are giving consent for. In Queensland, it is illegal to have consensual sex below the age of 16. If you, or the person you are with, are drunk, high, or passed out, informed consent is unable to be given.
Voluntary: Voluntary consent is a willing and positive expression of desire to engage in sexual activities. If it’s voluntary, it means no parties are coerced by fear, force, or threats. If a party is silent, there is no consent.
Revocable: Revocable consent means that the agreement can be withdrawn at any time and the activity must stop immediately. It also means that even if you had given consent on one occasion, it does not mean you have given consent for a future or different activity.
When is the right time to ask for consent?
Receiving consent from your partner should always occur before sexual activity – check in with your partner regularly to ensure you are both enjoying what you are doing together. When asking for consent, you should:
- Avoid being vague when talking about your requests and desires, be direct to avoid any confusion.
- Remember that no means no. If someone says no, don’t proceed and/or pressure the person to give a different answer or change their mind.
- Discuss boundaries and what you are and aren’t comfortable with. Ask your partner to share theirs.
- Look for hesitations, a “Yeah, maybe” is not a yes. If a person needs convincing to have sex they’re not consenting.
- Check in with your partner regularly during sex and stop if they seem unresponsive, uncomfortable, quiet, etc. They might not be able to tell you to stop or that they are no longer comfortable in the situation.
- Discuss contraception and sexual health before engaging in activities.
- Practise self-control, always. You are in control of your body; you are empowered to say no if you are no longer into the activity, and you are responsible to stop immediately when asked.
To find out if someone is into something (or not) you can ask a mixture of closed and open-ended questions that start a conversation. Using open-ended questions will encourage further dialogue about what both parties want.
How can I ask for consent?
"How would you feel if I kissed you?”
“Do you want to have sex right now?”
“Does this feel good?”
“Can I touch you here?”
“Are you comfortable?”
What are examples of people consenting?
“Yes”, “I would like to do this”, “This feels good”, and “Keep going” are all examples of someone offering you verbal consent. There are also ways people can express consent without using words, like a head nod or thumbs up. Where consensual sex occurs, it should be clear from both body and verbal language that both parties want to engage in sex together.
What are examples of people not consenting?
“No”, “I don’t know”, “Maybe”, and silence are all examples of someone not giving you their consent. Flirting, smiling, laughing and being dressed a certain way are also NOT examples of someone giving you their consent.
Paying attention to body language throughout a sexual activity is important. If your partner is pushing you away, turning away from you, not responding to your touch or their muscles are stiffening for example, this could indicate that they are not comfortable with this activity, and you should check in.
Can everyone give consent?
No, people can’t always provide consent.
People who are asleep, drunk, high, or passed out cannot consent to sex. If you aren’t sure, wait to have sex until both parties are completely conscious and capable of providing clear consent.
People with a cognitive disability that impairs their ability to understand or clearly communicate exactly what they consent to may not be able to give consent.
In Queensland, anyone under the age of 16 is legally unable to give consent.
I’ve consented – can I change my mind?
Yes, absolutely. You can change your mind at ANY stage of a sexual interaction. Even if you’re naked or having sex, you have the right to say ‘no’ at any time, no matter the reason why. If you tell your partner to stop (withdraw consent) then the activity must stop immediately. Everyone has the right to decide what happens to their own body.
Examples of people withdrawing consent:
“I don’t want to go further.”
“I’m not feeling it, let’s stop.”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
“I don’t feel comfortable.”
“I need some more time and space to make a decision.”
“I’m not sure I want to do this anymore.”
What requires consent?
Sexual consent isn’t just for penetrative sex. It’s required before any sexual activity, including the following:
- Touching your genitals, buttocks, or breasts, or any other private body part without being invited to do so or seeking your agreement first
- Sexual penetration – including anything penetrating a vagina, anus, or mouth
- Having you perform a sexual act on them
- Exposing their genitals to you
- Kissing you
- Taking or sharing sexualised photos of you.
Some acts that may feel “normal” for you, will not for others—these are individual boundaries. It’s important to discuss, understand and agree on individual boundaries before trying any act.
I think I’ve been sexually assaulted – what do I do?
Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault and rape, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and age. Unfortunately, women (especially women of colour), people identifying as LGBTIQ+, and those with developmental disabilities are more likely to experience rape or sexual assault.
If someone has had sex with you and/or touched or treated you sexually without your consent, they are breaking the law and can be charged with a criminal offence. This still applies even if you originally provided your consent and then withdrew your consent at any time during the sexual activity.
Sex + consent = sex
Sex - consent = sexual assault
Sexual assault is never your fault, no matter the circumstances. If you believe this has happened to you and feel ready to report it or talk to someone about it, we’ve provided some contact options below:
- Queensland Police
- Dial 000 for emergencies
- Policelink: 131 44
- Crime Stoppers: 1300 333 000
- Reporting a sexual assault | Queensland Police Service
- 1800 Respect: 1800 737 732
- Sexual abuse and assault: getting help | Queensland Government
For more information on consent and the law, visit the Lawstuff website.
For lists of Queensland sexual health and HIV services, visit Sexual health services in Queensland.
To find a support service for sexual assault, visit the Say It Out Loud website.