A couple's feet while they lay in bed and talk about the importance of consent.

Consent: What is it and why is it so important?

The best sex, and the safest sex, is sex where everyone is communicating clearly, telling each other what they want and need. One of the most basic examples of what this can mean – and the start of any healthy sexual activity – is consent.

The importance of consent

Consent, in its simplest form, is freely, voluntarily, and actively agreeing to engage in sexual activity with another person. It lets the person you’re with know that you want and are agreeing to sexual activity with them – and it lets you know if they want the same.

From there, active consent then means continuing to be honest with someone about what you want and don’t want. This might change over the course of your time with someone – either over the course of one night or throughout a sexual relationship – and what you think you want or what you think you’re comfortable with can change – and the same goes for your partner. This is totally normal. Everyone has their own boundaries and comfort levels and wants different things, and everyone is entitled to have those desires respected. If someone’s desires aren’t clear, you should always ask questions and talk things through.

Whether you’ve just met someone or have been with your partner for a long time, consent should happen every time you have sex. If someone changes their mind in the middle of hooking up, that’s totally okay and totally normal, which is why it’s important to keep checking in about what you want and what your partner wants. Everyone is allowed to say “no” or “stop” whenever they like, and anyone they’re having sex with needs to respect that. It’s also important to know that consent for sexual activity includes genital touching, oral sex, vaginal penetration, and anal penetration.

What consent really looks like

  • Consent is something that is enthusiastically given. You should only ever be doing what you really want to do in bed.
  • Consent includes clear communication, especially when the level of sexual activity changes. This means saying “yes” to specific sexual activity that you want to engage in – everything from going to the bedroom to taking off someone’s shirt to penetrative sex – and saying things like, “This is what I want,” or “I’d like to try that.” It also means asking questions like, “Can I do this?” “Are you comfortable with this?” and “Do you like this?”
  • Consent takes into account verbal cues and what someone doesn’t say. An enthusiastic “yes,” is great, but what about if someone says “maybe” or is silent and doesn’t say anything at all? A “maybe” or silence is definitely not a “yes,” and may mean that someone is uncomfortable, so it’s a good time to ask questions to make sure everyone is on the same page about what they want and are comfortable with. In moments like this, questions like “Do you want me to slow down?” or “Do you want me to stop doing this?” and “What do you want?” can be really important. Body language is important too – it can speak volumes in communicating what someone wants. When someone’s body is enthusiastic and giving you a clear “yes” – kissing you back, smiling, having fun – you usually know it. If someone is not kissing back, pulling away, pushing the other person away, or seems at all uncomfortable, the other person should ask them how they’re feeling and what they want – a body can communicate “no” loud and clear. And if anything is ever unclear? Ask.
  • Consent is specific. This means that if someone says they’re consenting to one thing, they’re not necessarily consenting to another thing. Examples of this include consenting to oral sex but not vaginal penetration, consenting to vaginal sex on one occasion, and saying no on another occasion.
  • Consent recognizes and respects that people can change their minds—even in the middle of hooking up, even when naked, even if they’ve hooked up or done certain things before. That’s why it’s so important to keep checking in about what you want and what your partner wants.
  • Consent is something that is freely given and happens without pressure or manipulation. You should never be expected to do anything you don’t want to do, and the same goes for your sexual partner.

What consent doesn’t look like

  • Consent never happens with pressure or manipulation. No one should ever be expected to do anything they don’t want to do, be guilted into sexual activity, or feel intimidated or afraid to say “no.” No one ever owes another person sex.
  • Consent is not assuming that what someone is wearing or how someone is flirting or what sort of sexual activity they’ve engaged in in the past means that a sexual partner wants or doesn’t want any kind of sexual activity – it’s still important to ask.
  • Consent doesn’t involve lying. For example, it is not a consensual sexual experience if someone says they’ll use a condom but then doesn’t use one.
  • Consent can’t happen if someone isn’t totally aware of what’s going on. If someone is under the influence or incapacitated, they can’t consent. If someone is drunk, high, or passed out, they can’t consent to sexual activity.
  • Consent has to happen between grown individuals, and people need to be of a certain age to be legally capable of consenting to sex. (In the U.S., the age of consent varies by state, and you can learn more about those laws here.)
  • And just to be totally clear, sexual activity without consent is sexual assault or rape. (You can learn more about that here. And if you think you’re a victim of assault or rape, you can find help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE [4673] or chatting online at online.rainn.org.)

Consent is immensely important, and it doesn’t have to be awkward or ruin the mood. Respect, communication, and honesty are key in any relationship – and definitely key in sexual relationships. Consent will allow you and anyone you’re with to have great and, yes, enthusiastic sex – but always and only when both of you want it.

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