Let’s Talk About Sex, Vandy: Making sense of effective consent

Consent is much more than a simple “yes” or “no”

With accounts of unwanted sexual contact coming out in droves as of late, knowing how to give and recognize effective consent is as important as ever. Vanderbilt’s effective consent policy presents us with a model of behavior for responsible and safe sexual encounters. It says:

“Effective Consent is consent that is informed and freely and actively given. Effective consent requires mutually understandable words or actions indicating a willingness to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity.”

Although our policy is a lot clearer and more detailed than, say, Tennessee state law, it is important to clarify which specific behaviors convey consent and which do not. The most obvious way to express consent to a sexual activity is to verbally agree to it. An enthusiastic “yes!” is the clearest form of consent, but you can also convey it through positive body language, such as nodding, taking off your clothes, assisting your partner in taking off theirs, etc. You don’t have to verbally ask your partner for consent for every single motion, i.e. “Is it ok if I touch your left breast? Your right breast?” These questions can usually be asked and answered through body language.

However, if your partner’s body language is neutral or negative, such as pulling back from you or moving your hands away, this implies they are uncomfortable and you should verbally ask if this action is okay with them. An absence of a yes does not signify consent, and consent can be withdrawn at any time during sexual activity. If you and your partner have been enthusiastically kissing, this does not mean that you have both consented to any other forms of sexual activity. Even if you’ve been in a long-term relationship and had sex countless times, consent is required each and every time. For some, a partner not consenting to the level of sexual activity you desire can be frustrating or confusing, and you may question your partner (“Why not? We’ve done this a million times! What’s wrong with you?”) or try to guilt them into the activity (“You know how stressed I’ve been! Please do this for me?”). Someone agreeing to sex after their partner has coaxed them into doing so does not constitute effective consent.

As you can see, consent is pretty detailed and can be complicated. It requires the ability to effectively convey your desires and listen to your partner’s, and to read the subtleties of body language. You need to have a clear head to properly give and receive consent. Alcohol and drugs can hinder the cognition consent requires. Someone who has had one or two drinks and is just “tipsy” may still be able to effectively communicate. But anyone who has had so much to drink that they can’t walk, speak without slurring their words or keep their eyes open cannot consent no matter what. It doesn’t matter if they agreed to something earlier in the night before they drank, if you have been dating for years or if you just matched on Tinder with the intention of hooking up. Effective consent must be well-informed, enthusiastic and freely given.

Consent can be complicated. If you have any questions or if you think you might have had a non-consensual sexual experience, please call the Vanderbilt Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response at 615-322-SAFE 24/7 or visit them at 304 West Side Row weekdays 8 a.m.-5 p.m.