What is Consent?
Consent permits something to happen or involves an agreement to do something. We often encounter situations where we must legally sign waivers to engage in certain activities. When we are about to participate in an activity with some risk, waivers become necessary. These waivers aim to ensure that all parties engaging in the activity have a clear understanding of the risks involved. They serve as a layer of protection for everyone involved.
Do you want to go skydiving? You must sign a form detailing all the risks of willingly jumping out of a plane.
Do you want to take your child to a trampoline park? You must sign a waiver acknowledging the potential risks of injuries.
In cases with potential legal risks, obtaining consent, usually in writing, is required. So why should sex be any different? It’s a significant decision that affects people’s lives and carries various risks, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Engaging in sexual activity without permission or a verbal agreement is irresponsible and has a profound emotional impact.
Any instance of non-consensual sexual contact or engagement is sexual abuse. Period. When sexual activity is obtained through coercion or power dynamics that make a young person feel unable to say no due to the position held by the other person, such as a youth counselor, teacher, or coach, constitutes sexual abuse.
Healthy Sexual Engagement
While consent is a crucial element of healthy sexual engagement, we must ensure that young people fully understand all aspects to avoid confusion and unintentional harm to themselves or others. One of the key reasons why teens and young adults are accused of sexual assault is their lack of understanding of consent. They misinterpret signs and fail to grasp the full scope of this vital concept. This issue is particularly prevalent among high school and college-age students.
Over the years, the national organization “It’s On Us” has studied male students and their attitudes and behaviors regarding sexual violence. The findings consistently demonstrate that young people’s attitudes about sex are greatly influenced by their initial experiences learning about sex, and most educational and awareness programs do not provide effective guidance.
According to Rainn.org, the ages between 12 and 34 are the highest risk for rape and sexual assault. By understanding what happens during these ages, we can begin to address some of the underlying causes. When assaults are committed by young people against other young people, the root cause often stems from a lack of understanding of consent. It is crucial to educate people about consent.
In sexual activity, consent refers to the voluntary agreement and permission of all individuals involved. It is an ongoing process that requires clear and enthusiastic communication among all parties. Consent must be freely given without coercion, manipulation, or force.
Key Elements of Consent
Here are some key elements of consent:
- Voluntary: All participants should consent willingly, without pressure or duress. Consent cannot be obtained through threats, manipulation, or abuse of power.
- Informed: Each person involved should have a clear understanding of the nature of the sexual activity, including its potential risks, consequences, and boundaries.
- Communication: Consent relies on open and honest communication. Individuals must express their desires, boundaries, and limitations clearly, while all parties actively listen and respect those boundaries.
- Capacity to Consent: Individuals must have the legal and mental capacity to consent. This means they should be of legal age and in a state of mind where they can understand the nature and implications of the activity.
- Reversible: Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Even if someone initially agrees to engage in sexual activity, they can change their mind and revoke it. Respecting and acknowledging the withdrawal of consent is crucial.
It’s important to note that consent cannot be assumed from silence or a lack of resistance. Consent must be affirmative and enthusiastic. The absence of a “no” does not necessarily imply “yes.” Nonverbal cues, such as body language, are also crucial in determining consent, but clear verbal communication should always be supported.
Consent is a fundamental aspect of healthy and respectful sexual relationships. All individuals are responsible for ensuring that they have received explicit consent from their partners before engaging in any sexual activity. If people are unable to discuss sex, they should not be engaging in it. Moreover, young people must be aware of the legal implications of sexual activity, as different states have various laws regarding the age at which someone can consent to such activity.
Age of Consent
The age of consent is not standardized nationally; it can vary between states and countries. In the United States, each state determines its age of consent. Most states set it between 16 and 18 years old. You can consult RAINN’s guide to learn about the specific consent laws in each state. However, it’s important to note that there may be variations and exceptions in different jurisdictions, and these laws can change if the state legislature decides to do so.
In Pennsylvania, the general age of consent for sexual activity is 16. This means that individuals 16 years of age or older are legally capable of giving their consent to engage in sexual activity with another person who is also at least 16 years old. If both parties are above the age of consent, they can engage in consensual sexual activity without being considered a criminal offense.
However, there are certain circumstances where the age of consent may differ. For instance:
- Minors aged 13 to 15: If an individual is between 13 and 15 years old, they can legally consent to sexual activity with a partner who is less than four years older than them. It may be considered a crime if the age difference is greater than four years.
- Minors under 13: If an individual is under 13, they ae legally incapable of giving consent, regardless of the other person’s age. Sexual activity with someone under 13 can lead to severe criminal charges.
To understand the specific details of consent in another state, please visit rainn.org for more information.
Respecting and Understanding Boundaries
It’s important to understand that consent is an ongoing process and can be withdrawn anytime. Just because someone consents to engage in sexual activity at one point does not mean they have given blanket consent for all future encounters. Additionally, individuals who are intoxicated, mentally impaired, or incapacitated are generally considered unable to provide valid consent.
Children and young adults must understand consent and know all its aspects. This will educate them and empower them to understand and respect boundaries. We must avoid the outdated notion that it’s cute when a boy runs up to a girl on the playground and kisses her. For decades, we have sent the wrong message to children about owning their bodies by insisting they hug or kiss family members, even when they are uncomfortable or saying no. Instead of honoring what our children are trying to convey, we have shamed them into complying with physical affection, which only creates confusion.
How to Talk to Children and Teens About Consent
Children and young adults need to understand that they have the right to say yes and the right to say no, always.
When discussing consent with kids, using language and concepts appropriate for their age is important. Here are some tips to help you navigate this conversation:
- Start early: Discuss consent with children from a young age, using simple and clear language. Teach them about personal boundaries, bodily autonomy, and respect.
- Use concrete examples: Give children relatable scenarios. For example, ask them if it’s okay to hug someone without permission or take someone’s toy without asking. Encourage them to consider how they would feel in those situations.
- Teach body awareness: Help children understand their bodies and emotions. Teach them the names of body parts and explain that their body belongs to them. Reinforce the idea that they have the right to say “no” to any physical contact that makes them uncomfortable, even with a family member or friend.
- Emphasize respect and boundaries: Teach children to respect others’ boundaries and to recognize when someone else is uncomfortable. Explain that they should always ask for permission before touching or hugging someone else and that if someone says “no” or seems uncomfortable, they should stop immediately.
- Explain consent as an ongoing process: Help children understand that just because they said yes once does not mean they cannot say no.
- Role-play scenarios: Practice role-playing situations with your child where they can learn to ask for and give consent. This can include scenarios like borrowing a toy, giving a high-five, or engaging in pretend play. Encourage them to ask for consent and model how to respond if someone says “no.”
- Address peer pressure: Discuss the importance of respecting others’ decisions and the significance of not pressuring or forcing someone into doing something they don’t want to do. Help children understand that everyone has the right to make their own choices.
- Encourage open communication: Foster an environment where children feel comfortable openly discussing their feelings and concerns. Encourage talk with trusted adults when needed.
Discussing these concepts are an ongoing process, and it’s important to reinforce these ideas regularly. Be patient, answer questions, and adapt the conversation as they age. This will ensure they develop a healthy understanding and respect for others. This will allow your child to grow up understanding their boundaries and how to respect others’ boundaries. Providing proper education can empower them to make informed decisions and prevent potential harm.
If you or your family need help understanding these concepts or talking with young people, please visit the Parent/Survivor Guide. We offer valuable information and support in navigating these important conversations.