Sexual consent means that all people involved in a sexual activity clearly and freely agree to participate. You can give consent by words or actions, but your intent should be clear — you are willing and you give permission.
A person cannot give consent if they are not awake, aware or otherwise able to make decisions. Also, you can change your mind at any time. Remember, clear verbal communication is best when it comes to consent.
As part of the Health Department's "Ask Before You Act" campaign, New York City youths helped design three videos to increase awareness about the topic of sexual consent.
New York City Teens Connection worked with young people in the community to create a public awareness campaign about sexual consent. Before this campaign started, we talked with more than 100 NYC youths about how they navigate sexual consent. See what they told us below and our related tips and resources.
Body Language and Verbal Communication
Talking about sex can be awkward. Young people said it can affect the mood by making people uncomfortable. Many of the young people we spoke with prefer to use non-verbal gestures or cues to request and give sexual consent. Non-verbal consent may include:
Body language is clearer when you use it with verbal consent. Young people say verbal communication clears up confusion and helps clarify what each person wants and likes.
Tip: Think of some phrases beforehand so you are ready to say "yes" or "no" to any form of activity or intimacy. You can also practice how to check in with your partner regularly and learn their likes and dislikes. This can make consent feel natural and comfortable.
Young people said certain aspects of a relationship can affect how they talk about consent with a partner, including:
Tip: A key to any healthy relationship is to speak directly and honestly with your partner. Practice that type of communication for other topics and it will be easier to discuss consent and boundaries.
The young people we spoke with were concerned about how society’s expectations based on a person’s gender can give one partner more power than another. Traditional ideas of what a man or woman should do can impact who feels like they can request or give consent.
Tip: You can avoid falling in the gender role trap by considering how those traditional ideas are impacting your relationship. Challenge yourself to rethink society’s gender expectations, especially if those expectations are unfair or unsafe for someone you know.
Regardless of a person’s gender or sexual orientation, you must have their consent.
Drugs and Alcohol
Some young people said drugs and alcohol can help reveal a person’s true self and desires. Others said you can never give consent if you are not sober. Several young people said the type of substance being used can impact whether you can consent. They said, for example, alcohol and marijuana can affect you differently.
Tip: Any type of drug or alcohol can cloud your judgment. You should avoid sexual activity when you or your partner is not sober. Do not assume you have consent if you partner is under the influence.
Social Media and Texting
Young people said it can be less awkward to talk about sex and consent through social media or texting. However, these methods of communication can also lead to confusing or hurtful situations.
Tip: Remember, consent must be continual and can be changed at any time. If someone gave consent online or by text, they still have to give it again in person. That rule also applies to online sharing. Just because someone sent you something by text or on social media does not mean they consent for you to share it with others.
Celebrities, #MeToo and Social Media
Recently, more people throughout the U.S. have been sharing their experiences with sexual harassment, assault and rape. This openness helped spark the #MeToo movement, shining a light on the concept of consent.
Celebrities now share their sexual and romantic experiences with the public more openly, often on social media. Several celebrities have participated in the #MeToo movement, discussing traumatic experiences in their past. Many young people said having famous people lead such discussions on social media can both educate and mislead their followers about consent.
Tip: When you talk about celebrities or other people who discuss sexual assault or harassment online, remind people that consent is at the core of these cases.
Young people said they are concerned that being unclear about consent can lead to harassment, sexual assault and rape. Many young men said they were afraid of being accused of rape, while young women often said they fear being raped. Youths of all genders recognized that unclear consent could create problems for everyone involved.
Tip: Learn more about sexual assault, harassment, rape, rape laws and issues of consent. Knowing the laws and support services in your community can help you know how to behave with your partner. Remember, it is important to ask before you act. That is the best way to make sure you and your partner are on the same page in your sexual interactions.
The following resources can help educators teach young people about sexual consent.