Relationships and Communication

Consent

Consent is a concept that can be applied to everyday social interactions as well as sexual experiences.  People have a variety of values around bodily autonomy which may impact their preferences around physical interaction, so it is important to speak with people ahead of time about their expectations and personal boundaries.  The information in this article is intended to help well-meaning people take care of themselves and each other in sexual situations, but it is important to be aware that the language of consent may be manipulated to hurt someone.

Sexual consent is defined within Brown University policy as (abbreviated):

“Consent is an affirmative and willing agreement to engage in specific forms of sexual contact with another person. Consent requires an outward demonstration, through mutually understandable words or actions, indicating that an individual has freely chosen to engage in sexual contact.  Consent cannot be obtained through: (1) the use of coercion or force or (2) by taking advantage of the incapacitation of another individual.”

For the full definition, click here.

What is consent?

Consent is an agreement that each person makes if they want to engage in sexual activity. Consent needs to be addressed with clear, open, and honest communication.  Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of Yes Means Yes (2008), explains it this way: "Sexual consent isn't like a lightswitch, which can be either "on," or "off." It's not like there's this one thing called "sex" you can consent to anyhow. "Sex" is an evolving series of actions and interactions. You have to have the… consent of your partner[s] for all of them. And even if you have your partner's consent for a particular activity, you have to be prepared for it to change.”

Keep these essential points about consent in mind:

  • Each person needs to be equally free to act.

The decision to be sexually intimate must be without coercion, which includes a consideration of the power dynamics at play within sexual and interpersonal interactions.  These power dynamics can be influenced by the unique combination of experiences of oppression of each person in the interaction, along with interpersonal dynamics such as patterns of coercion and abuse.  Each person must have the option to choose how to interact physically. Each person should be free to change a "yes" to a "no" at any time. Many factors such as age, gender, race, body size, previous victimization, threats to "out" someone, level of experience and other fears can prevent an individual from freely consenting or could be used to manipulate someone into a “yes.”

  • Each person needs to be fully conscious and aware.

The use of alcohol or other substances can interfere with someone's ability to make clear decisions about the level of intimacy they are comfortable with. The more intoxicated a person is, the less they are able to give conscious consent.

The Brown policy specifically references “incapacitation” and states  that someone who is “mentally and/or physically helpless, asleep, unconscious or unaware that sexual activity is occuring” is not able to give conscious consent.

  • Each person clearly communicates their willingness and permission.

According to the Brown policy, “consent requires an outward demonstration, through mutually understandable words or actions.”  Willingness and permission must be communicated clearly and unambiguously. Just because a person fails to resist sexual advances does not mean that they are willing. Consent is not the absence of the word "no."

  • Each person is positive and sincere about their desires.

It is important to be honest in communicating feelings about consent. If one person states their desires, the other person can make informed decisions about the encounter. It may be useful before engaging in sexual activity with another person, to take time to determine your own needs, desires and boundaries with regard to your sexuality.  A tool, like the Sexual Inventory Stocklist, can be a helpful guide in deciding what types of physical, sexual, and/or emotional activity you would like to engage in when considering sexuality and relationships. It is also important to consider one’s own values in regards to sex and sexuality, and decide whether you would like to engage sexually with someone who shares, some of (if not all of) those values.  

(Adapted from Berkowitz, Alan. "Guidelines for Consent in Intimate Relationships," Campus Safety & Student Development, Vol. 3, No. 4, March/April 2002.)

Why is consent important?

  • Communication, respect, and honesty are fundamental to great sex and relationships.

  • Ensuring consent shows that you have respect for both yourself and your partner.

  • Positive views on sex and sexuality are empowering for all.

  • It helps eliminate the entitlement that one partner may feel over the other. Neither your body nor your sexuality belongs to someone else.

  • It is normal and healthy for all partners to expect to be included in the consent process.

  • Non-consensual sex is against the law. Without knowing if you have consent, you may be committing sexual assault.

How do you ask for consent?

Show your partner that you respect them enough to ask about their sexual needs and desires. If you are not accustomed to communicating with your partner about sex and sexual activity, the first few times may feel awkward. But, practice helps. The more times you have these conversations with your partner(s), the more comfortable you will become communicating about sex and sexual activity. Conversations about consent will build trust and respect for one another.

Before you have sex, ask yourself...

Have I expressed what I want? Do I know what my partner wants? How certain am I that consent has been given? Is my potential partner sober enough to decide whether or not to have sex? Am I sober enough to know that I've correctly gauged consent?

When? Before you act. It is the responsibility of the person initiating a sexual act to obtain clear consent. Whenever you are unsure if consent has been given, ask. Check-in with your partner about how they’re doing throughout sexual contact. Giving consent ahead of time does not waive a person's right to change their mind or say no later.

How? Consent is not just about getting a yes or no answer, but about understanding what a partner is feeling. Ask open-ended questions. Listen to and respect your partner's response, whether you hear yes or no: "I'd really like to . . . how does that sound?" "How does this feel?" "What would you like to do?"

Some good ways to ask for consent are questions like:

  • May I [do whatever sexual thing]?

  • I’d like to [do whatever sexual thing]: would you like to? If not, what would you like to do?

  • How do you feel about doing [whatever sexual thing]?

  • Are there things you know you don’t want to do: what are they? Mine are [whatever they are].

  • Is there anything you need to feel comfortable or safe when we do [whatever sexual thing]?

  • I'm really interested in doing [whatever sexual thing] with you, and it feels like the right time for me: do you want to do that and does the timing feel right to you?

  • I'd like to have sex tonight, would you? What do you want to do or try?

Questions to use to check-in during sexual activity are as follows*:

  • How does this feel?

  • Are you still liking this? Are you comfortable?

  • Is there anything you need or want right now?

  • You seem quiet: are you okay?

  • Anything I should stop doing or do that I’m not doing?

  • I feel good: are you feeling good?

*from Scarleteen.com Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Super Highway: Navigating Consent by Heather Corinna.

 

How do you know you have consent?

When gauging consent, context and power dynamics must be taken into account.  There are many circumstances, for example, in which power dynamics might dictate that someone “laugh and smile” while internally feeling deeply discomforted by another’s sexual advances. For this reason, it is important to educate yourself about power, privilege and oppression and how those dynamics impact interpersonal interactions.  Remember that if you are initiating sexual activity and are unsure if a partner is consenting freely, ask-- and then be ready to stop, no questions asked, if they say “no” or seem unsure.  The following is a non-exhaustive list of signs to be aware of when gauging consent in a sexual situation:

Signs You Should Stop

  • Your partner is too intoxicated to give consent (some potential signs include physical passivity, slurred speech, problems with balance and impaired motor skills).
  • You are too intoxicated to gauge consent.
  • Your partner is asleep.
  • Your partner is unconscious or for any other reason is physically or mentally unable to communicate consent.
  • You are using physical force or size to have sex.
  • You hope your partner will say nothing and go with the flow.
  • You don't think they would agree to have sex if they were sober.
  • You have had sex before but they have said they're not interested tonight.
  • You have coerced your partner in any way (asking repeatedly, putting pressure on your partner, physically intimidating them, etc.).
  • You intend to have sex by any means necessary.
  • Your partner used a safe word/action to indicate they want to stop.

Signs You Should Stop and Talk

  • You are not sure what the other person wants.
  • You feel like you are getting mixed signals.
  • You have not talked about what you want to do.
  • You assume that you will do the same thing as before.
  • Your partner stops or is not really responding.
  • You are unsure if your partner has been drinking and/or using substances.
  • You are only focused on your own needs and desires in the moment, not theirs.

Keep Communicating

  • Partners come to a mutual decision about how far to go.
  • Partners clearly express their comfort with the situation.
  • Everyone feels comfortable and safe stopping at any time.
  • You are able to move on graciously when you get a no or your partner uses a safeword or action.
  • Partners are excited!

[Adapted from American College Health Association, Shifting the Paradigm: Primary Prevention of Sexual Violence Toolkit.]

The Brown policy includes both words and actions in considerations of whether consent is obtained.  The website Scarleteen.com, a sexuality education resource for teens and emerging adults, emphasizes that verbal consent is the preferred method of communication between sexual partners, especially if they do not know each other well or are consuming substances. For further discussion of nonverbal communication around consent, click here to visit Scarleteen.  

 

How does alcohol affect someone's ability to give consent?

Alcohol lowers inhibitions and impairs judgment. In small amounts, it can make someone feel more relaxed. However, because intoxication is affected by weight, gender, time, medication and other factors, a small amount for one person could be a lot for someone else. In addition, people may not count their drinks accurately or they may not realize how much alcohol is in a drink. To understand blood alcohol concentration, go to this page.

It may be difficult to tell if someone is too intoxicated to give consent. It is especially difficult to gauge if you have been drinking, since your judgment will be impaired. Some potential signs that someone cannot consent include slurred speech, problems with balance and impaired motor skills. However, you will not be able to gauge many factors: Is the person's blood alcohol level continuing to rise? Did they pregame or have drinks that you don't know about? Did they drink high proof alcohol (such as Everclear or 151 rum) without knowing it? Is the person taking medication or other drugs that will interact with the alcohol? Is the person fatigued, dehydrated and/or hungry and could have a stronger reaction to the alcohol? Because of these and other factors, the safest, healthiest thing to do is to engage in sexual activity when both/all persons involved are sober.

Being too intoxicated to gauge consent will not absolve you of the responsibility of obtaining consent if you are initiating sex. You can be held accountable for sexual assault by law and the student code of conduct. 

What about other drugs?

Sometimes, people think using a substance will enhance the sexual experience, however, illegal drugs or medications can also impair someone's ability to consent. Depressants, like GHB, Rohypnol and painkillers, will impair judgment and motor skills. Depressants aren especially dangerous when combined with alcohol.  As with alcohol, there are always many factors involved in each individual's response to a drug. With illegal drugs, there are often added substances that make the effects even more unpredictable.

Being intoxicated will not absolve you of the responsibility of obtaining consent if you are initiating sexual activity. You can be held accountable for sexual assault by law and the student code of conduct.

 

What if I am confused about a sexual experience I've had?

If you are confused about an experience you've had or are not sure if your partner respected your boundaries, you can speak with someone. Brown students can contact the SHARE Advocates (Sexual Harassment & Assault Resources & Education), in BWell by clicking the “make an appointment” button or by calling 401.863-2794 for confidential support. Please click here for additional resources on and off campus.

Resources

Campus, Confidential Resources:

Sexual Assault Response Line 401.863-6000
Available through Psychological Services' on-call system. Confidential crisis support and information is available for any Brown student dealing with sexual assault. The on-call counselor is also available to accompany a victim to the hospital.

SHARE Advocates (Sexual Harassment & Assault Resources & Education)share@brown.edu, 401.863-2794, 3rd floor of Health Services
The SHARE Advocates are available to help students affected by sexual violence. Confidential services include support for a survivor or the friends of a survivor, help filing a complaint (if that is the student’s choice), help navigating resources at Brown and in the community, and educational programs for the student community. When you get support, you do not have to pursue any specific course of action and no action will be taken unless it’s something you choose.

Counseling and Psychological Services 401.863-3476
Clinicians provide confidential crisis support, follow-up appointments, and 24-hour on-call services for any Brown student dealing with sexual assault.  Located at J Walter Wilson, Room 516.

Brown Emergency Medical Services (EMS) 401.863-4111
Emergency response available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

University Health Services 401.863-3953
Confidential medical care, testing and treatment. Emergency contraceptive pills and treatment for sexually transmitted infections are available. Located at 13 Brown Street on the corner of Brown and Charlesfield Streets.

Chaplains Office 401.863-2344 
The Chaplains are available for personal counseling and support. Call to make an appointment. Located in J Walter Wilson, Room 410.

Campus, NOT Confidential Resources:

Office of Student Life/Dean-on-Call 401.863-3800
Provides a crisis response system which includes administrators-on-call.

Title IX Office
(401) 863-2386, Rene Davis, Title IX Program Officer
Information and support resources for the Brown University community around issues of sexual misconduct and Title IX. 

Brown Department of Public Safety 401.863-4111 (emergency response) 
Emergency response available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You may also direct any complaints to Public Safety's administrative number, 863-3322.

Off-campus, Confidential Resources:

Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-494-8100 
If you or someone you know needs help because of a sexual assault or an abusive relationship, call this hotline 24 hours a day. Counselor-advocates provide confidential support and are available to accompany victims of sexual assault to the hospital and police station. Ongoing counseling and support groups are available. (This hotline is specific to Rhode Island. Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE if you need help in another state.)

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) 1-800-656-HOPE
This is a national hotline for victims of sexual assault. The hotline offers free, confidential counseling and support 24 hours a day, from anywhere in the country. When a survivor calls the hotline, s/he is connected to the nearest local rape crisis center through a unique computer routing system that maintains the confidentiality of callers.

Local Hospitals and Emergency Rooms:

Women & Infants Hospital 401.274-1100
101 Dudley Street, Providence

Rhode Island Hospital 401.444-5411
593 Eddy Street, Providence

Miriam Hospital 401.793-2500
164 Summit Avenue, Providence

Related Links

The Office of Student Life, Student Handbook 
This is an online version of the Student Handbook that links to the section on policies and regulations. Brown's definition of sexual misconduct is outlined here as well as the steps taken when an assault occurs.

Day One: The Sexual Assault and Trauma Resource Center 
Day One is the RI resource for victims of sexual assault and their families. The site provides information on a range of topics, including sexual assault, child sexual abuse, internet safety and sex offender management. Day One offers individual and group counseling for survivors of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse and for their families.

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
This web site offers information and statistics on sexual assault and can locate a local rape crisis center in your area.

The Rape Treatment Center 
This web site offers information on the impact of rape, date rape drugs, facts and statistics, as well as a comprehensive list of links to other resources.

For Men Only: Male Survivors of Sexual Assault 
This page is from the Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas at Austin and offers another source of information for male survivors of sexual assault.

Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project 
The Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project is a grassroots, non-profit organization providing community education and direct services for clients. GMDVP offers shelter, guidance, and resources to allow gay, bisexual, and transgender men in crisis to leave violent situations and relationships.

Anti-Violence Project
This project serves lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and HIV-positive victims of violence, and others affected by violence, by providing free and confidential services enabling them to regain their sense of control, identify and evaluate their options, and assert their rights.

The Network/La Red 
617-423-SAFE (Hotline in English and Spanish)
This program offers free services in English and Spanish for lesbians, bisexual women and transgender people who are victims of battering. These services include a hotline, emergency shelter and advocacy programs. Located in Boston, Massachusetts.

1 in 6 For Men 
A website with resources for men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in their childhood, including 24-hour online support, educational material covering the impact of sexual abuse, and stories of healing from male survivors.

PHONE NUMBERS
  • 401.863-2794
    Health Promotion
  • 401.863-3953
    Health Services
  • 401.863-6000
    Sexual Assault Response Line
  • 401.863-4111
    EMS
  • 401.863-3476
    Counseling & Psychological Services
  • 401.863-4111
    DPS