Content warning: This page discusses consent, and violations of consent including rape. If this is something that is triggering for you, please click away now, or head over to the sexual assault support resources page.
Navigating, defining and voicing consent can be tricky, which is only fair when we consider that as our life experiences grow, so does our knowledge, expectations and boundaries. To put it simply, consent refers to the provision of permission, which in this case is a mutual agreement to participate in sexual activity. Consent cannot be assumed, and does not stem from an outfit, gender, sobriety, or action. It can be given, and taken back. In short, no means no.
Legal consent in Australia
The Australian Government's Institute of Family Studies report that consent has five key elements which are essential to consent (2017). These include:
Transparency about what is being proposed (not being tricked or fooled);
That all parties possess similar cultural knowledge about standards of behaviour;
That all parties are similarly aware of possible consequences, such as pregnancy or disease;
Having respect for agreement or disagreement without repercussion; and
That consent is freely given, and that all parties have the legal competence to freely give consent (being in possession of decision-making capacity and unaffected by intoxication) (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2017).
In Australia consent can only legally be provided if you're over the age of 16 years old (or 17 years old in South Australia and Tasmania). These laws are in place to keep children safe from sexual exploitation and abuse, and are derived from age related assumed levels of maturity. Sexual exploration is normal for teenagers and nothing to be ashamed of, however it's really important that consenting individuals understand sex, the risks associated with it, and are playing it safe. If you and/or your partner are younger than the legal age it's really important that both parties are willingly participating without coercion, and are within a similar age range.
Expressing and Interpreting Consent
Expressing consent for yourself, or understanding whether someone else has offered consent is a priority. The clearest way to confirm is to talk about it. Consider the concept explored in the video above, whereby consent is compared to a cup of tea.
If you ask someone if they'd like a cup of tea, and they say 'yes', it's pretty certain that they'd like one - if they say 'maybe', you could make them one, or not, and leave it up to them to decide when it's served; no pressure though. If they say 'no thanks', don't make them a tea, don't try to change their mind, just accept that they don't want a cup of tea. Same goes for sexual activity. Yes means yes, no means no. Don't force tea on anyone, don't force sexual activity on anyone. At the core of consent, a definite 'yes' or 'no' is vital. Sexual activity without mutual consent is against the law, and also extraordinarily hurtful and disrespectful - it's a violation of a persons sexual and bodily autonomy.
In my experience it's best to be precise; 'maybe', 'okay' or other non-specific terms can be misinterpreted. It's also a good idea to consider the way we word things when trying to determine consent. "Shall we take this party to the bedroom" is not asking for someones consent; "do you want to have sex?", "can I touch you?" is. In saying this, acknowledging body language, facial expressions and other potential hesitations can determine if the other participant is actually serious about offering their consent - if they've said 'yes', but are hesitant, pay attention to this non-verbal expression and respect it as you would their words.
Check in with each other, and make sure that as things are progressing, all parties are still comfortable and consenting. As strongly as consent can be offered, it can be taken away - no arguments. Body language usually makes it pretty obvious if someone's not having a great time, but verbal communication again is imperative. If you're not comfortable, saying something along the lines of "I'd like to stop", or "I'd prefer we slow down", allow you to clearly state how you're feeling. If you're wanting to know how the other person is feeling, just ask them: "is this okay?", "do you want to slow down/stop?", "are you comfortable?". Don't argue with their response, and use it as an opportunity to continue to openly discuss boundaries. Sex is more fun if everyone's feeling comfortable and when trust is at the forefront.
Violations of Consent
Violations of consent occur when someone chooses to ignore or neglect another's refusal to offer consent, or behaves in an intentionally deceptive way after consent has been offered, resulting in sexual assault. 1 in 5 Australian women over the age of 15 will experience some form of sexual assault in their life time. Assault can include a range of actions, such as removal of a condom, emotional manipulation of boundaries, or acts extending to rape. It goes without saying that violations of consent are serious.
If you feel you have been a victim of sexual assault there are a few things you should do:
The first thing you should do is make your way to somewhere safe. I'd recommend a hospital firstly, but this can also include police station, or a family or friends home for example.
Speak to someone that you trust - Like with many things discussed on this platform, going through a tough time alone often makes it harder, and experiencing a sexual assault is not excluded from this notion.
It can be really hard deciding if you want to take what's happened to you to the police, but if you do chose to go ahead with lodging a report, obtaining any DNA is your best hope of securing evidence. Unfortunately, this means that as much as you may want to, it's best to refrain from showering or cleaning yourself. This will enable a doctor to gather a collation of saliva, blood, and pubic hair, along with swabs of your mouth, rectum and genitals. This will be done in either a specialized consulting room at the police station, or at a hospital. If you present to a hospital most of the time a medical practitioner attending to you will ask if you want the police to be called. You'll be provided with emergency contraception and STI testing. The police and the doctors know that this is scary - they're there to help and support you, and ultimately keep you safe. If you have concerns about talking to the police, remember that medical practitioners are one of the main lines of support within communities. They will help you through this process.
If you've decided not to take the sexual assault to the police, there are services available to aid and support you through recovery. It's really important that you take care of yourself and understand that what's happened isn't your fault. There's no right or wrong way to respond, and the resources liked here will assist you if you just need someone to talk to, and aid you in working through what your feeling with specialized advice and counselling services.
How to support a friend who is going through an experience of sexual assault?
This is a fantastic, informative video produced by 1800RESPECT. You can find more information by clicking here.