understanding sexual consent

Romantic and sexual relationships come in all shapes and sizes. Yet there are some things that healthy relationships have in common; they are built on a base of respect, clear boundaries and consent.

What is sexual consent?

Sexual consent is an ongoing and freely given agreement between two (or more) people who are engaging in sexual activity together. It involves paying attention to what someone (i.e., partner/ boyfriend/girlfriend) is saying, their body language and their facial expressions.

So, let’s work out what that actually means for you and your relationships.

Giving, asking for and receiving consent

Conversations about consent might be something new for you, especially if you’re new to dating or are starting a romantic or sexual relationship. But don’t worry the skills that are needed for conversations about consent, personal awareness and boundaries have been built in other areas of your life, in your family relationships and friendships over a long time. Understanding this can make it easier to become confident in conversations about sexual consent.

Sexual consent isn’t only about agreeing to have sex. It’s also important in all intimate activity: from the moment you ask if you can hold someone’s hand, to a hug or a kiss.

 

What does practising consent look like?

  • you and your partner are excited, happy and eager to engage in sexual contact
  • no-one is forced, pressured or manipulated into any kind of sexual contact
  • anyone can change their mind, stop at any moment or choose not to engage any further
  • everyone is fully conscious – no one is asleep or drowsy
  • no-one is so affected by alcohol or other drugs that they can’t make safe or informed choices
  • everyone must agree upon choices regarding safe sex e.g., using condoms and other contraception
  • consent applies only to the sexual act you’re doing at the one time, in that very moment. Just because someone consents to kissing, doesn’t mean they consent to someone touching their body.

 

Why is it important?

Asking for and giving sexual consent is one way we can maintain healthy relationships and make sure everyone is feeling safe, comfortable and respected. The older we get the more common sexual and romantic relationships can become so it’s important to get this right.

 

Power and control

Not everyone can give sexual consent, even if they want to. This is because there must be equal levels of power and control between everyone involved. It can be hard to say no to sex if there is an unequal power balance.

No one person should be making all the decisions or forcing another person to engage in sexual acts.

 Things that can influence our power in relation to someone else include:

  • our age
  • our relationship to the other person
  • our ability to fully understand what someone is asking us to do
  • their control in our lives – they might control the money, decide if you can see your family and friends, or tell you what to wear.

 

Some professions have rules that prevent certain people/occupations from engaging in sexual contact with young people. This is because they may be seen as providing care for and/or they have more power and control over the young person. The following people can’t engage in sexual contact with young people:

  • direct family members
  • anyone who is seen to care for young people. This can include teachers, tutors, and sports coaches and religious leaders
  • treating medical professionals including doctors, psychologists and support workers
  • anyone providing legal representation or advice to young people including lawyers and police officers.

 

What does the law say?

Age of consent

The age that someone can consent to any kind of sexual contact varies slightly between state and territories in Australia. You can check which laws apply to your state or territory here.

Sexting

There are also different laws around consent and sexting/sending nudes. You can find out more about sexting and check which laws apply to your state or territory here.

Consent is easy, you just ask! And the other person can choose to agree or not.

Like all agreements and conversations, we must also pay attention to someone’s body language and tone of voice. If their facial expressions, body language (e.g., shrugging, arms crossed or avoiding kisses) or tone of voice don’t add up with their answer, then you don’t have consent. Remember, consent must be enthusiastic.

Asking for consent may sound like:

'Can I kiss you?'; 'Would you like me to touch you there?'; 'What else can I do for you?'

When you don’t get consent:

Remember, if a person doesn’t give consent, then you can’t force or pressure them to change their mind. This means that everyone feels safe and respected, and that you don’t break any laws. Read more about the law and sexual consent in the ‘What does the law say?’ section.

As well as asking for someone else’s consent, it’s important that you’ve given consent.  

Showing your consent might sound like:

  • 'I really like that; can you keep doing it?'
  • 'Yes. That sounds like a really nice idea.'
  • 'Feel free to touch me here.'

 

Showing that you don’t consent to sexual contact might sound like:

  • 'No. I don’t want to.’
  • 'That’s sweet of you, but I’d rather not.'
  • 'That doesn’t feel good for me anymore. Let’s try something else'.

 

Remember, consent is an ongoing conversation. Just because you gave consent to one sexual activity doesn’t mean you have to give consent to another. You can always say ‘no’ or ask to slow down. You can also change your mind at any point and withdraw your consent.   

It’s important to remember that your body is yours and any form of violence, intimidation or overstepping of your boundaries isn’t acceptable and is not a part of healthy relationships. And in the same way, someone else’s body is theirs - it's a good idea to respect others the way you’d like to be respected.

 

For further information

For more information or support, find your nearest headspace centre or contact eheadspace, our phone and online service.

If reading this resource has raised any concerns for you in relation to your own experiences, help is available.

Sexual assault information, support and helplines 

24-hour Sexual Assault Counselling Australia

Relationship resources and counselling, 1800RESPECT 

 


The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last reviewed: 8 June 2021

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