What is consent?

Sexual consent can be best described as the active process of willingly and freely choosing to participate in sex of any kind with someone else. It also implies a shared responsibility for everyone engaging in, or willing to engage in, any kind of sexual interaction with someone else.

‘Willingly and freely choosing’ means, in this case, that we and our partners feel able to make and voice our choices, needs and preferences without being forced, manipulated, intentionally misled or pressured. Similarly, ‘participating’ means that we as well as our partners are seen and treated like a whole, separate person, not like a thing someone is doing things to.

Feeling worried? How does this affect consent?

(Illustration by Elyssa Rider)

American sex educator Jaclyn Friedman’s definition is also very helpful as it highlights that consent is a process rather than a one-off question. Friedman argues that

“sexual consent isn't like a light-switch, which can be either on or off. It's not like there was this one thing called sex you could consent to anyhow and all the time. ‘Sex’ is, instead, an evolving series of actions and interactions. You have to have the enthusiastic consent of your partners 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. Consent isn't a question. It's a state.”

In other words, as Friedman explains, consent is not something that can be demanded, expected or given and agreed once for all. On the contrary, it must be felt and mutually, clearly, enthusiastically affirmed. It is an open and active dialogue (as opposed to a lecture delivered by a single person) that we can all learn new ways to develop, and new ways to listen to. This course proposes ways in which we can become more attune to this dialogue. You can also find a list of some of the most pervasive myths and misconceptions that often surround sex and sexual consent.

This course has been created by GenPol, a think-tank on gender and politics based at the University of Cambridge, in cooperation with Serlo.

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