What exactly is consent?
The word “consent” gets thrown around as if everyone understands it. But the nuances of the concept of consent can get complicated. Of course the basics are easy: you don’t do things to people that those people don’t want you to do. There are lots of actions, such as a hug, or having someone come into your house, which are much appreciated when you agreed to them and terrifying when you didn’t. If you invite a friend over for lunch, and they come inside … great! If they show up at two in the morning and break down the door … your reaction will be a lot different. Instead of offering them a drink, you’d be calling the cops.
It’s the same with intimate activities, from kissing all the way to having sex. The same actions that you’d enjoy if you had agreed to them become terrifying and invasive when you didn’t.
1. Consent must be mutual
A lot of times we talk about consent in a very gendered way: men are the initiators of intimate activities, and women are the ones who can consent or not. Some men feel like this gives women too much power in an intimate context — that women decide what happens and when. But in reality, both people need to agree for any intimate action to be acceptable.
If a woman decides she wants to have sex with her boyfriend, and the boyfriend doesn’t want to–she needs to respect his lack of consent. Actions like reaching down a person’s pants or grabbing their butt are intimate, and shouldn’t happen unless the other person agrees.
2. Consent can be verbal or nonverbal
Given the necessity of consent, people might start to get concerned. “Do you really mean we have to start all activities with, ‘Please may I kiss you?’ or ‘Can I have your consent to put my arm around you?’” Naturally, we don’t always have to use words. When you’re in a long-term relationship with someone, you get good at reading them. You know when they’re leaning in for a kiss and when they’re reluctant.
But words do make things clearer. If you’re unsure, it’s always okay to ask. Some people find it very romantic to be explicitly asked for a kiss. And when you’re doing an activity for the first time, whether it’s a first kiss or consummating your marriage, it’s a big deal and it’s always good to check in verbally that they really want to do this right now.
3. Consent can’t be forced or threatened
A contract isn’t binding if you sign it with a gun to your head. The same is true of sexual consent. No one would honestly think that a person who cooperated rather than be killed actually wants to have sex with them, but sometimes the methods of force can be less obvious.
A person might coerce another person to have sex with them by threatening to have them fired from their job, threatening to reveal embarrassing information or photos, or threatening to hurt a loved one. All of these are violations of consent. A rape victim who is abused in this way may not show signs of a physical struggle, but the psychological damage may be severe.
4. Consent can’t be obtained with substances.
Sadly, many rapists know to ply their victims with alcohol or spike their drinks with drugs. While a person might have a glass of wine and be sober enough to consent, a person who is severely intoxicated cannot give legal or moral consent to anything. Taking advantage of a person who is drunk violates their human right to bodily integrity. In the Bible, the daughters of Lot rape him in this way. No one would blame Lot for their abuse of him–the sin belongs entirely to his daughters.
5. Only conscious people can consent.
A person doesn’t have to be actively saying “no” to demonstrate they don’t consent to something. A person who is asleep or passed out obviously cannot consent to anything. Having sex or engaging in other sexual activities with an unconscious person is not a fun prank; it is a crime.
6. Consent must be honest.
Lying to a person violates their consent as well. If you lie about who you are, how many partners you have, or what diseases you have, you’re taking away their ability to consent with full knowledge of what they’re consenting to. Cheating, stealthing (non-consensual condom removal), or pretending you are your identical twin to get a person to say they want to have sex with you, may not always be illegal, but it is always immoral.
7. Consent to one act doesn’t mean consent to others.
Getting in a car with someone doesn’t mean you want to have sex with them. Kissing doesn’t mean you want to have sex with them. There are a lot of stops on the road to “home base” and either partner has a right to stop at any of them. Imagine if you invited someone over for dinner and they happily ate the appetizer with you, but then they say “no thanks” to the main course. That means they enjoyed a pleasant appetizer with you, and that’s all they want. It doesn’t give you the right to shove a burger in their mouth.
8. Consent can be withdrawn at any time.
Any time you’re intimate with a partner, it’s only acceptable so long as both people still want to participate. If you agreed to have sex with a person and have second thoughts later, you can change your mind. A decent partner is going to say, “Oh, absolutely, don’t worry about it.” Even if you were in the middle of having sex–a person can stop. Some men like to pretend that they don’t have the capacity to stop, but this is a self-serving myth. Fathers know that when a baby cries in another room while they are being intimate with their spouse, they can stop on a dime and go take care of the baby. If they can do that, so can a man who realizes his partner is uncomfortable and unwilling.
9. Consent is important even within marriage.
A lot of people might be wondering why we’re even talking about this when Catholics all agree that sex is for marriage only. But all of the above still holds true for married couples! Sex is going to be a part of a healthy marriage, but both spouses get to decide when and where it happens. If one spouse is uncomfortable or just not in the mood, it would be a sin against married love to pressure them, much less force them. Married love is supposed to be unitive; that means both spouses should be unified in their decision to have sex. Sex that isn’t by mutual consent, even in marriage, is an act of aggression rather than an expression of marital unity.
10. Consent is a minimum standard.
None of this is intended as a statement that extramarital sex is okay. Consent is just one of the things that goes into morally permissible intimacy. Moral theologians disagree on which expressions of intimacy are reserved only for married couples–for instance, can courting couples kiss?–although we can all agree that sex itself is only for marriage. But regardless of whether we’re talking about a dating couple kissing or a married couple having sex, no intimacy is moral without consent.