What is Consent?
As a parent, you may have heard the word ‘consent’, but you might not know what it means or what it includes. Simply put, consent is permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something. Consent requires respect and communication. Consent is an important concept for children to learn about from an early age as it can lead to better relationships with family, friends, peers and, eventually romantic partners. Consent includes knowing and respecting a person’s own boundaries as well as the boundaries of others. Understanding consent means that a person has the skills to leave a situation that doesn’t feel comfortable and also respects when other people want to do the same.
Tips for Addressing Consent with Young Children
It’s important to talk to your child about consent at an early age. Here are some tips that provide a foundation for the idea of consent:
- Help your child understand that their bodies are their own and that they have the right to make decisions about their body. This includes not making your child hug or kiss family members or friends.
- Encourage your child to pay attention to other people’s cues about personal boundaries – these may be verbal or by watching someone’s body language. For example, a person may take a few steps back to protect their space or they may move over slightly when someone sits too close to them.
- Practice with your child what they can say and do if they were in a situation where they didn’t feel comfortable
- Encourage your child to speak up if something doesn’t feel right
- Encourage your child to ask for consent. For example, they can ask friends for a hug or to hold hands.
- Teach your child to respect ‘no’ messages. For example, if your child is roughhousing with another child, and they say “stop,” it’s important to respect that message.
Good Touch vs. Bad Touch
Introduce the topic of touching by talking about different kinds of touches, and encourage your child to brainstorm some ideas. It may also be helpful to include a discussion of feelings that a person may have when they get the following ‘okay’ and ‘not-okay’ touches. The 3 key messages behind this idea are:
- Touches that are important to get and they make us feel loved and cared about. This includes touches like hugs, kisses, handshakes, cuddles, a pat on the back, high fives, etc.
- Hurtful touches might leave a bruise or mark on our body. Giving hurtful touches isn’t okay, and it’s not okay for people that take care of kids to give them hurtful touches or for kids to see other people getting hurtful touches. This includes touches like punches, kicks, slaps, bites, etc.
- Give your child a definition for child sexual abuse. Introduce this as another kind of hurtful touch that is also ‘not okay’. The definition could be something like:
“When someone bigger or older looks at or touches your private parts for no good reason or when someone bigger or older asks you to look at or touch the bigger or older person’s private parts.” (With older children include: “or when an older or bigger person talks to you in a sexual or inappropriate way or shows you pictures or sites on the Internet of naked people or of people touching people’s private (or sexual) parts.”)
What is Sexual Consent?
Sexual activity includes kissing, sexual touching and sexual intercourse (oral, anal, and vaginal). Sexual consent means both partners agree to the sexual activity and understand what they are agreeing to. Consent is the foundation of sexual relationships and is needed for every sexual activity, every time. Sexual consent is about a person’s right to make their own choice about sexual activity.
Tips for Addressing Sexual Consent with Older Children and Teens
It’s important to talk to your child or teen about consent. Here are some practical tips to talking about sexual consent:
- Have discussions about your family values and sexuality
- Talk about personal boundaries
- Encourage your child to think about situations where they may have to be clear about personal boundaries
- Have discussions about sexual consent, coercion, pressure, harassment, manipulation and sexual assault. Tell your child that they have a voice and you will listen to them.
- Have conversations about the legal, social and emotional consequences of sexual assault
Key Points about Sexual Consent
When it comes to sexual consent, there are some important ideas to understand and communicate to your child:
- Consent is freely given. Agreeing to do something is consent only if it’s voluntary. If there is any type of coercion or there is something to lose by saying “no” (e.g., safety or a relationship), it’s not consent.
- A “yes” is not consent if someone is coerced. Pressuring, pestering, threatening, guilt-tripping, blackmailing, intimidating, bullying, and harassing are coercive actions that don’t allow for consent.
- “No” always means “no” whether given verbally or non-verbally. A lack of an affirmative, freely given “yes” is also a “no”.
- Consent is affirmative and enthusiastic. When someone is consenting, they agree wholeheartedly and are confident in their decision to consent. Body language and verbal language should both give the same affirmative message.
- Consent is agreed upon by both partners with a clear understanding of what they are agreeing to.
- The person who initiates the sexual contact or who wants to move to the next level of intimacy is responsible for asking and clearly receiving consent before continuing with the sexual contact.
- A consent conversation includes asking, answering and negotiating.
- When there is consent, both people feel safe and comfortable. Safety and comfort (with themselves, their body, their partner and the situation), creates an environment where each person can participate in all aspects of the consent conversation.
- For consent to happen, a person needs to be given an opportunity to say “no.”
- Consent is ongoing. One person asks permission for an activity and another person gives it. This conversation needs to continue as the activity continues or changes.
- Consent can be withdrawn at any time. At any point, people can change their mind and withdraw consent. Consent given in the past doesn’t apply to any activities that happen later.
- Consent can’t be assumed or implied. Flirting, clothing, sexual texts or social media communication should not be confused with consent.
- Consent can’t be assumed because people are in a relationship nor should it be assumed if there was previous sexual activity. Permission must be requested and given for an activity to proceed.
- Communication that is unclear or confusing isn’t consent. If there is any uncertainty that someone is agreeing to do something, the person initiating the activity must ask permission and wait until permission is clearly given before proceeding.
- Silence or not responding is not consent.
- A lack of physical resistance is not consent.
- People who are drunk, high, sleeping or unconscious are unable to give consent, either legally or practically. In order to have clear communication about consent, both people should be sober and alert.
Consent and the Law
According to Canadian law, age of consent is the legal age when a person can make a decision to have sexual intercourse. The law indicates a 16-year-old can consent to sex, except if the:
- other person is in a position of authority (e.g., teacher, coach, or employer).
- sexual activity is exploitative (e.g., pornography, prostitution, or trading sex for safety).
There are ‘close in age’ exceptions to this law:
- 14 and 15 year olds may consent to sex if the partner is less than 5 years older.
- 12 and 13 year olds may consent to sex if the partner is less than 2 years older.
- Children younger than 12 cannot consent to any type of sexual activity. Having sex with a child younger than 12 is against the law and is sexual abuse.
Key Points About Sexual Assault
- Sex without consent is sexual assault.
- Sexual assault can happen to anyone of any age and gender and be committed by anyone of any age and gender.
- Sole responsibility for sexual assault lies with the person who did not obtain consent (perpetrator). Prevention messages are directed only at potential perpetrators with the aim of preventing them from assaulting people.
- The term ‘survivor’ is generally used when referring to a person who has been sexually assaulted. If the person identifies as ‘victim’, one would use that same language. The word ‘victim’ is often used by police or in a legal sense.
- The term ‘perpetrator’ is used for someone who commits an assault but hasn’t necessarily been legally punished for that crime.
- Prevention messages about how to avoid being sexually assaulted are no longer acceptable. They didn’t reduce instances of sexual assault. Instead they increased shame in the person who was assaulted, reduced the likelihood of the survivor accessing services, and provided excuses to perpetrators who commit this crime.
- Sexual assault is the term used in the legal sense in Canada and is the appropriate term to use in the classroom. If a survivor uses the term ‘rape’, a person would use the same language with them.
Responding if Your Child Discloses a Sexual Assault
If your child has been assaulted, they may come to you for help. You may experience a wide range of feelings and reactions (e.g. shock, anger, fear, guilt, anxiety) and these are all normal. The way that you respond to your child is very important. Positive and supportive responses are more likely to help with the recovery process.
If a sexual assault is disclosed to you, here are some supportive things you can do or say:
- Listen: Remain calm and give them your complete attention. Let them know you hear what they told you.
- Believe: Believe what they told you. Say, “I believe you.” Recognize that disclosing an assault takes courage and strength.
- Be compassionate. You can say, “You do not deserve this”.
- Stress that it’s not their fault. Survivors typically blame themselves. Remind them that the perpetrator is responsible for what happened.
- Know where to get help. It’s helpful to know where to go such as your local distress phone number or sexual assault support agency.
For more information, visit our Resources page.