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. 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 respects when other people want to do the same.
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’re agreeing to. Consent is the foundation of a sexual relationship. Consent must be given for every sexual activity, every time. Sexual consent is about a person’s right to make their own choice about sexual activity. Language and messaging around consent and sexual assault has changed over the last few years as we understand more about rights, the law, consent and sexual assault.
Important Points about Sexual Consent
Here are some important points to understand and talk with your students about:
- Consent is freely given. Agreeing to do something is consent only if it’s voluntary.
- ‘No’ always means ‘no’ whether given verbally or non-verbally. A lack of an affirmative, positive, freely given ‘yes’ is also a ‘no’.
- A ‘yes’ isn’t consent if someone is coerced. Examples of coercion are if the person pressures, pesters, threatens, guilt trips, blackmails, intimidates, bullies, or harasses someone.
- Consent is a positive, voluntary, active and conscious agreement to engage in sexual activity. When someone’s consenting, they agree and are confident in their decision to consent. Body language and verbal language should both give the same positive message.
- Consent is agreed upon by both partners, and with a clear understanding of what they’re agreeing to.
- The person who initiates the sexual contact or who wants to move to the next level of intimacy is responsible for asking for—and clearly receiving—consent before continuing with the sexual contact.
- A consent conversation includes asking, answering and negotiating.
- When there’s consent, both people feel safe and comfortable. Safety and comfort (with themselves, their body, their partner and the situation) create an environment where both people can freely take part in all aspects of the consent conversation.
- For consent to happen, a person needs to be given the chance 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 aren’t 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 asked for and given for an activity to proceed.
- Communication that’s not clear or is confusing isn’t consent. If there’s 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 isn’t consent.
- Not physically resisting isn’t consent.
- People who are drunk, high, sleeping or unconscious can’t give consent, either legally or practically. To have clear communication about consent, both people should be sober and alert.
Important Points about Sexual Assault
- Sex without consent is sexual assault.
- Sexual assault can happen to anyone of any age and gender and it can be committed by anyone of any age and gender.
- It’s important to use gender neutral language when talking about sexual assault. Not only does it reinforce unhealthy stereotypes, language that is gendered discourages men and boys and people who’ve been assaulted by women from disclosing the assault and getting help.
- The only person responsible for sexual assault is the person who didn’t ask for or get consent (perpetrator).
- Prevention messages are directed only at possible perpetrators, with the aim of preventing them from assaulting people.
- 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 gave the perpetrators excuses.
- ‘Sexual assault’ is the legal term in Canada and the correct term to use in the classroom. If a survivor uses the term ‘rape’, use the same language when talking with them.
- The term ‘survivor’ is generally used when referring to someone who has been sexually assaulted. If the person identifies themselves as a ‘victim’, 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. They may not have been legally punished for that crime.
- The term ‘offender’ is used for someone who commits an assault and is charged for that crime.
Consent and the Law
Canadian law states that the age of consent is the legal age when a person can make a decision to have sexual intercourse. By law, 16 year olds 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 can consent to sex if the partner is less than 5 years older.
- 12 and 13 year olds can 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.
Sexting and the Law
- It is illegal to:
- create sexual images/ videos of anyone younger than 18 years old (including a video a person creates themselves). This is considered child pornography.
- possess child pornography, i.e., to save child pornography (on a phone, computer or other device)
- distribute child pornography, i.e., sell or share images/ videos. This includes showing it to people, forwarding it, or posting it to the internet.
How to Respond to a Sexual Assault Disclosure
Here are some supportive things you can do when a student discloses a sexual assault to you:
- Listen: Stay calm and give them your full attention. Let them know you heard what they told you.
- Believe: Believe what they told you. Say, “I believe you.” Disclosing an assault takes courage and strength.
- Be compassionate. You can say, “You didn’t deserve this”.
- Stress that it’s not their fault. Survivors usually blame themselves. Remind them that the perpetrator is the one responsible for the sexual assault.
- Know where to get help. You can call your local distress phone number or sexual assault support agency.
In Canada, the teacher must report the assault if the person is less than 18 years old. Speak to your administrator and/or local sexual assault agency about how to report a child sexual assault.
For more information about sexual assault, go to Additional Resources.