These Things Are Not Consent
by Mia Mercado
Couple hugging on sunny day outside
janiecbros/E+/Getty Images

As a culture, consent continues to be a concept that is more complicated than “no means no.” Through its simplest definition, the idea is that an enthusiastic “yes” is the only thing that begets consent. However, ensuring we are all on the same page about consent remains far from simple as evidenced by a recent study that shows many are still unclear about what is and what is not consent.

The study, conducted by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in partnership with YouGov, found that men and young adults are less aware about what constitutes sexual assault. The NSVRC conducted the poll online, surveying 1,221 adults over a two-day period. Overall, the study found a high awareness regarding sexual assault by its most direct definition, with 84 percent of respondents recognizing that sexual intercourse without a partner’s consent is sexual assault. Eighty-three percent of people surveyed also recognized that non-consensual touching is also sexual assault. However, there is still a disparity among men and women, particularly young men, when it comes to recognizing other forms of sexual misconduct.

As the study states, “Within each category, 18-34-year-olds are less likely than older adults, and men are less likely than women, to view an action as sexual assault.” This gap is the largest when we look at how men and women view voyeurism, sexual coercion, and verbal harassment.

Seventy-two percent of women said watching someone in private without their knowledge is assault. Only 56 percent of men said the same. Less men than women see coerced sex as assault (67 percent of men versus 79 percent of women). Verbal harassment and unwanted remarks are also less likely to be seen as a violation among men (48 percent view it as assault versus 60 percent of women).

This disparity in how we view sexual assault undoubtedly has much to do with the issue of consent, specifically what it is and when you need it. So, let's be clear here: Consent is required essentially any time you are doing something that involves another person. From sex to, say, drinking tea, an enthusiastic “yes” is what constitutes an act being consensual; what's more, consent can be revoked at any time, and if it is, then the right course of action is to stop whatever it is you're doing that required consent in the first place.

As the study above suggests, there is still cultural confusion on what is not a consensual act. For starters, being in a position of power complicates consent. However, having power or being “a star” does not “let” you do anything with another person (ahem). Again, an enthusiastic “yes” is the only thing that means “yes.” Here 10 ten other things that do not imply consent.


What A Person Is Wearing

An outfit cannot give consent. How much or how little a person is wearing does not entitle another person to engaging in any activity with them.

Let's look at an example of this in a non-sexual setting:

Person A: “Why would you dress like that if you didn’t want to chop down a tree?”

Person B: “This is just a flannel shirt and wearing it does not imply that I am down to lumberjack. Also, there aren’t even any trees in this bowling alley.”


How A Person Is Acting

For example, dancing provocatively is not an invitation to be touched without consent. Instead of "interpreting" a person's actions, ask first. Communication is key to consent.

Here’s an example in a non-sexual setting:

Person A: “What do you mean you don’t want a bone? You were just acting like a dog.”

Person B: “We were playing charades, and I am not a literal dog. Also, why are you carrying around loose meat bones?”


Assumptions Based On What A Person Has Consented To Before

Saying "yes" to one person one time does not imply a "yes" to every person every time. What a person has consented to in the past does not mean they have to say "yes" again in the future.

Here’s an example in a non-sexual setting:

Person A: “You told me you borrowed Kevin’s parka every day for a month, so why won’t you borrow my parka right now?”

Person B: “Because I don’t want to borrow your parka right now. Also, it’s 85 degrees out.”


Consent To A Different Activity

Someone can be down for some heavy petting but not into, like, baby carrot play (although if you're both into baby carrot play and have consent enthusiastically, then by all means, go forth). What I'm trying to say is there is no linear pathway of consenting sexual acts. Someone consenting to Thing A, B, C, D, and E does not mean they are down to F.

Here’s an example in a non-sexual setting:

Person A: “We already ran one mile. Why don’t you want to finish an entire 26.2-mile marathon with me?”

Person B: “I only wanted to run one mile. Also, my body can’t physically do that.”


Consent At A Different Time

Again, saying "yes" once, twice, or every other time before does not mean it's a "yes" right now.

Here’s an example in a non-sexual setting:

Person A: “You saw Smash Mouth with me in 1999, which means you have see them with me now.”

Person B: “No, it doesn’t. Also, how did you even know they’re still touring?”


Consenting To Something Then Changing Your Mind

Consent to something at an earlier time, even if that time was moments ago, does not imply consent in the moment. If someone is not comfortable and wants to stop, they are no longer giving consent regardless of how far things have gone.

Here’s an example in a non-sexual setting:

Waiter, taking an order: “What do you mean you ‘only want a burger’ now? I just wrote down that you wanted fries, too. You can’t just change your mind like that.”

Customer: “All I mean is that I no longer want fries right now. Also, I’m leaving and going to Chipotle.”



This is where power affects consent. Making someone feel threatened, guilty, or otherwise pressured can make them feel like saying "no" isn't an option. As the NSVRC states “sexual intercourse where one of the partners is pressured to give their consent” is assault. Coerced sex is not consensual sex.

Here’s an example in a non-sexual setting:

Person A: “You have to hold my pet snake otherwise he’ll be so, so sad and never forgive you.”

Person B: “You can’t guilt me into holding your pet snake. Also, snakes don’t have the emotional capacity for things like sadness or forgiveness.”


A “Yes” From Someone Who Is Unable Give Consent

If a person is drunk, sleeping, unconscious, a minor, or otherwise unable to fully understand what is happening, they cannot consent. This remains true regardless of whether they have already said “yes.” A person who isn't aware of what's going on (e.g. because they're drunk) or is underage cannot consent.

Here’s an example in a non-sexual setting:

Person A: “You said you wanted me to braid your hair.”

Person B: “That was on Wednesday when I was awake. It’s now Friday and I was literally just sleeping.”


Not Saying Anything At All

Silence is not a "yes." In many instances, victims of sexual assault don't say anything during their assault. Because of fear or feeling they don't have the choice, a person may remain silent and that act remains nonconsensual.

Here’s an example in a non-sexual setting:

Person A: “You didn’t say you were choking.”

Person B: “I physically could not have done that.”


Anything Other Than An Enthusiastic “Yes”

In addition to being enthusiastic, consent is continuous. If you want to make sure someone is comfortable, just ask. And make sure they feel OK to say “no,” even if they were just saying "yes" a minute ago. A better understanding of consent begets a better understanding of when something is not consensual. The sooner we address that, the closer we can get to ending sexual assault.