Updated: MAY 25, 2023
Reviewed by Dr. Laura McGuire
on May 25, 2023

Consent is a holistic verbal and non-verbal agreement to any and all interpersonal interactions. It is often used in the context of sexual activity or other forms of touch, although many other types of consent exist.

For consent to be valid it must contain the following factors:

  1. Clear Comprehension: All parties engaging with one another must know and understand what they are and are not agreeing to. Any ambiguity can stand in the way of true consent, so time and attention must be paid to assuring that what each person is agreeing or not agreeing to is explained fully and any questions are answered upfront and throughout an interaction. Barriers to a clear comprehension of what is being requested may include differences in language fluency, challenges with auditory processing, and different understandings of the definition of terms or colloquialisms.

  2. Of Sound Mind and Body: Consent cannot be given when a person is not fully in control of their physical and mental faculties. Drugs, alcohol and other sensory inhibitors can change our comprehension of what we do or do not wish to do. Other factors can include being physically and mentally distracted or distraught, such as when we are confused, afraid, or exhausted. Waiting until all parties are rested, safe, calm and have their physical survival needs met before consenting is key.

  3. Balance of Power: Power dynamics are always a factor in interpersonal communication, and seeking to find partners and relationships that balance the scales is vital to consent. All parties must be of age to consent, and no person should have the power to control, punish, or evoke fear over the other. Any power imbalances must be openly discussed and concerns explored to ensure as much safety as possible. For example, if one person has power over the other person's job or earnings, the less economically stable party must be assured that economic safety is not going to be revoked as a consequence for not giving consent.

  4. Ongoing: Consent is not given with time constraints. Just because we say yes to something at one time does not mean we are saying yes to other interactions or that our consent cannot be revoked at any time. Consent must be renewed and affirmed both verbally and non-verbally throughout a moment or continual relationship.

  5. Enthusiasm: Consent is a full-body experience. If our yes is met with tense muscles or downcast eyes, we must pause and figure out where these physical signs stem from and address the root cause. True consent should be joyful, evoking a sense of excitement and peace throughout our nervous system. Paying attention to shifts in body language throughout any interaction is a cornerstone of being a consent-focused partner.

Other terms that are frequently heard around consent include:

  • Metaconsent: This is also known as consensual non-consent or blanket consent. This refers to consent that's given in advance for all activities that follow, both known and unknown. It may also refer to consent given to scenes where the submissive roleplays revoking consent. This term is most often used in trusting BDSM relationships.

  • Dynamic Consent: This refers to consent that focuses on ongoing communication. This factor must be present in any form of consent but is specifically discussed as to additional ways of affirming continual communication will be assured.

  • Informed Consent: Informed consent is a term that tends to be used in BDSM communities, where true consent may require knowledge and/or experience with a particular act, type of play or dynamic. Because some BDSM activities can cause physical or emotional trauma, injury or even death, it's essential that people understand the activities and their implications when giving consent to participate. Informed consent is a key part of BDSM negotiation, which should take place before all types of play.

  • Age of Consent: The age of consent is a standard that clarifies, often legally, when a person can consent to activities and when they are too young to fully understand what they are agreeing to in any serious context. This age is often steeped in controversy as ages are often picked without reflection on brain development and are culturally subjective. In North America, the general age of consent is between 16 and 18, though some activities can be consented to during the teen years if all parties involved are close in age. In a sexual context, if the age of consent is 18, this means that a person younger than 18 is considered legally unable to consent to sexual activity.

Although cultural views around consent have been evolving for years in the kink community, the term began to emerge in common culture in the late '90s and early 2000s. In more recent years, the #MeToo movement has helped evolve people's understanding of consent, particularly as it relates to the power imbalances in many sexual assaults.

More About Consent

Throughout history, across the globe, consent has often been discussed, but often only in ways that further rape culture. These conversations were often affirming those who did not have a right over their bodies or minds, creating a deeply rooted anti-consent culture that’s reverberations are still felt today. Acknowledging the impacts of things like colonization, homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism and ableism is required in order to discuss what the alternative to this can look and feel like.

A (Very) Brief History of Sexual Consent

It's important to note, however, that there are strong cultural examples of consent throughout history. In the rabbinical writings from the Mishneh Torah, for example, the factors that impact consent within marriage are explored. Consent when one is angry, drunk or forceful is forbidden. Even in the 12th century, scholars knew this to be the truth. Numerous indigenous communities around the world have been designated by anthropologists, like Peggy Sanday, as being rape-free. These cultures are known for sexual egalitarianism, sex-positive attitudes, and uplifting the voices of women/people assigned female at birth.

In the United States, affirmative consent was first defined by the queer and kinky community in the early 1980s. David Stein created the first official definition of consent for sexual engagement called Safe, Sane, and Consensual for the Gay Male S/M Activists in New York City in 1983. This definition paved the way for schools like Antioch College, which started the first on-campus consent programs. In 2011, under the Obama administration, this grew to become a standard for higher education institutions and these concepts continue to grow in the larger collective consciousness.

The kink community has led the way in forming the way that we talk about consent in all interactions, whether they're sexual, non-sexual or kinky. Yet, even in the kink community, boundaries can be crossed and power dynamics abused. For this reason, consent must be present before and during any interpersonal interaction, from getting someone’s number to setting a kinky scene. This is especially important for scenes that involve a high degree of physical or emotional risk. In these cases, some practitioners use written agreements or contracts, and safewords and signals are always recommended.

When There Isn't Consent or Consent Is Revoked

In certain situations, one cannot give consent, even when they are seeming to give an enthusiastic yes. Minors, those who are intoxicated, and those who are under the authority of someone in power cannot consent. That is why interactions with children, animals, people who are intoxicated and subordinates are never consensual.

Consent can be revoked at any time, so it's important to regularly check in, both verbally and non-verbally, during any interaction. A participant's "no," no matter how far into a scene one may be, must always be honored immediately.

Assuring that everyone is safe, physically and emotionally, is vital to consent being allowed to flourish. Part of this is verifying that everyone understands what is being agreed to. This includes answering questions that arise, sharing any potential risks and how they would be addressed, and acknowledging language or comprehension barriers. Showing images, videos, or exploring shared definitions of terminology all help to create a comprehensive consent dynamic.

In some relationships, the concept of consensual non-consent might be used. This is a deeply controversial and sensitive area of the consent conversation that must be explored with the greatest level of mindfulness. Those engaging in consensual non-consent state that they are giving full permission to a partner that they trust to do whatever they wish but feel sure they will only act in their best interest. Despite its name, consent, even if it exists in this framework, must always have the option of being revoked.

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