Outreach: What is consent?


Happy September! With schools being back in session, new relationships may be a possibility for many students. That makes now a great time to think about consent!

The term “consent” is frequently used when discussing healthy relationships, but there is no one definition for how to give consent; deciding what is consensual may become a difficult task.

In general, consent can be viewed as an agreement between people to do something. But what does consent really look like? Is there one “right” way to get and give consent? Here are five tips if you are questioning what is and is not consensual behavior:

1. Consent can look different for everyone. Think about pasta, for example. One person may automatically visualize elbow noodles with marinara sauce served in a bowl, whereas someone else may think about fettuccine with alfredo sauce served on a plate. Both of these dishes are considered to be pasta, but they are also very different. For some people, giving consent can be as simple as a head nod, but for others, more verbal communication may be necessary. Having an open conversation with a partner about how you both like to give consent is always a definite way to know what to look for.

2. Consent can have different meanings depending on the situation and context. A verbal “sure” may be someone’s way of giving consent if they would like to get food but saying “sure” may not be someone’s way of giving consent if they wish to partake in a physical relationship; consent should be clear, exact communication. If you are unsure of whether someone is giving consent in a particular situation, ask them to clarify.

3. Just because someone gives consent once, doesn’t mean they will always give consent. One day, someone may agree to do something, but the next day they may not want to do that thing again. It is important to ask for consent any time you want to do something with a partner.  Even if you think they will give consent, it is always best to ask just in case. They may decide they do not want to do something they have done before, which is why it is crucial to ask.

4. Consent cannot be given if someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, asleep, or unconscious. When someone is intoxicated, their ability to make decisions is impacted. Drinking alcohol or doing drugs often leads people to make impulsive choices, many of which they later regret and would not have made if they were sober. Additionally, if a person is asleep or unconscious, they are entirely unable to make decisions. Therefore, if even basic decisions cannot be made, consent cannot be given.

5. “No” means “no.” At the end of the day, if someone says “no,” they are not giving consent. Even if someone gives consent days before something and then changes their mind the day of, they are still not giving consent. Forcing someone to do something after they have said “no” is not consensual behavior and can lead to other serious problems. Respecting someone’s choice not to do something is always the right thing to do in these situations. When you find yourself questioning consent, consider these tips and remember the importance of consent in healthy relationships.

Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer programs to youth ages 5 to 21, parents and families, in a welcoming, supportive environment. 412-561-5405. This column is partially underwritten by the Mt. Lebanon Police Association.