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What Is Consent?

Over the past year accusations of sexual harassment, assault and rape have flooded out of Hollywood and surrounded prominent figures such as Kevin Spacey, Louis CK and most notably Harvey Weinstein. Closer to home accusations have been brought against Ulster Rugby player Stuart Olding and Ireland fly-half Paddy Jackson, who are currently on trial for alleged assault and rape of a student at Jackson’s home in June 2016. At the heart of the case is whether or not the sex which took place that night was consensual, a defence which arises repeatedly in cases of sexual assault and rape. With consent being such a vitally important part of sex, it is essential to inform yourself on how to recognise it and respect it.

Consent is a mutual, verbal, physical and emotional agreement which happens without pressure, coercion or manipulation. When having sex consent must be an agreement between all parties involved and continuous for the duration of sex. Everyone has the right to change their mind during any sexual act and it is each individual’s responsibility to ensure their partners’ consent is enthusiastic, conscious and voluntary.

If you are unsure consent has been given before sex the most straightforward way to find out is to simply ask. If a partner is unresponsive to your touch, pushing away or protecting their bodies you should immediately stop and talk about it. If a partner seems quiet, upset or unenthusiastic and you think that you are getting mixed signals you should again stop and ask if they want to continue and if so, how far they want to go.

It is important to think about consent and challenge our attitudes towards it. You may mistake someone kissing or flirting with you as consent but just because someone has shown an interest in you this does not imply that they will want to take it any further. A partner agreeing to stay in your house or sleep in the same bed as you, again, does not mean that they have consented to do anything more than that. Consent needs to be given each time before sexual activity and although your partner may have consented before, they have not consented to any time after that.

The concept of consent can most often be blurred when alcohol is involved. When someone is drunk or on drugs they cannot legally give their consent. Alcohol affects people’s ability to make decisions, and sexual activity with someone who doesn’t know what is going on is rape. If you begin having sex with someone who seems willing but later begins to disengage, it is important that for both your safety you stop immediately.

If someone says no to having sex with you or changes their mind during sex you need to behave in a way which is respectful, polite and understanding. Using coercion or manipulation to persuade a partner to have sex or engage in sexual activity is wrong and does not equate to full consent. In respecting a partner and their decision to choose when and how they have sex with you, you create a consensual environment which is both physically and emotionally safe. We all have a responsibility to provide that environment to our partners and to ourselves.

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