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Understanding Sexual Consent and The Law
Understanding Sexual Consent and The Law
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Understanding Sexual Consent and The Law

Youth

Sexual consent is when people agree to engage in certain sexual behaviors. They can express their consent by saying, “Yes, that’s okay with me.” Just because someone doesn’t say “no,” it doesn’t mean consent has been given. Asking for consent and giving consent for any sexual behavior is required. You have the right to say “no” to any behavior that you do not want to engage in at any point, for any reason, and your partner must respect your decision. Your partner also has the right to say “no” to any behavior at any point, for any reason, and you must respect their decision. Consent must be given willingly. If a person is forced or pressured to consent to any type of behavior, that’s not consent. Consenting to a certain behavior at one point does not mean that a person automatically consents to that same behavior the next time they see their partner. Consent must be given each time you engage in a sexual behavior with someone. If you are ever unsure whether a person is consenting, ask them.

 

In order for people to consent to sexual behaviors, they must be able to consent, which means they are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol and are at an age at which the law says they can consent. Each state in the U.S. has a different age at which a person can consent to sexual behaviors. The age of consent is between 16 and 18 years old, depending on which state you live in. If a person at or over the age of consent engages in sexual behaviors with a person under the age of consent, this would be considered statutory rape, regardless of the gender of the two people or whether the younger person agreed to the behaviors. Some states have what are called “Romeo and Juliet laws,” which do not consider sexual behavior between two young people who are close in age statutory rape. Age-of-consent laws are not meant to punish young people, but to protect them from adults who might hurt or take advantage of them. It’s a good idea to get familiar with the laws in your state.

 

A young person who is under the age of consent should also seek the support of trusted adults or health care professionals at a health center if they need a pregnancy or STD test. Many states allow young people—including those who are minors—to get contraception or STD testing without parental consent. You can call a health center to find out if they provide confidential and free services for young people.

FAQs

How do I know if it is okay to kiss my partner?

It can definitely be confusing to know when you can and can’t kiss someone you like.  The only way to know for sure if you can kiss your partner or engage in any sexual behaviors with them is to ask them each and every time. This is called getting their consent. It is very common to think that your partner may be into kissing or another sexual behavior by the way they are acting, but just because someone is acting a certain way, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to engage in a behavior.

If my partner says “yes” to kissing, does that mean I can touch their breasts and/or genitals?

Just because a person consents to kissing, it doesn’t mean that they are consenting to all sexual behaviors. It may seem like they want to go further or engage in other behaviors, but the only way to know for sure is to ask for consent. It is important to communicate with your partner about what behaviors they want to engage in each and every time.

Can someone consent if they have been drinking or using drugs?

It can be confusing if someone is saying “yes” to sexual behaviors when they have been drinking or using drugs. The one thing to remember is that since these substances can interfere with people’s ability to make a decision, they are not able to consent, even if they are saying “yes.” So if someone engages in sexual behaviors with someone who has been drinking or using drugs, this is considered sexual assault—even if they asked for consent first.

Parents

Parents and guardians can help their children understand what it means to respect another person’s boundaries. Many parents are already teaching this important lesson when they help their children understand if a friend doesn’t want to play right now or perhaps doesn’t want to be hugged. As young people begin puberty, it is important that they understand that sexual consent means that both people actively and verbally agree to sexual behaviors. Sexual behavior means many things to different people and is generally a lot more than just oral, anal or vaginal sex. It can include touching, rubbing and many other behaviors that people might find pleasurable. If both people do not say “yes,” then consent has not been given. Trying to persuade someone into saying “yes” when they are not sure or do not want to have sex is not consent. It is called sexual coercion.

 

Young people should also understand that they and their partners have the right to change their mind about what they do or do not want to do at any time. This means that even if they are engaging in sexual acts with a person and their partner changes their mind, they must stop whatever they are doing and respect their partner’s wishes. Not respecting those wishes could be crossing the line into illegal behavior. They should also know that consent must also be given each time they engage in a sexual behavior with someone. Consenting to a certain behavior at one point does not mean that a person automatically consents to that same behavior the next time they see their partner.

 

Understanding consent is not only about respecting other people’s boundaries, but being very clear about if and when a person can consent to sexual behaviors. If a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they cannot legally give consent. Engaging in sexual behaviors with someone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol is considered rape. It is important that parents and guardians also speak with their children about the fact that a person must be a certain age to legally consent to sexual behaviors. This age is called the “age of consent,” and age-of-consent laws vary from state to state. The age of consent is between 16 and 18 years old, depending on which state you live in. If a person at or over the age of consent engages in sexual behaviors with a person under the age of consent, this would be considered statutory rape, regardless of the gender of the two people or whether the younger person agreed to the behaviors. Some states have what are called “Romeo and Juliet laws,” which do not consider sexual behavior between two young people who are close in age statutory rape.

 

Parents and guardians can help their children understand that age-of-consent laws are not meant to punish young people, but to protect them from adults who might hurt or take advantage of them. Parents and guardians can research the laws in their state with their teenage children to learn more.

 

Adults should also make it very clear that a person who has been sexually assaulted is never at fault and should tell a trusted adult if they have been assaulted. Clearly communicating this message can ensure that young people feel safe coming to their parents, guardians or other trusted adults.

 

CONVERSATION STARTERS

If you start essential conversations about topics like consent with your children, then they will know they can come to you with questions. The easiest way to start these conversations is to talk about issues as they come up in everyday life, like while watching shows or movies together.

 

Consent is unique in that it can be discussed and demonstrated in many non-sexual situations in everyday life. Using each other’s belongings and giving hugs or kisses are just a couple of opportunities to demonstrate consent with your child.

 

Here are some ways to start these conversations:

Ask your child if you can hug or kiss them

When you want to hug or kiss your child, getting your child’s permission first is a great way to demonstrate consent. If this is not something you have done in the past, you can explain why you are asking for their consent and begin the discussion about why it is important to gain consent—especially in sexual situations.

Bring up consent while watching shows or movies

If you are watching a show or movie where two people are kissing or about to kiss, you can use this as an opportunity to ask your child if the people kissing consented to that behavior. You could also ask what someone should do if they are not sure their partner is consenting.

Educators

Educators play an important role in ensuring their students understand that sexual consent means that both people actively and verbally agree to sexual behaviors. Sexual behavior means many things to different people and is generally a lot more than just oral, anal or vaginal sex. It can include touching, rubbing and many other behaviors that people might find pleasurable. If both people do not say “yes,” then consent has not been given. Trying to persuade someone into saying “yes” when they are not sure or do not want to have sex is not consent. It is called sexual coercion.

 

Educators can also make sure their students understand that they and their partners have the right to change their mind about what they do or do not want to do at any time. This means that even if they are engaging in sexual acts with a person and their partner changes their mind, they must stop whatever they are doing and respect their partner’s wishes. Not respecting those wishes could be crossing the line into illegal behavior. They should also know that consent must also be given each time they engage in a sexual behavior with someone. Consenting to a certain behavior at one point does not mean that a person automatically consents to that same behavior the next time they see their partner.

 

Understanding consent is not only about respecting other people’s boundaries, but being very clear about if and when a person can consent to sexual behaviors. If a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they cannot legally give consent. Engaging in sexual behaviors with someone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol is considered rape. A person must also be a certain age to be able to legally give consent. This age is called the “age of consent,” and age-of-consent laws vary from state to state.

 

Students should also be aware of age-of-consent laws in their state. The age of consent is between 16 and 18 years old, depending on which state you live in. If a person at or over the age of consent engages in sexual behaviors with a person under the age of consent, this would be considered statutory rape, regardless of the gender of the two people or whether the younger person agreed to the behaviors. Some states have “Romeo and Juliet laws,” which do not consider sexual behavior between two young people who are close in age statutory rape. Age-of-consent laws are not meant to punish young people, but to protect them from adults who might hurt or take advantage of them. Educators can help their students understand the laws in their state related to sexual consent and the age of consent.

 

Adults should also make it very clear that a person who has been sexually assaulted is never at fault and should tell a trusted adult if they have been assaulted. Clearly communicating this message can ensure that young people feel safe coming to you or another trusted adult.

Discussion Questions

After watching the video with your class, process it using the following discussion questions:
  • How does the video describe what age of consent is?
  • Why are age-of-consent laws important?
  • What are some ways a young person could learn more about age-of-consent laws in their state?
  • What could a person who is under the age of consent do if they need a pregnancy or STD test?