Please note: Entries within this blog may contain references to instances of domestic abuse, dating abuse, sexual assault, abuse or harassment. At all times, Break the Cycle encourages readers to take whatever precautions necessary to protect themselves emotionally and psychologically.  If you would like to speak with an advocate, please contact a 24/7 peer advocate at 866-331-9474  or text “loveis” to 22522.

Back to School: Defining Consent in Sexual Relationships

The idea of sexual consent continues to dominate the news. California and New York have recently signed or are in the middle of discussions on “yes means yes” bills, which would require both partners to give “affirmative consent” before performing sexual acts with each other. Over for the mishandling of sexual assault cases on campus. And recent reports show that 1 in 5 college women experience sexual assault.

So what is the exact definition of “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse”, and “rape”? It varies depending on each state, and the wording can be confusing since states may use different words to mean the same thing. RAINN has a resourceful State Law Database to help guide you through definitions based on the state you live in.

How can you determine if an incident is actually sexual assault? Ask the following questions:

  • Are both participants involved in the act old enough to consent? Each state has a different “age of consent” defined as the minimum age someone has to be in order to consent to sexual activity. So, even if a teenager says “yes,” their state law may dictate that they cannot legally agree to have sex.
  • Can both people legally agree to consent? If someone is drunk, drugged or unconscious, they do not have the legal ability to consent to sex. Each definition varies by state, so it’s important to check the law.
  • Did both people agree to take part in the consent? If a partner proceeded with a sexual activity but the other said no, it’s not consensual sex. It doesn’t matter if one person thought the other meant yes or if sex already began, or if a person did not resist physically – it is still not consensual.

Sexual assault victims often know the person who is assaulting them, but it doesn’t matter if the person using abusive behaviors is an ex-partner, a stranger, an acquaintance, a past dating “hook up”, a date, or a current dating partner. If it is not consensual in that moment, it is sexual assault. It also doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t remember the assault, as memory loss can happen if a person digests “rape drugs” like GHB. Furthermore, if alcohol or drugs were involved, it’s not an excuse. It’s also important to remember that every act requires consent. Even if two partners have engaged in some kind of sexual activity, that does not mean all sexual activity is allowed.

How do you figure out consent in the moment? Ask. This eliminates uncertainty. Even if it seems awkward, it’s not. Asking for consent every step of the way means engaging in open and honest communication between both partners. If a partner seems hesitant or uncomfortable, stop immediately. In healthy relationships, both partners gauge what’s okay and reassure the other it’s okay if they don’t want to do anything or don’t want to perform a specific sexual act.

If you’re unsure whether you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call one of our trained peer advocates at 1.888.331.9474 or contact the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE). Both are free and available 24/7.