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What is consent?

  • For the purposes of sexual activity, consent is “voluntary agreement […] to engage in the sexual activity in question” (Government of Canada, 2021).
  • A number of situations in which consent is not possible are discussed below, under the headings “Can anyone consent at any time?” and “Can I talk someone into consent?”.

Why do we talk about consent when we talk about preventing sexual violence?

If anyone involved in a sexual encounter does not consent, the encounter has crossed a line into sexual violence. This is why the term “consent” appears in Canadian sexual assault law; university SV/SA policies; and in sexual violence prevention and response, generally.

How can you tell if someone consents?

It is important to pay attention to how an intimate partner, or someone you hope will become an intimate partner, is feeling.

Someone might communicate consent or non-consent with:

[~] Their words

[~] Their silence

[~] Their body’s movement, stillness, tension, or relaxation

[~] Their facial expression

Consent cannot be assumed based anything other than a clear expression of willingness. For example consent cannot be assumed based on the fact that someone is:

[~] Your spouse or partner

[~] Wearing “sexy” or “revealing” clothing

[~] On a date with you

[~] Out partying

[~] Drunk or high

A person who is drunk or high may not be able to consent.

Everyone is free to stop consenting at any time.

[~] The fact that someone has consented to one sexual activity does not mean they consent to another activity.

[~] The fact that someone has consented to a sexual activity in the past does not mean they will consent to it again.


Can anyone consent at any time?

In some situations, consent is not possible. If you engage in sexual activity with someone who cannot consent, this is considered sexual assault under Canadian law and within your university SV/SA policy. Here are some examples of situations when people cannot consent:

  • Someone who is asleep or unconscious cannot consent.
  • Someone who has used alcohol or drugs may not be able to consent.
  • A person cannot consent in advance; consent must be ongoing.
  • Consent cannot be obtained by “abusing a position of trust, power, or authority” (Government of Canada, 2021).
  • Canadian laws say that you must be at least sixteen to consent to any sexual activity, with some exceptions (Government of Canada, 2017):
    • People under sixteen can consent to sexual activity with others who are close enough to them in age. The law includes specific age ranges within which people under sixteen can consent to sexual activity.
    • You need to be at least eighteen to consent to sexual activities where certain kinds of power differences exist between the people involved.
    • It is illegal to produce sexually explicit representations of people under the age of eighteen. This is considered child pornography.
    • You can find out more about what Canadian laws say about age of consent at this Government of Canada (2017) link:
    • Some adults with disabilities may be considered incapable of consenting to sexual activity.
      • This aspect of the law can be seen as problematic by disabled people or their allies on the grounds that disabled people should have the freedom to consent to sexual activity (Wilkerson, 2002; Santinele-Martino, 2019).
    • A person “cannot consent to intentional infliction of bodily harm” (Sheehy, 2014).
      • This aspect of the law can be seen as problematic by BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism) practitioners or their allies. It can be argued that people who enjoy sexual activities viewed as harmful should have the freedom to consent to these activities (Luksic, 2015).
  • Can I talk someone into consent?
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  • Consent is not something you should try to get from someone who isn’t already willing and eager to engage sexually.
  • Consent has to come voluntarily from the person who gives it. It can’t be voluntary if it follows pressure or force.
  • Consent cannot be obtained through coercion, threat, fraud, or from badgering someone.
  • The best approach is never to assume consent and always to pay attention to whether the other person or people are happy and willing to engage in the sexual activities.