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Why consent is important, and how to ask for it

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

Two men sit on a park bench, one resting his shoulder on the other lovingly

We usually think of consent in a romantic or sexual context, where it’s absolutely essential. But consent is important in other situations, too.

When two people interact in a personal or professional setting, they should agree on activities before they move forward. Consent applies in larger groups, too: When a group decides on something together, each person should be able to consent to the plan.

Asking for and getting consent creates a safe space for everybody to choose freely. And when you practice asking for, obtaining, and giving consent in everyday life, it becomes easier to build healthy relationships based on mutual respect, trust, and understanding.

Consent means freely agreeing to go along with someone else’s proposal, plan, or desire. We can offer consent in different ways, not all of them verbal.

These are some common ways to express consent:

  • Verbal consent can range from a simple “yes” to enthusiastic agreement.
  • Nonverbal consent can include body language, facial expressions, and gestures we use to clearly communicate we’re comfortable with what’s going on. Examples include nodding your head or giving a thumbs-up.
  • Implied consent is a legal term. It describes situations where our actions clearly show we’re willing to do something.
  • Written consent—such as signing a contract or agreement—is often used in legal or official settings where documentation is needed.

What consent doesn’t look like

When communication isn’t clear, it can be hard to know if consent has actually been given. Things that do not constitute consent include:

  • Silence or no response: Not saying “no” isn’t the same thing as saying “yes.”
  • Relenting under pressure: Genuine consent can’t be given if someone feels forced or intimidated into something.
  • Incapacitation: If someone is asleep, intoxicated, or otherwise impaired—for example, if they have a condition that limits their ability to understand situations or make decisions—they can’t give consent.
  • Vague words or body language: Consent needs to be affirmative, enthusiastic, and clear. If someone’s body language isn’t consistent with what they’re saying, it’s not safe to assume they’ve consented.
  • Lack of information: Consent requires understanding what you’re agreeing to. If relevant details aren’t shared fully with you, you can’t give informed consent.
  • Conditional consent: “Yes, if…” or “Only if…” responses don’t constitute unconditional consent.
  • Assumed consent: You can’t assume someone is okay with an activity based on their appearance, behavior, clothing, or other attributes. They need to expressly agree to it.
  • Past consent: Saying yes to something once doesn’t mean it will always be okay. Consent needs to be given each time people engage in an activity together.

When you need someone’s consent

Consent is always vital in sexual situations, but there are many other scenarios that require it, such as:

  • Entering someone’s home or personal space
  • Making physical contact
  • Giving someone else permission to act on your behalf
  • Taking and sharing photos or videos
  • Sharing personal information or data
  • Opening an account with a financial institution
  • Donating blood, tissue, organs, or bone marrow
  • Having a medical procedure
  • Participating in a clinical trial or research study
  • Accessing private land or property

Keep in mind that if you feel uncomfortable with something that requires your consent, you can always say “no” without explanation. You have the right to refuse things that don’t feel okay.

Why consent can be confusing

There’s a lot of confusion about consent, mostly due to different ideas about what it looks like. This can come down to:

Lack of awareness and education: Many people aren’t taught about consent by their family, in school, or in other settings where these conversations should be taking place.

Misinterpretation: Consent is nuanced, especially in sexual relationships. People can mistakenly think that certain “gray area” situations are consensual when they’re not.

Cultural norms: Cultures and regions can have different beliefs and laws about what constitutes consent and when it is or isn’t needed. In Saudi Arabia, for example, consent is required from a woman’s legal male guardian before she can get married.1 And in multiple US states, minors must have a parent’s consent to end an unwanted pregnancy.2

Power dynamics: When one person has more power than another in a relationship—such as an employer and employee, in a workplace example—the less powerful person may feel pressured to consent to something they don’t want to do because they feel obligated, guilty, or afraid. This makes it hard to recognize true consent, and even harder for the person who’s giving consent to feel safe.

The difference between coercion and consent

Coercion is the use of force, intimidation, threats, or manipulation to make someone do something they don’t want to do. True consent, on the other hand, is agreement that a person gives freely, without pressure or influence. It also requires them to understand what they’re agreeing to. Distinguishing between coercion and consent is important, and it can sometimes determine whether an act is legal.

The consequences of not getting consent

In certain situations, not getting consent can have serious legal consequences, such as charges of assault, sexual assault, or statutory rape.

United States law recognizes that all sexual activity with people under a certain age is coercive, because children don’t have the capacity or power to meaningfully consent to it. In Massachusetts, for instance, the legal age of consent to have sex is 16, meaning anyone under 16 can’t legally give consent.3

Along with legal consequences, failing to obtain consent—particularly for sexual activity—can cause significant social and personal damage. It can harm relationships and traumatize victims.

Intoxication and consent

When someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, their judgment and decision-making abilities may be too impaired for them to fully grasp the situation or the outcome of their actions. This can make it difficult for them to provide genuine consent—especially when it comes to sex.

If someone is too intoxicated, impaired, or incapacitated to give meaningful consent, any sexual activity that happens can be considered nonconsensual and may be considered sexual assault or rape.4 However, in many states, intoxicated victims must be involuntarily intoxicated to be considered incapacitated or impaired, meaning they must have been given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge or consent.5 If someone voluntarily drinks or takes drugs and then engages in sexual activity, proving incapacity can be more challenging.

How to ask for consent

The best way to obtain consent is by directly asking for it and ensuring the other person understands exactly what they’re saying yes to. Look for enthusiastic agreement to proceed—not just a lack of refusal or a vague response.

The examples in the advice below focus on sexual situations, but these general tips can help you ask for consent in other settings as well.

Be specific. Explain exactly what’s being asked. For example, ask “Do you want to have sex?” rather than just “Do you want to?”

Look for enthusiastic agreement. Although consent is about making an agreement, look for active agreement and willingness to proceed—not just the absence of “no.”

Pay attention to body language and tone of voice. Look for positive affirmation in addition to verbal consent. For example, if someone says “yes” in a hesitant, fearful, or pressured tone of voice, that’s a sign consent may not be freely given.

Be aware of intoxication and power dynamics. If someone is intoxicated, impaired, or in a vulnerable state or position relative to you, don’t assume they can give meaningful consent. Avoid engaging in sexual activity in these situations.

Respect limits and comfort levels. If someone consents to one sexual act but not another, respect their limits. Don’t pressure someone into any sexual activity they aren’t comfortable with.

Make sure consent is ongoing. A person can always withdraw their consent at any time. If someone continues with a sexual activity after consent has been withdrawn, it can be considered sexual assault or rape. Consent should be ongoing throughout any sexual activity, so continue to pay attention to the other person’s signals and obtain consent before new activities. If consent is withdrawn, all activity needs to stop immediately.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of nonconsensual sexual activity, it’s important to get help. Call 911 if there’s immediate danger, or report the incident to local law enforcement by calling or visiting the station.

For immediate support, contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline by calling 800-656-4673 or starting a RAINN live chat. You can also get in touch with a licensed therapist who can provide personal guidance and support.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.