How to have safe sex: the importance of consent - Play Safe
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Before having sex, it’s important you have your partner’s consent, and that you give yours too. In this article we explore the who, what, when, where, how, and why of consent. We also look at the differences between consent and coercion.

Consent starts with a person knowing and understanding what they’re taking part in. Before having sex or performing any sexual activities you – and the person you’re with – need to understand what you’re consenting to. Without consent, there’s no sex.

What is consent?

Consent is a free and voluntary agreement that can be withdrawn at any point by either partner. When you consent to something, it means you understand what’s happening, and you agree that you’re happy with that choice. Consent is the most important first step when it comes to sex. It makes sex mutual, safe and a happy and enjoyable experience for both/all parties.

Why do I need consent?

Each person is responsible for asking for gaining the consent of the other person. Why is consent important? It shows that you respect their body, their boundaries, their feelings, their decisions and their choices. Consent is also important because it shows the person you’re with is happy and comfortable with sex and any sexual activities.

But did you know that consent is also a legal requirement? It is against the law to have sex with someone, or perform a sex act with someone who has NOT given their consent. This is to protect your right to say no.
“Consent cannot be coerced or forced.”

Remember, if someone has not given their consent, it’s sexual assault.

For more on the legalities of consent, visit the Lawstuff website.

What are the types of consent?

Think about consent as an enthusiastic “YES!”. If you’re not sure, never assume the person agrees. And, if you haven’t given consent, they shouldn’t assume you have either. It’s also important that consent is continuous. If someone changes their mind – they have withdrawn their consent. It’s that simple.

Read the A to Z of sexual lingo if you want more definitions here.

What is enthusiastic consent?

Enthusiastic consent sounds like “YES!” to all questions around taking part in sexual activities. If you don’t hear a clear yes – it may be best to pause and check everyone’s comfortable. Consent may be different for everyone but it should be clear, enthusiastic and certain. Any umming or ahhhing is not consent.

What is informed consent for sex?

Whether you’re in a long-term monogamous relationship or dating multiple people, communication is key to a great sex life. Try to encourage open and honest conversations about your expectations and your boundaries, and listen carefully to your partner too.

For truly great sex, you should be comfortable enough to tell your partner what you like and don’t like, and vice versa. After all, no one can read minds, so telling (or showing) someone what you like is the only way they’ll know.

Informed consent means there needs to be nothing stopping you, or the person/s that are taking part in sexual experiences, understands what they are taking part in and that you or they agree.

What are some reasons someone may be unable to consent?

Sometimes, people can’t understand what’s going on, which means they’re not able to give consent. If you’re in a situation where you’re not 100% sure the person you’re with has given consent, it’s best to put off having sex (or doing any sexual activities) until you and they are able to consent properly.
Informed consent cannot be given if:

  • You/they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol and are unable to say no
  • You/they are passed out, unconscious or are experiencing sexual assault
  • You/they are being coerced
  • You/they are being tricked
  • you/they are intimidated and feel too scared to say no, perhaps due to fear of 
- violence 
- that someone will say private or damaging things 
- that someone will share private or damaging information, photos, or videos 
- that someone will withhold money, access to medical treatment, care or other crucial support
  • The number of people wanting to have sex makes you/they too scared to refuse or resist
  • You/they are under the age of 16 years old (or 17 in Tasmania or South Australia). Find out more about the age of consent here.

When do I need consent?

You need consent every single time that you have sex or take part in a sexual act with someone. Even if your partner consented yesterday, you still need their consent today (and every other day). As we’ve said above, you also need consent to be continuous.

How do I get consent?

This is up to you and the circumstances at the time, but to be sure, it’s always best to ask someone directly. Listen and respect the person’s decision either way. Create a safe environment for them to say no if they want to, without being worried about your reaction.

What if my partner is unsure, but I think I could change their mind?

Consent is not your decision – neither of you owe each other sex. Uncertainty doesn’t mean they need convincing, it’s the cue for you to stop and listen to their answer and to respect this.
If you’re not sure, watch this video which explains consent is just like making a good cuppa.

What if my partner consents… but then they change their mind?

Everyone is allowed to change their mind at any time, even when they’re naked, or midway through sex. If you or they have a change of mind, then consent has gone. Remember, it is illegal to have sex or continue sex without consent.

What is the difference between consent and coercion?

Sexual coercion is when you feel pressured, tricked or threatened into sexual activity.  It can just be the words someone uses to make you think you have to have sex with them. But no one ever has the right to push you into touching, kissing or sex. When you say no, it always means no.

Often when it comes to coercion, the person has power over you (someone like a teacher, landlord, boss or colleague). But it can be anyone, a friend, partner, a date, a stranger – although it’s more likely to happen with someone you already have some relationship with (and perhaps they’re abusing that position of trust).
If you are being pressured into doing something sexual that you’re not okay with, this is sexual assault and it’s against the law.

What does coercion look like?

Sexual coercion can look or sound different depending on the situation. Remember, if someone makes you feel pressured or uncomfortable, and you feel like you can’t say no, this may be coercion. Sometimes this can happen even after you have already said no.

It can look like trying to wear you down by asking for sex, or sexual acts over and over again, outright threats, social pressure, emotional manipulation, badgering, guilt trips, denying affection, making you feel bad about yourself, insisting you have to follow through, over-the-top affection and compliments, not giving you the chance to say no, or making you feel obligated.

It may be that they make you feel like it’s too late to say no, you’re not allowed to change your mind; lying or threatening to spread rumours, photos or misinformation about you, making promises to reward you for sex, threatening you, or your job, home, school or career, threatening to reveal your sexual orientation.

“If you really loved me, you’d do it.”
“Come on; it’s my birthday.”
“You don’t know what you do to me.”
“Everyone thinks we already have, so you might as well.”
“I’ll tell everyone… [example] unless you agree [to do something sexual].”

Coercion is never okay.

Read more on how consent works here.

How can I respond in the moment to sexual coercion?

Sexual coercion is not your fault. If you feel pressured to do something you don’t want to do, you can choose to let the person know verbally or try to leave the situation. While it may not feel like this at the time, it’s better to take a moment to pause and really think about what you want, and say no, than to feel pressured to do something you don’t want to do (or you’re not sure you want to do). Be clear and firm. You could try:

“Okay, I’m not as into this as I thought before, I want to stop here.”
“Let’s take a break.”
“I’m not feeling well, I need to stop.”

If you are in danger call 000.

How can I get help after being sexually coerced?

Sexual coercion can also be a type of sexual violence. If someone has pressured you into doing something you don’t want to do, this is assault and you have every right to report this crime and press charges.
If you’re in a safe place and want to talk with someone about your experience you can contact a free confidential service, the numbers are below.

No matter your age, experience and what happened, this was not your fault and if you want to talk with someone about what happened, this can be a councillor, your local police or a trusted person who can help you make sure this doesn’t happen again.

If anything in this article has upset you, there is support available.

You can call a qualified sexual health nurse on 1800 451 624 between 9am and 5:30pm Monday to Friday. All calls are confidential and free when you call from a landline.

Lifeline Australia 13 11 14
A 24-hour crisis support service that provides short term support at any time for people who are having difficulty coping or staying safe.

Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
A free, private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25 years.

NSW Mental Health Line: 1800 011 511
Mental health crisis telephone service in NSW.

Do you have a different question about sex? You’re welcome to join the conversation on Play Safe sex and relationship forum (this is an open chat room that’s regulated by qualified experts) or ask Nurse Nettie a question. If you would like to find out more about STI testing and STI treatment in Sydney and NSW, you’ll find all the information you need here.