FRIES: Demystifying some myths and misconceptions about consent

What is consent?

In simple terms, consent means expressed permission or agreement for something to happen.

Consent is:

  • Freely given
  • Reversible
  • Informed
  • Enthusiastic
  • Specific

It is a crucial part of respecting boundaries, preserving dignity and building healthy relationships. Yet often, people find it confusing, and it gets misconstrued. Unless we explicitly talk about bodily consent, we cannot expect young people to learn about it as they grow. Below are a few myths and misconceptions that you may have heard.

Myths & Misconceptions:

Myth: You were assaulted because of what you were wearing

What you wear has nothing to do with consent and should never be seen as an invitation to be sexually assaulted. This is a misconception used to invalidate the experiences of survivors and blame them for the actions of the perpetrator. 

Myth: If you took drugs or drank alcohol, it was your fault 

Being drunk or high does not mean that sexual assault is your fault, nor does it mean that you deserved it. Under UK law, you cannot give your consent voluntarily, and unambiguously if you are incoherent or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. If you’re ever not quite sure if someone is able to give their consent because of drugs or alcohol then do not engage in sex with them. 

Myth: Being wet or erect counts as consent 

We cannot say it enough. Consent is a verbal expression of yes! Arousal is not consent. It is a perfectly normal physical response to stimulation whether consensual or not.  If you experience this during an assault then it does not invalidate what happened to you, and it certainly does not mean that you enjoyed it. It is also important to note that if you notice someone is erect or wet, that does not act as consent and the usual rules of consent still apply. 

Myth: Consent can’t be withdrawn

Consent is ongoing and can be withdrawn at any time! Also, if you consent to one act, it does not automatically mean that consent has been given for another. Similarly, consent today is not consent for tomorrow. Research has shown that less than half of people thought it was okay to withdraw consent once someone has taken off their clothes. Whether you’re naked, halfway through or only just about to get started, you can say stop at any point and your sexual partner should respect that.  And just because you had sex with someone before, doesn’t mean that you’ve automatically given consent to have sex with them again. This includes if you are in a relationship.  It’s always up to you if you want to have sex and consent must be sought and given every time. You can’t assume that someone wants to have sex at any given time – you have to ask and listen to the response. 

Myth: Men and people with penises can’t be sexually assaulted 

It can happen to anyone regardless of their gender. The 2017 Crime Survey for England and Wales reported that 631,000 male victims have experienced some form of sexual assault since the age of 16. The survey also found that approximately 12,000 men (aged 16-59) are raped in the UK every year. The myth that men and people with penises cannot be sexual assault victims is extremely damaging, and it prevents a lot of survivors from speaking up. 

Myth: Even if you were pressured into saying yes, you still gave your consent

Consent must always be voluntarily given. If you are pressured, feel too scared to say no, have been tricked into saying yes, guilt-tripped into saying yes or anything similar, that’s not consent – it’s sexual coercion. 

Myth: Sex workers can’t be sexually assaulted 

Sex workers are still required to give consent, both during their work and outside of their work. Just because someone is a sex worker does not mean that they want sex all the time, or that they’re willing to engage in a sexual act.  And yet, sex workers have a 45-75% chance of experiencing sexual violence during their career. Like everyone else, sex workers have boundaries and deserve to be treated with the same level of respect as everyone else. Their profession has nothing to do with the validity of their experiences. 

Myth: You only need consent when it comes to penetrative sex 

There are many different ways to have sex with someone, many of which don’t involve penetration. You need consent for all types of sex. People of all genders need to ask for consent and consenting to one sexual activity does not mean you have consented to everything.

Our focus for 16 Days of Activism this year is on the importance of engaging with young people now, to prevent incidents of violence and abuse in the future. For more on our MENgage and EmpowHER programme and our Haven In Schools campaign for 16 Days of Activism 2021, visit here.

Additional Resources:

Video: How to get high schoolers to rethink sexual consent and assault

Article: Why schools should say ‘yes’ to teaching consent