The dictionary defines consent as "To give assent, as to the proposal of another; agree," or "To be of the same mind or opinion." In other words, both people are in agreement over a concept or a proposed idea or action.
In less formal terms, consent is the key stone of many interactions, both in our public lives and in our private, sexual experiences. Getting consent prior to performing an action is the difference between borrowing a tool and theft, it is the difference between a friendly boxing match and assault, consent is the difference between love making and rape. When we interact with another person (or their private property) without getting consent first we are violating the other person's rights and well-being. When we do obtain consent first then we are interacting with the other person in a positive manner.
In a broad sense people tend to think of getting consent as simply asking a question of someone and receiving a positive response. On the surface, this is essentially correct, but there are multiple factors to take into consideration when we are seeking consent and I'd like to talk about some key points to think about.
The person giving consent must understand the situationOne of the more important aspects to consider when seeking consent is whether the person granting (or denying) consent is fully informed of the situation. It's vital that the person making the decision of whether to give their consent is aware of the situation and what you are asking of them.
For example, let's say you put poison in a cup of tea and then asked your friend "Would you like a cup of tea?" If they say "Yes" and drink the tea, they were not consenting to being poisoned. They were only aware of, and consenting to, the tea, not anything you added to it. Likewise, if you ask your lover if she'd enjoy wearing a blindfold and she says "Yes" that does not mean she consents to anything else apart from the blindfold. Whatever comes after that - whether it's sensation play, a threesome, or a surprise birthday party - requires additional information and consent to be shared.
Informed consent is not just about divulging all the aspects of your proposal to another person, the person being asked for consent must be able to understand the situation. This is why you can't sign a business contract with a four year old, make-out with a man in a coma, or get permission from a goat to take it skydiving. A child doesn't fully understand the inner workings of corporate law, the person in the coma can't process what you're asking, and the goat doesn't understand how parachutes work. These people/creatures are not able to understand the scenario you are proposing and therefore cannot properly agree to go along with it, no matter how enthusiastic the four year old is about your lemonade stand business proposal.
One tricky element in this is it's not always immediately clear whether the person you are talking to is in a position to give consent. Someone who has been drinking heavily, for example, may not be in their right mind. Some people seem to be quite aware and active when drinking and others stumble and slur their words, making it clear they are not in the right head space to consent to anything. Try to be mindful of the situation the other person is in; if they are drunk or high, they are not in the right frame of mind to understand and give consent.
The person asked for consent must be able to say "no" without fearStudents, minors, employees, and slaves cannot properly give consent to a teacher/parent/boss/evil bastard because they are always in a position of where saying "No" can have severely negative consequences. Students might worry that saying "No" will result in them failing a class, an employee might worry about getting fired.
If you are approaching a person in the hope of getting their consent for something, keep in mind whether they are likely to fear retaliation if they turn down your request. Your waitress probably into you, she might just not want to get fired if you get upset and make a scene.
Outside of strictly professional requests (such as teachers handing out homework and managers assigning work tasks), try to avoid asking people to agree to things if there is a power imbalance between the two of you. Even if you mean well it's inconsiderate to make another person afraid of saying "No" to a request.
A lack of response is not a "yes"It should probably go without saying that the lack of a "No" is not the same as a "Yes". A person who has not responded, for whatever reason, is not consenting. Maybe the person is asleep, maybe they didn't hear the question, maybe they are considering your proposal. Whatever the case may be, a lack of response is not an signal they agree.
When seeking consent it is important the person you are receiving consent from gives their clear, positive response before you proceed. If you are going bungee jumping with someone and you ask if they want a push over the side, their lack of an answer does not mean they want a shove! Wait until they definitely told you they want a push before helping them over the edge.
Wearing a person down is not winning them overOne of the finer points of seeking and gaining consent is the concept of enthusiastic consent. This means the person giving consent has not only agreed to go along with you - perhaps in an effort to get you to stop asking - they are clearly interesting in what you are proposing.
Let's say I ask my partner to come to a rap concert with me. She's not a rap fan, so she turns me down. The next day I ask again, and again she turns me down. Then I start playing samples of my favourite rap music for her and watching "8 Mile" every day. Eventually she may give up and agree to go to the concert because it's less painful than putting up with my requests every day. This is not enthusiastic consent, it's choosing the lesser of two evils. She doesn't want to go listen to rap music, she just wants me to give her some peace.
This aspect of obtaining consent can trip people up because, technically, the person agreeing to the proposal did say they consented. In this case, my partner said she's go to the concert. But it's not because she wants to, it's because I basically didn't give her a choice - not a real choice anyway.
There is an important difference because "Meh, okay, whatever," and "Yes, let's go do that right now!" There is a distinct difference between, "Fine, okay, stop asking me, I'll do it," and "Yes, please, let's do it!" The former examples are of people being worn down while the latter are people being won over. Make sure you win people over when asking for consent; do not try to wear them down until they agree with you.
Consent can be revokedIt is important to get consent before taking an action - whether that action is borrowing a lawnmower, kissing your date, or dancing with someone. Once the activity has started, consent can still be revoked, meaning the activity needs to stop. If you're kissing someone and they pull away, you don't get to keep kissing them because they consented previously. Your neighbour may have let you borrow their lawnmower earlier in the day, but if they ask for it back, you don't get to keep it. If you're having sex and your partner tells you to stop they are revoking consent and continuing is no longer okay.
When consent is revoked that doesn't mean what you did before that point is bad, it just means the activity needs to stop now. You may be able to resume kissing, cutting the grass, or having sex later, but in the moment it's important to respect the other person's wishes and give them their personal space (or lawnmower) back.
I hope this has provided some useful guidelines to asking for and receiving consent from someone. While people tend to think of consent as an aspect of sex, it is also an important part of our lives when dealing with co-workers, family members, and friends. It's a useful tool to make sure everyone feels comfortable and on the same page with what is happening.