What is consent in practice?

What happens as the night moves on and either or both young people are a bit worse for drink? When the inhibitions are down and they want to bond a bit, how far can a person go? When does ‘no’ mean ‘maybe’? What are the rules of the game? When does romance turn to sex? Who decides?

One well-educated, 17 year old woman I interviewed had had classes on consent and feminism. We’ll call her Jan. She assured me she “knew her limits” with alcohol. When asked what she meant by that, she responded, “not passing out”. She said however she has unprotected, casual sex almost every weekend with different men. She admitted that she would never have had sex with those guys if she hadn’t been intoxicated, but thought it was “not polite” to refuse. She stated she would not condemn a man for ‘encouraging’ her to have sex in those circumstances because she had been drinking and she wanted to get close. To her mind she said she must have been giving consent even if she regretted it the next day.

To an adult, ‘knowing one’s limits’ with alcohol might mean not losing control of being able to agree freely. Such differences of interpretation make the issue of consent problematic for juries in trials for sexual offences.

I asked Jan why she took the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections by not using contraceptives. She responded that her father would be angry if he found out that his little girl was having sex. She said if she got pregnant, she’d just get an abortion, her mother would help her out. So despite the talks at school on this subject, in practice her fears around how her parents would respond and the peer pressure to drink a lot and have ‘fun’ on nights out were more important than her own estimation of the health risks to herself. Such is the teen brain.

Although it is an offence to have anal sex without consent, women often complain they are coerced into it. Research indicates that ‘persuasion’ to engage in anal sex is very common practice today amongst young people. Young men and women cite internet pornography as the key motivator. Even though they know it is painful to the women, men still push as much as possible to ‘persuade’ women to let them do it.

Self-control is a challenge for both women and men at the best of times, but especially on the party scene among teens. Unless a plan to set limits has been consciously decided in advance, it can be tough to resist strong persuasion when sexual thrills are beckoning and when we want to be seen as sexually attractive and ‘cool’.

However more education around the impact of alcohol on consent and on how to be assertive in the face of coercion is necessary. Teaching ‘dating skills’ and how to respect another person’s boundaries would be a big advance. Several surveys of young people’s attitudes have called for this type of education.

This is a general guide to the law and does not constitute legal advice.

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