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When Is Consent Freely Given?

And how can we ensure it's free from coercion?

Choice is a crucial part of consent. That seems fairly straightforward and a total no brainer. When we talk about consent, pretty much everyone would agree that consent should be freely given. It's easy to talk about it when we look at the black and white definition. The trouble is that the world is never black and white. Many people can define the basics of what consent is; however, those same people struggle to articulate how it should be applied when given real-world situations. It's not always clear cut and there's a lot of debate. So how do we know if consent is actually freely given?

The Use of Power to Coerce

No one should ever be intimidated or bullied into giving consent. When someone gives the sexual go ahead, they should never be pressured or feel coerced into giving it. Once again this feels like a total give in but it actually happens a fair amount. A common way consent is coerced is when there is a difference in power in a relationship. This can be found in workplace romances or in relationships where people have different socio-economic statuses. People can feel the pressure to consent when they don't have equal footing in the relationship. If their refusal can cause them negative consequences for their life outside of the sexual relationship, this can clearly influence their choice.

Power imbalances can be very tricky because of the incredibly vulnerable place they can put the victim. Often, the victim has a lot less options and also gets few ways to receive justice. These types of consent violations have become more of a focal point for many conversations around consent. It's becoming easier for people to see and understand how power plays a role in forcing someone's consent. We are starting to more clearly define what is acceptable and what is not. It's important that we continue to hold those in power accountable and responsible for how that power is used.

Consent Needs to Be Free From All Types of Coercion

Power imbalances are not the only way someone's consent can be coerced. A common perception is that people should be persistent when pursuing a love or sexual interest. That people should not take no for an answer and continue to pursue, ask, flatter, seduce, or override every objection that comes up. When someone is constantly hassled they may begin to feel that there is no other choice. Their choice to consent may be coerced by feeling it's becoming unsafe to refuse or that they don't have any other options. If all of their previous objections and refusals have been ignored, how many ways can they say no? Will refusing one more time make any difference?

For consent to be freely given, someone can't be harassed into it. People need to be taking the initial refusal at face value and leave it at that. If there is real and genuine interest from the person declining, they will make the next step. It creates a safe space where both people are choosing to move forward because they want to. It reduces the risk that anyone is being put in a situation they don't want to be in. 

Consent Needs to Be Informed

In order for us to be able to freely choose to give our consent, we need to know what we are consenting to. This means we need to be of sound mind and aware. We need to know what we are agreeing to and with whom as well. This all plays heavily into our choice to give our consent freely.

Our choice to consent in a particular situation is based on more than just our desire. We make the decision based on all the information we have available to us. Do we like the person? Are they looking for a one night stand or a relationship? Are they currently involved with anyone? What is their STI status? What kind of sexual activities is there interest in? All of these things and more informs our decision.

A common socially accepted form of coercing consent is the use of mind or mood-altering substances like alcohol. Many people see alcohol as a crucial ingredient to successful dating and lubricating the conversation so that it will lead to sex. It's no secret that alcohol has a significant impact on our decision-making capabilities. Things that we would never normally do sober may sound ok when we are under the influence. A lot of people have been socially conditioned that it's perfectly acceptable, and a great strategy, to take advantage of this fact. The truth is that consent was never freely given because the person was not actually fully aware. 

Consent is an Evolving Conversation

We are still learning and exploring consent conversations. There a lot of people on board with the message of freely given consent but there are still people out there who don't really get it yet. It's important that we keep learning and engaging with the evolving conversations around consent. The more we know, the more we can engage others and create safer spaces for everyone. Pick up your own copy of "Got Consent?" for a solid and well-rounded base of information on consent.

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