Boundaries and Consent

Consent is about respecting personal boundaries, whether those boundaries are your own or someone else’s. No matter what kind of relationship you have with someone, consent is always involved. Healthy relationships, whether with your family, friends, or a sexual partner, are built on boundaries. (For more on relationships, please see the Healthy Relationships section.)

“Boundaries” can be a tricky word to understand, partly because everyone can choose their own personal boundaries for themselves. Here are some examples of different types of boundaries:

  • Physical boundaries – choices about what you do and what you don’t want to happen when it comes to your body and personal space. (For example, do you want to be hugged? How close is it okay for someone to stand next to you?)
  • Emotional boundaries – choices about your feelings, personal values, and responsibilities to yourself and others. (For example, do you want to go on a date?)
  • Communication boundaries – choices about how, what, when, and with whom you want to discuss issues related to yourself or your relationships. (For example, do you want to talk with your best friend about a disagreement you recently had with your partner?)
  • Sexual boundaries – choices about how you want to express yourself sexually. (For example, do you want to kiss someone you have been going on dates with? Would you be comfortable sexting a partner?)

Your answer to any of these example questions might be “yes,” “no,” or either one, depending on the circumstances. You also might not be sure what your boundaries are in different situations, and that’s fine too! No one should rush you to make up your mind.

Following the boundaries people set is one way to show respect for others. You deserve to feel comfortable interacting with others, and others deserve to feel comfortable when interacting with you. If you violate someone’s boundaries or do not ask for consent, they might feel unsafe with you. Respecting boundaries is a way to show you value the people in your life and makes it easier to form close and positive relationships.

Consent is important in any situation involving any of the types of boundaries mentioned above. This means that consent is not limited to romantic or sexual partners. Consent is also important when dealing with boundaries with family, friends, caregivers, and, at times, even strangers. This section will mostly deal with romantic and sexual partners, but the basic guidelines can apply to any situation in which consent is needed.

Understanding What Consent Is

The following are the core elements of consent.*

Freely Given

Consent is freely given without pressure or threats. It is voluntary – you and your partner give consent because you want to. Therefore, if someone agrees to do something after being pressured, lied to, bullied, or threatened, they have not really given consent.

Reversible

You or your partner can change your minds at any time, even if you have already given consent.

Informed

Everyone should understand what they are consenting to. Everyone should have the information they need to make a choice, and that choice should be respected. For example, if someone agrees to use a condom and then does not, the partner is no longer fully informed and, therefore, hasn’t consented.

Enthusiastic

If you and your partner both decide to do something, then you should both be happy about doing it.

Specific

When someone gives consent to do one thing, that does not mean that they automatically give consent to do other things. For example, if you ask someone if you can kiss them and they say “yes,” that does not mean you have permission to take off their shirt. When communicating with partners, be clear about what you are talking about.

Ongoing

Even after consenting, partners should continue checking in with each other to make sure everyone still feels comfortable. If someone starts to seem uncomfortable or hesitant, it’s usually a good idea to pause and find out if the partner wants to change something or stop.

Remember, consent given in the past is not consent for the future. If you have kissed someone before, that does not necessarily mean they want you to kiss them again. Both you and your partner need to give consent each time.

*This information has been adapted from consent education materials from Planned Parenthood.

How Do You Know If Someone Wants to Have Sex With You?

If you would like more information about how to interpret consent for sexual activity, the videos below can be helpful to learn more, especially about body language.

Asking For and Receiving Consent

There are a few different ways to ask for consent (and a few different responses that you might get in return).  

Asking for consent using language (spoken or sign) is considered the best way to give or get a clear, easily understood response. If you are with a new partner or have difficulty understanding nonverbal social cues or body language, it’s best to ask for and give consent using language.

Later on, you and your partner might know each other so well that you clearly understand one another’s nonverbal cues. Many people use a combination of verbal and nonverbal cues when giving and getting consent.

Verbal Consent

Verbal consent can sometimes feel awkward, but it clearly communicates what you want and is the easiest way to determine consent.

Verbal ways of asking for consent:

  • “Is it OK to hold your hand?”
  • “I would like to kiss you; would you like that?”
  • After a friend tells you she’s disappointed that she broke up with her girlfriend, you might say, “Would you like a hug?”

If someone gives you a direct “yes,” then you can do what you asked to do. Remember that people can change their minds at any time! If the person communicates a change in consent, you should respect the choice and stop.

A person may also give you specific conditions for you to do whatever it is you have asked. For example, if you asked to kiss somebody and they say that you can kiss them on the cheek, that means they have set a boundary of where/how you may kiss them. This boundary should be followed – you should only kiss this person on the cheek, not a different place, like the mouth.

Nonverbal Consent

Nonverbal cues can have a wide range of meanings, so it’s a good idea to make sure you understand what someone is trying to communicate if using nonverbal communication. The following list is a guideline of some examples, but it doesn’t guarantee consent. Nonverbal consent is best used when you know someone very well.

Nonverbal ways of asking for consent:

  • Holding your arms open for a hug and waiting for the other person to hug you
  • Holding your hand out for a handshake and waiting for the other person to shake it
  • Moving closer towards your date when you are saying goodnight and leaning slightly in, then waiting for the other person to move closer for a kiss

Key Features of Asking for Consent
Build Up Slowly

Show Respect and Care

Listen and Respond

Err on the Side of Caution
Tricky Aspects of Consent
Consent Examples

Here are some basic examples of consent.

Example 1: You have your annual check-up with your doctor. It is expected that your doctor will touch your body during the exam. She asks, “I’m going to ask you to lie down so I can examine you, okay? You might feel some pressure from my hands on your stomach.” You can nod or say “okay” if you’re ready. If you’re not ready, you could say, “Could you wait a moment?” or “Could you explain what you’re going to do when you examine me?”

Example 2: You might be hugging someone after a date and want to kiss them goodnight. You could ask, “Can I give you a kiss goodnight?” If they nod, smile, and move closer to you, that means “yes.”

Example 3: Luke wants to hug his friend Alex, so he extends his arms towards her and asks if he may. She says “yes,” and they hug. The next day, Luke wants to hug Alex again, so he holds out his arms and asks again. Alex has her arms crossed and says she does not feel like being hugged, so they don’t hug. (Alex and Luke used both nonverbal [extending arms, crossing arms] and verbal communication [words].)

OAR_Consent_FinalArt (00000002)

How Do I Know if Someone Is Able to Give Consent?

People need to be able to fully understand what is happening, what they are agreeing to, and the potential consequences in order to give consent. For these reasons, sometimes people are not able to consent – never try to touch or have sex with someone who cannot consent.

People are not able to consent if they are:

  • Drunk
  • High on drugs
  • Asleep
  • Underage (in most states, this means under 18 years old)
  • Unconscious (or “passed out”)
  • Being asked for consent by someone with authority over them (a boss, teacher, etc.)
  • Otherwise unable to make an informed decision

 

Under What Circumstances Is It Appropriate to Ask for Consent?

Asking for consent is usually part of a larger relationship – it’s not the very first step. Before asking for consent, it helps to know the answers to the following questions:

  • What type of relationship do I have with this person?
  • What types of behaviors are appropriate in that kind of relationship?
  • Does it seem like this person is interested in what I want to ask for?

In the Healthy Relationships section of this guide, we explain that sexual and romantic consent is limited to certain types of relationships. Teachers, bosses, helpers, and family members should never engage in sexual or romantic behavior with you. For the same reason, they should never ask you for sexual or romantic consent. By the same token, you should not ask them for their consent.

Asking for consent looks different, depending on the type of relationship you have with someone. For example, if you are close friends with someone, you may be comfortable hugging and have hugged many times before, even though you would still ask, “Can I give you a hug?” On the other hand, if you think an acquaintance is attractive but you have not spoken much to them, hugging would not usually be expected. If you asked that person the same “can I give you a hug?” question, they might become uncomfortable or avoid you in the future.

That does not mean you can never become closer to someone you do not know, but building that relationship takes time. Most people try to figure out if their interest in someone else is mutual before ever asking to touch them. If you are romantically or sexually interested in someone, that mutual interest is often established by flirting – see the section of this guide on Flirting for more information.

Consent With Strangers

In general, it’s not appropriate to touch strangers. However, sometimes you might need to get someone’s attention. If possible, it’s best to get people’s attention either verbally or without touching them (by waving, for example). If that does not work, it’s usually alright to tap someone lightly on the forearm or shoulder once or twice.

Socially Inappropriate Actions

Some actions are not socially acceptable, so it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask consent to do them. Usually these are actions that make people uncomfortable. Following people as they move from place to place, staring at them, or making gestures about their body would all be considered inappropriate. You would not ask someone for consent to do these behaviors.

For example: Ryan sees Yvonne at the coffee shop – he’s had a crush on her all year at school. He realizes that he is staring at her as she orders her coffee. Ryan knows it is impolite to stare, so he quickly looks back to the book he was reading before Yvonne walked in. Even though he really wants to look at Yvonne, he doesn’t ask her for consent to stare at her, because staring isn’t socially acceptable and can make people uncomfortable. Ryan decides that a better way to show his interest would be to ask Yvonne when he sees her the next day at school if she would like to go on a coffee date.

Additionally, whether various actions are inappropriate depends on the relationship you have with someone. Asking someone for a hug, to kiss them, or have sex with them would all be dependent on the type and duration of the relationship you have with the person.

For example: CJ met Ross at a recent event. They seemed to be flirting with each other, and they decided to meet up at a coffee shop. At the end of the coffee date, CJ really wanted to kiss Ross, but since they were just starting to get to know each other, CJ knew that kissing might not be appropriate. Instead, CJ asked, “May I hug you?” Ross opened his arms wide and smiled, indicating that a hug was consensual.

Underage and Consent

There are different laws with regard to the age of sexual consent depending on where you live. The laws are usually based on both the age of the partners and the age difference between them. In many parts of the United States, the age of consent is 18 years old. If someone is a legal adult (18 or older), they cannot ask a person under that age for consent. Any sexual activity with a minor is illegal and would automatically be considered sexual assault. These laws exist to protect minors from people who might wish to take advantage of them.

For example, if two 17-year-olds are dating when one of them turns 18, that’s considered socially acceptable because the age difference is not very large. But it may or may not be considered legally acceptable, depending on state laws about age of consent. (Many states have laws protecting high school-aged people who are in relationships when one of them turns 18.) If, on the other hand, a 25-year-old was dating a 17-year-old, that would usually be considered socially unacceptable, and sex between those two people would be illegal in some states.

Guardianship and Consent

Similar to ideas and laws about being under 18 years old and a partner being over 18 years old, “guardianship” can put limits on what is considered consensual. Guardianship is a legal process whereby one person becomes legally responsible for someone else who has been declared unable to independently make their own legal, health care, and financial decisions. If an adult is under guardianship that could mean that the person has limited ability to grant consent. Laws around guardianship and sexual consent are often unclear. If you and/or your partner are adults under guardianship, be aware that this might impact how others, including the legal system, view your ability to consent.

If one partner is under guardianship and the other partner is not, sexual activity between those two people could be considered nonconsensual.

For example, Joe and Kathy have been in a relationship for several months. Joe is under guardianship, and Kathy is not. They both decide they want to have sex. Unfortunately, since Joe is under guardianship, Kathy could be at risk of getting into legal trouble if they have sex and Joe’s guardians are not okay with. There is no single answer explaining what action to take in this case. What to do next would depend on the individual situation and would include considerations around individual cognitive ability, the guardian’s viewpoint, and other legal matters.

 Power Dynamics and Consent

Earlier in this section, we mentioned that no one can consent if they are being pressured or forced to do something. If someone is in a position of power over you, they should not have a sexual relationship with you at all. In the same way, if you are in a position of authority over someone else, it would be inappropriate to try to date or have sex with them.

Teachers, bosses, helpers, or anyone else in a position of authority should never sexually touch you or talk about engaging in sexual activity with you. It can be especially uncomfortable or hard to say “no” to people who have power over you, but remember that if someone asks you to do something that makes you uncomfortable, you do not have to do it. If that ever happens, you should try to leave that situation immediately and tell someone that you trust. 

Understanding What Consent Is Not

The only way to know if you have consent is to ask! No one should assume that they have consent based on how someone is acting, how they are dressed, or their romantic or sexual history.

You must still ask consent if someone is:

  • Flirting with you
  • Dancing with you
  • Sexting you
  • Naked or wearing revealing clothing
  • Dating you

While someone might be more likely to consent if they are already doing these things, it is still necessary to ask for consent.

When asking for consent, only a clear “yes” means “yes.” There are many ways that people can say “no” without actually using the word “no.”

You do not have consent if someone:

  • Is silent
  • Says or signs “maybe” or “I’m not sure”
  • Tries to physically move away from you
  • Does not respond, either verbally or physically
  • Says or signs “no”
What If I’m Confused About Whether or Not Someone Gave Consent?

If you get a clear answer after asking for consent, you don’t need to keep asking the same question in that moment. If someone says “no” or doesn’t seem interested when you ask for consent, you shouldn’t ask repeatedly. If someone says “yes” clearly, you also don’t need to continue asking in that moment. But if you change activities, for example, moving from holding hands to kissing, you should ask for consent to do the new action.   

If you feel confused or unsure of the answer, it’s okay to ask for clarification. You could say, “I’m not sure I’m understanding. Can you explain again how you feel about this?” If someone seems uncertain, then it’s best to interpret the answer as a “no.” It’s fine to ask for clarification if you are not sure what someone is trying to express, but you should never pressure them or try to convince them to change their mind.

It’s also okay to let your partner know the best ways to communicate about consent with you. If you need to explain a sensory preference or difficulty understanding social cues, you don’t need to disclose being on the autism spectrum if you don’t want to. You might just say, “I have trouble reading body language. Can you tell me clearly if you do or don’t like something that I’m doing?”

If questions like “does this feel okay?” are confusing for you, you could also say, “I have a hard time answering vague questions. If you ask yes or no questions, that will be easier for me.”

Planning Ahead

It is sometimes easier to talk about consent and boundaries before you start doing something, especially if you know your partner well or are feeling nervous. Conversations about boundaries and consent should usually happen in a private place where others can’t hear your conversation. You can let your partner know you want to talk by saying something like, “Can we set aside some time to talk about boundaries? I’d like to talk about some things before having sex.”

If you tend to get overwhelmed in new situations or find it harder to verbalize your needs when you’re feeling overwhelmed, you might want to talk about what you’re comfortable with in advance. You can also come up with and share nonverbal signals to show whether or not something is okay with you.

How Should I Respond If I Want to Say “No” or if Someone Says “No” to Me?

033-stopsigns-graphic-iconYou are in charge of your body. You’re the only person who can make decisions about what you want to do. If you don’t want to do something physical, romantic, or sexual, then you don’t have to. When you say “no” or don’t give your consent, that decision should always be respected.

Your potential partners are also in charge of their own bodies. In the same way, if a potential partner says “no” or doesn’t give consent, you have to respect that decision and stop.

When someone says “no,” people may feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or disappointed, but that’s okay! It’s important to respect each other’s choices, even if it makes someone feel bad. A “no” should be respected by another person, no matter the type of relationship between two people.

If you’re someone’s sexual or romantic partner, part of being a respectful partner can include encouraging and supporting your partner to say “no” if they ever need to. This can make saying “no” feel like “no big deal,” and make partners feel more comfortable. An example of this could be, “Is it alright if I take off your shirt? It’s okay if you want to leave it on.”

There are many ways for someone to show that they don’t give consent. Some of those ways are friendly. Other ways are more forceful. Being forceful makes it clearer that the person saying “no” is uncomfortable. If you don’t feel safe in a situation and want to leave, it’s okay not to be friendly. All of the following examples are ways to show that someone does not give consent.

Examples of not giving consent:
  • Saying or signing “no”
  • “No thanks, I’m not interested”
  • “Maybe later”
  • Walking away/leaving
  • Pulling away from someone

It helps to communicate “no” as clearly as possible. If you are able to communicate a clear “no,” try to do so. Sometimes, people get scared, nervous, or uncomfortable when they want to say “no.” If someone is silent, unresponsive, shrugs, looks away, avoids the person asking, or looks unhappy, those are also signs that someone does not give consent.

Remember, that there are lots of reasons why you or a partner might not want to do something! If someone says “no” to you, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or that you did anything wrong. Sometimes people don’t want to do something exactly at the time when you ask them, but they might say “yes” later. This does not mean that you should continue to ask over and over until they change their answer to “yes.” It simply means that people sometimes change their minds about both giving and not giving consent.

When someone does not give consent, it is disrespectful, hurtful, and socially unacceptable to do the action anyway.

If someone does not give consent, but you touch them sexually anyway, that is sexual assault. If you do not give consent, but someone touches you sexually anyway, that is also sexual assault. Sexual assault is illegal – it includes any sexual behavior that you (or another person) do not want and did not give consent for. If you have been sexually assaulted, you should seek support. This page in the Healthy Relationships section of this guide provides more information on how to seek support.

 Here are some examples of not giving consent:
  • Mike, a coworker, comes up to Celeste after work, gives her a pat on the back, and leans in to hug her. Celeste immediately pulls away and takes a step back. She did not expect a coworker to pat her on the back, and he did not ask permission to do so. She also did not want to hug Mike, so she showed that she did not consent by stepping away (nonverbal body language).
  • Alisa got a sext via Instagram from a classmate she does not know very well. She did not ask to receive the sext, and she did not give permission to have it sent to her, so she was upset when she received it. She reported and blocked the sender on Instagram, and then told a trusted adult so that they could decide what to do next.
  • Ben and Tyler were kissing while lying on a bed. Ben asked Tyler if he could take off his pants. Tyler didn’t say anything and stopped moving. Since Ben didn’t hear Tyler say “yes,” he stopped what he was doing and did not take off Tyler’s pants.

 

Conclusion

In this section, we learned about boundaries, what consent is and is not, how to tell if someone is able to give consent, how to ask for consent, and how to say or respond when someone does not give consent. This may seem like a lot of information, but consent doesn’t have to be complicated! You may need to read this section a few times to understand the details of physical and sexual consent better, but here are the main ideas:

Key Takeaways 
  • Consent is permission for one person to do something that affects or involves another person.
  • Consent happens in all types of relationships, but asking for physical or sexual consent has extra considerations.
  • Only “yes” means “yes” – both people involved should give enthusiastic consent.
  • It’s important to communicate with partners in the way that is most effective for both of you.
  • Giving consent for sexual or romantic activities should be limited to certain types of relationships. Teachers, bosses, helpers, and family members should never ask you for sexual or romantic consent, nor should you ask them.
  • If someone does not give consent that should always be respected. Sexual activity without consent is sexual assault.

Consent Quiz

Disclaimer

Information found on OAR’s Sex Ed. for Self-Advocates website, related videos, resources, and links are not a substitute for professional medical advice. All users of the site should consult with a physician or other health care provider to discuss specific concerns if they require further information or clarity.