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Understanding Consent 

By Maeve O’Keeffe 

The new #unmuteconsent campaign has just been launched in partnership with the Higher  Education Authority, Irish Universities Association, Technical Higher Education Association, and Union of Students in Ireland. This important campaign aims to recognise and amplify student voices in driving change against sexual harassment and violence on college campuses.  

It is assumed that upon entering third level, that students have an understanding of what  consent is. However, many fail to recognise the nuances of consent, assuming that not saying  “no” to sexual activity means “yes.” This lack of understanding about the meaning of consent is a contributing factor to the high levels of sexual assault among university populations and  beyond. We all have the responsibility to inform ourselves about what consent means, to  ensure safe, enjoyable sexual experiences for both parties involved. Sure, “No means no,” but  consent is more than the absence of resistance. Consent needs to be entirely enthusiastic,  conscious, and voluntary. Simply put, sex without consent is rape.  

The catchy acronym OMFG, which was devised by NUIG’s Active*Consent team, is a  succinct summary of how the legal system views consent here, and the core prerequisites of  consent. Consent must be Ongoing, Mutual, and Freely Given. So what does this mean? 

Ongoing

Consent can be withdrawn at any point. This means that at any given time during sexual  activity or foreplay, an individual can change their mind. Consent to one thing does not  immediately imply consent to any other sexual activity. Sometimes fears about being labelled  as a “tease” or being accused of “leading someone on” may inhibit an individual from  withdrawing their consent, particularly if they have previously consented to a sexual activity  with the other person. However, our sexual partners must respect that nobody is ever entitled  to another person’s consent, and it must be respected if someone revokes their consent.  

Mutual

Both parties must consent to the sexual activity. It may sound obvious, but consent should  never be presumed. None of us are mind-readers, so even if you’re pretty sure the other person is into it, it’s always important to err on the side of caution and make sure that the desire to kiss or have sex is shared by both of you. Responsibility should not rest with one  individual who needs to accept or resist the sexual activity, but should be a continuous dialogue between both parties.  

Freely-Given: 

Consent cannot be given if an individual is asleep, unconscious, intoxicated, or drugged.  Once again, you might presume that this goes without saying, but sadly the statistics reveal  that 29% of women who participated in the 2020 Sexual Experiences Survey reported assault  through penetration while unable to give consent or while forced. This is an astonishing  statistic, and is indicative of a dire need to enhance students’ understanding of consent.  

Many college students choose to drink alcohol while socialising, and this can confound communication or how we interpret social cues. If an individual is blacked out or passed out,  they clearly cannot consent. More than this though, if someone is visibly intoxicated, slurring  their words, or stumbling, for instance, then they also cannot consent. Keep an eye out for  friends at parties or nights out when alcohol is involved, and don’t be afraid to subtly  intervene if you fear that a drunk person is being taken advantage of in any way. This doesn’t  need to be dramatic, but simply pulling someone aside and making sure they understand what  they are consenting to can make a real difference.  

When it comes to offering a friend a cup of tea, we love to say, “Ah go on,” if they first  refuse. Consent simply cannot be viewed in the same way. It is wrong to coerce or pressure  another person into sex. When it comes to consent, never assume entitlement.  

A 2020 study of students from 14 higher education institutions across Ireland demonstrated  that 20% of female respondents, and 34% of male respondents felt that verbally asking for  consent was awkward. These figures need to change. Asking for consent is an indication of  respect and care for your sexual partner, and a willingness to make the experience as  enjoyable as possible for both of you. There is nothing awkward about that! The key to  having happy, consensual sex is communication. Communicate clearly what you like and  don’t like, or if you need to slow down or stop.  

The need for clear communication also extends to conversations about contraception. “Stealthing” or the non-consensual removal of a condom during intercourse is considered a crime here in Ireland. Consenting to safe, protected sex does not imply consent to sex without  a condom later, and this should never be assumed.  

If you have been affected by any of the topics mentioned in this article, here are some of the  services available locally to support you: 

UCC Student Counselling – counselling@ucc.ie 

Rape Crisis Network – 24 hour helpline number is 1800778888 

Sexual Violence Centre Cork – the freephone number is 1800 496 496 for those calling from  the Cork area, but the centre can also be contacted by texting 087 1533 393 or emailing  info@sexualviolence.ie