HomeHealth TopicSexual Health

What Is Sexual Consent?

Jennie Bedsworth, LCSWMona Bapat, PhD, HSPP
Published on February 25, 2022

Key takeaways:

  • Sexual consent is when someone clearly communicates to their partner that they want to participate in a sexual activity. 

  • Not everyone is able to give sexual consent, like when they’re asleep, intoxicated, or have certain disabilities.

  • Both partners should feel comfortable communicating what they do and don’t want during sex, and either person has the right to stop any activity at any point for any reason.

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At its best, sex is equally enjoyable for both partners. It’s a natural, normal activity for many adults. However, when one person wants to have sex and the other doesn’t, it can become something entirely different. 

Sometimes, sex is physically or emotionally forced upon another person without their consent. This is considered sexual violence. It can cause significant emotional trauma to the person harmed. Sexual violence may also lead to criminal consequences for perpetrators. 

That’s why making sure your partner is willing to have sex is so important. Below are some things you should know about sexual consent and how to communicate clearly with your partner. 

Definition of sexual consent  

Sexual consent is when an able person willingly agrees to sexual activity with a partner. Both people should have no doubt that the other wants to participate. Consent doesn’t happen just one time before or at the beginning of sex. It continues throughout any sexual activity and every time you have sex.

The legal definition in the U.S. says that sexual consent is a “freely given agreement to the conduct at issue by a competent person.” Let’s break that down.

“A competent person” is someone who is able to make decisions for themselves at the time. For example, if someone is intoxicated, under the influence of drugs, or asleep, they cannot agree to sex.

“A freely given agreement” means that the person is under no pressure to consent to sex. They must not feel threatened by or be afraid of what will happen if they don’t agree.

Sexual consent doesn’t apply only to intercourse. It includes other sexual acts, such as kissing, foreplay, oral sex, or touching between partners. It may also include non-physical activities, such as talking about sexual acts or sharing sexual photographs.

When can someone not give consent?

There are many cases when someone is not able to consent to sexual activity, even if they say yes. Here are some situations where someone may not legally make decisions about sex:

  • They are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

  • They are asleep or unconscious.

  • They have certain disabilities (depending on the person and situation).

  • They are not of legal age to have sex.

The laws about age and consent of minors vary from state to state. For example, in some states, a person who is 16 may legally consent to have sex with someone close in age. In another state, you may need to be 18 or older to consent to sex. Young children are never able to consent to sex in any situation. 

Asking for consent 

Asking your partner for consent makes sure that both people agree, feel safe, and enjoy the sexual experience. It helps prevent any misunderstanding. In other words, yes means yes, and no means no.

It may sound like asking for consent would kill the mood, but it doesn’t have to. It might even make the experience more romantic or enjoyable. It shows that you respect the other person’s boundaries. Here are some phrases you might use: 

  • “Is it OK if I kiss you?”

  • “Do you want to try this?”

  • “Should we keep going?”

  • “Are you OK with this?”

  • “Should we slow down?”

How to give consent

You can also practice ways to let your partner know that you are OK with a certain activity. To communicate your agreement, you might say: 

  • “I’m OK with that.”

  • “Keep going.”

  • “That feels good.”

  • “Yes.”

  • “Let’s do that.”

You can also communicate consent without words, especially if you and your partner know each other well or are in a relationship. For example, gently pulling someone forward, gesturing, or nodding can sometimes communicate consent.

However, nonverbal messages can also be missed or misunderstood, especially between new partners. If you have any doubt, stop the activity and talk to your partner. 

How to express non-consent

You always have the right to not have sex. You can also stop sexual activity at any point, even if you consented at the beginning. Sometimes this is called “non-consent.”

Here are some phrases you could use to let your partner know that you don’t agree or want to stop: 

  • “I don’t want to do that.”

  • “Let’s take a break.”

  • “I feel uncomfortable with this.”

  • “Stop.”

  • “I changed my mind.”

Someone may also communicate their non-consent nonverbally, without words. For example, you might shake your head, get up, or move your partner’s hand away.

Remember that consent is ongoing. Let your partner know how you want to communicate during sex. This is especially important with a new partner, since you won’t know each other as well. 

Other ways to express non-consent to sex 

You may have heard the phrase “no means no” about sexual consent. The idea is, when someone says “no” to a sexual activity, that means stop. But it’s not always easy to say “no.”

Sometimes, one partner doesn’t want to have sex, but they are unable to say so. For example, they might be embarrassed or worry that the other person will become angry. They may also feel afraid or confused. This could cause them to freeze up during a sexual activity.

In that case, they may seem to go along with the sex, never saying “no.” However, this does not mean they have consented. Consent is not a lack of refusing, but a clear agreement to participate and continue. For this reason, “yes means yes” is a better phrase to remember.

Can you withdraw consent? 

Either person has the right to change their mind about sex whenever they want. This might happen for many reasons.

One partner may feel overwhelmed or anxious. They may have concerns about pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). They may no longer feel safe or comfortable in the situation.

Either partner has the right to stop sex at any point, for any reason. This is true even if they’ve had sex with that person before. It doesn’t matter who initiated the activity.

Sexual assault resources

When someone forces or pressures another person to have sexual contact against their will, it is called sexual assault. Many people who are forced to have sex blame themselves or are blamed by others. But it is never their fault.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, here are some ways to find help

The bottom line

Sex should be an enjoyable experience for both willing people. Consent makes sure that both people feel comfortable and safe. There are many ways to communicate consent using words or clear body language that says “yes.” There are also different ways to communicate non-consent with words or body language that says “no” or “I’m uncomfortable.” If at any point there is any doubt that either partner is OK with what’s happening, stop the activity, and take time to talk with each other.

For additional resources or to connect with mental health services in your area, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. For immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


Basile, K. C., et al. (2014). Sexual violence surveillance: Uniform definitions and recommended data elements. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Glosser, A., et al. (2004). Statutory rape: a guide to state laws and reporting requirements. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

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Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). 10 US Code § 920 - Art. 120. Rape and sexual assault generally. Cornell Law School.

National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (n.d.). National sexual violence resource center (NSVRC).

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. (n.d.). National suicide prevention lifeline.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. (n.d.). About RAINN

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. (n.d.). Sexual abuse of people with disabilities.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. (n.d.). What consent looks like

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. (n.d.). What is a sexual assault forensic exam?

Thames Valley Police. (2015). Tea and consent. YouTube.

The State University of New York. (n.d.). Definition of affirmative consent.

Stubbs-Richardson, M., et. al. (2018). Tweeting rape culture: Examining portrayals of victim blaming in discussions of sexual assault cases on Twitter. Feminism & Psychology.

Ullman, S. E., et al. (2014). Coping, emotion regulation, and self-blame as mediators of sexual abuse and psychological symptoms in adult sexual assault. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.

U.S. House of Representatives. (2022). 10 USC 920: Art. 120. Rape and sexual assault generally. United States Code.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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