April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month and, this year, we’re talking about things you need in every relationship: consent and boundaries. Consent is an affirmative agreement between participants to engage in physical or sexual activity. In simpler words, it means you recognize and respect one another’s boundaries and have confirmation that a partner is excited and happy about whatever you’re doing.

Consent doesn’t only apply to sexual activity. It’s important to get consent for any activity that may interact with another person’s boundaries.

At its core, consent is about communicating, understanding, and respecting another person’s boundaries, and vice versa.


Let’s review 5 rules for obtaining, confirming, and honoring consent.

Rule 1: Establish Boundaries

Boundaries are your personal rules. They help you articulate the behaviors that make you feel safe and respected, not just in terms of sexual relationships, but in all sorts of relationships.

Your boundaries can be shaped by many things, including the cultural norms you grew up with, like your family dynamics, your religion, your education, or where you grew up. Your personal life experiences and your personality also influence your comfort level with different interactions or activities.

Boundaries can be physical, emotional, or digital, especially now as the coronavirus pandemic means so much of our lives take place online.

Some examples of physical boundaries:

  • I only hug people I know, not people I just met; but I’m comfortable shaking hands.
  • I’d love to get together but I’m not comfortable with that right now since we have not been part of the same social pod.
  • I’m not comfortable dining inside right now but I am comfortable eating outside.

Examples of emotional boundaries could include things like:

  • I need time alone each day to process my thoughts and feelings.
  • I’d like to avoid conversations about religion because it is a difficult topic for me.

Digital boundaries are becoming increasingly important in today’s connected, always-on world. Some examples could include:

  • I keep my social media accounts private and only allow followers/friends I know personally.
  • I have the right to block/unfollow anyone I am uncomfortable with to protect myself when I am on social media.
  • I need to detox from my phone before bed, so I don’t look at it after 9 pm. I won’t respond to any messages after that until the next day.

Your personal boundaries are just that—yours. They help you define what you’re comfortable with or uncomfortable with.

Rule 2: Communicate Comfort Zones

Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of respect and communication. Your partner won’t necessarily know your boundaries if you don’t communicate them, and vice versa.

Conversations about boundaries should be rooted in respect and empathy. Remember, having boundaries creates stronger, more trustworthy relationships—it’s not a personal attack .

Here are a few tips for having a successful conversation:

  • Set the stage. Have the conversation in an environment that’s comfortable and inviting for all parties. Have refreshments or fidget toys available to help create conversation “breaks.”
  • Use “I” statements to talk about your feelings. To keep the conversation helpful and productive, make sure these statements concentrate on the actions, not the person.
  • End the conversation with solutions. What things can you keep in mind to help each other feel safe, respected, and cared for?

Here’s examples you can use to start your own conversation:

  • When [insert boundary violating activity here] happens, I feel [explain emotion]. By [insert boundary here], I will feel [explain emotion here].
  • I love [insert physical activity you like here] but I’m not ready for [insert physical activity you don’t want here]. When you try to do it anyways it makes me feel like you aren’t respecting my boundaries or me.

Rule 3: Ask Every Time

It’s important to discuss boundaries and expectations with your partner prior to engaging in any sexual behavior. If you’re unsure about another person’s boundaries, ask. Be clear and direct with your questions. It’s necessary and it should happen every time.

Some examples:

  • Would you like it if I kissed you?
  • If I touch you there/in that way, would you want that?
  • What do you like/don’t you like? Consent is a constant conversation.

Consenting to one activity, one time, does not mean someone gives consent for other activities or for the same activity on other occasions. For example, agreeing to kiss someone doesn’t give that person permission to remove your clothes. Having sex with someone in the past doesn’t give that person permission to have sex with you again in the future.

Nothing should be assumed. If something is unclear or you are unsure, it’s always best to ask.

Rule 4: Check In Regularly

The best way to ensure that all parties are comfortable with any sexual activity is to talk about it, check in periodically, and make sure everyone involved consents before escalating or changing activities. Boundaries can change over time as you grow and experience new things. So what was okay recently, may not be okay today or tomorrow.

You can withdraw consent at any point if you feel uncomfortable. One way to do this is to clearly communicate to your partner that you are no longer comfortable with this activity and wish to stop. Withdrawing consent can sometimes be challenging or difficult to do verbally, so non-verbal cues can also be used to convey this. That’s where the next rule becomes really important.

Rule 5: Respect Each Other

Respect is about honoring one another’s boundaries.

Enthusiastic consent is a model for understanding consent that focuses on a positive expression of consent. Simply put, enthusiastic consent means looking for the presence of a “yes” rather than the absence of a “no.”

Enthusiastic consent can be expressed verbally or through nonverbal cues, such as positive body language like smiling, maintaining eye contact, and nodding. These cues alone do not necessarily represent consent, but they are additional details that may reflect consent. It is necessary, however, to still seek verbal confirmation. The important part of consent, enthusiastic or otherwise, is checking in with your partner regularly to make sure that they are still on the same page.

Enthusiastic consent can look like:

  • Asking permission before you change the type or degree of sexual activity with phrases like “Is this OK?”
  • Confirming that there is reciprocal interest before initiating any physical touch.
  • Letting your partner know that it's okay to stop at any time.
  • Periodically checking in with your partner, such as asking “Is this still okay?”
  • Accepting an answer of “no” without asking again
  • Providing positive feedback when you’re comfortable with an activity.
  • Explicitly agreeing to certain activities, either by saying “yes” or another affirmative statement, like “I’m open to trying.”
  • Using physical cues to let the other person know you’re comfortable taking things to the next level (see note below).

Consent does NOT look like:

  • Refusing to acknowledge “no”
  • A partner who is disengaged, nonresponsive, or visibly upset
  • Assuming that wearing certain clothes, flirting, or kissing is an invitation for anything more
  • Someone being under the legal age of consent, as defined by the state
  • Someone being incapacitated because of drugs or alcohol Pressuring someone into sexual activity by repeatedly asking or using fear, intimidation, or coercion.
  • Assuming you have permission to engage in a sexual act because you’ve done it in the past

Physiological responses like an erection, lubrication, arousal, or orgasm are involuntary, meaning your body might react one way even when you are not consenting to the activity. Sometimes perpetrators will use the fact that these physiological responses occur to maintain secrecy or minimize a survivor's experience by using phrases such as, "You know you liked it." In no way does a physiological response mean that you consented to what happened. If you have been sexually abused or assaulted, it is not your fault.

If Your Boundaries Have Been Violated:

No one deserves to have their boundaries disrespected or consent violated. If this has happened to you, it is not your fault. The blame lies solely with the perpetrator.

If you have experienced sexual violence, help is available.

Regardless of what happened, know that you are not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org. You will receive confidential, judgment-free support from a trained support specialist and information about local services that can assist you with next steps.

Legal Disclaimer

The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) website provides general information that is intended, but not guaranteed, to be correct and up-to-date. The information is not presented as a source of legal advice. You should not rely, for legal advice, on statements or representations made within the website or by any externally referenced Internet sites. If you need legal advice upon which you intend to rely in the course of your legal affairs, consult a competent, independent attorney. RAINN does not assume any responsibility for actions or non-actions taken by people who have visited this site, and no one shall be entitled to a claim for detrimental reliance on any information provided or expressed. The legal definitions for terms like rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse vary from state to state. See how each state legally defines these crimes by visiting RAINN’s State Law Database. No matter what term you use, consent often plays an important role in determining whether an act is legally considered a crime.

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