For younger adults, exploring dating and sexuality can quickly turn dangerous without the benefit of comprehensive sex education that includes consent. Because consent is largely skipped over in schools, and debates around the topic in public discourse aren’t always well-informed, many people enter their early adulthood not knowing their rights to bodily autonomy and how consent works.
For anyone reading this, I want to make sure you have a strong understanding of consent and feel confident in your ability to consent or withdraw consent as needed. I know some of this will be elementary but consent is a top to bottom concept and it’s worth teaching more than is needed rather than too little.
Many young people don’t know why they have the right to give or withhold their permission to someone to do something that involves them. It’s because one of our fundamental human rights is the right to bodily autonomy, which is defined as “the right to self governance over one’s own body without external influence or coercion.”
As an adult, you have the right to consent or withdraw consent as you please. In sexual terms this means you can, say, agree to sex but then, for any reason under the sun, decide you don’t want to continue and withdraw your consent. Anyone who argues or questions you for withdrawing consent is throwing up major red flags. Sex without consent is rape. No one has a right to your body. You can be in the middle of sex and change your mind and a good partner will respect that.
One cannot cover consent without also covering power imbalances. While this can happen in any relationship, it is probably most prevalent in age-gap and wage-gap relationships.
An older partner may be able to take advantage of a younger partner for several reasons. They may be more experienced and try to pressure them into things they don’t feel ready for. It’s not uncommon for young people to view older people as authority figures whether they are or not. Financial inequality is also a possible risk in age gap relationships. Generally speaking, adults, especially older adults, are more established in life and are better able to support themselves. They may even be able to support a younger partner.
This is where things can get tricky and sometimes abusive. It’s not uncommon for a young person to see an older partner as a lifeline if they are offering money/a place to live/gifts/etc. This gives the financially dominant partner a chance to abuse favors for sex. To be clear, sex work is work—but to be consensual, it needs to be a transaction that is knowingly entered into, without duress. So, no matter what you are ever gifted or provided with, you never owe anyone sex in exchange. Even if you agreed to it beforehand, you can withdraw consent.
Money, authority, resources, connections, these are all things that can be exploited by an older person to make a younger person feel obligated to them. This obligation is false just as gifts given for the sole purpose of winning sexual favor are false and can be refused.
Generally speaking, the onus is on the older adult to not exploit a younger partner but if both partners are consenting adults, they are assumed to know their right to give or withdraw consent and to understand their bodily autonomy.
Non-mainstream attractions and consent
If you, like many other young adults, have found your romantic or sexual tastes skew away from the mainstream, you’re not alone. It is common to have questions and wonder if there is something “wrong” with you. The good news is that attractions are benign, only actions count. There are ethical and consensual ways to at least explore every fantasy. Not everything can play out in real life, but informed consent and some creativity can lead to a very fulfilling sex life, regardless of specific attractions.
If a partner brings an idea to you that you do not feel safe with, you have the right to say no. If you agree to try it and it does not work for you for any reason, you have the right to withdraw consent and end the activity. If you are interested in trying something new, I always encourage research first.
An important part of consent if information. One cannot truly consent without an understanding of what they are consenting to. “Safe, Sane, and Consensual” (SSC) and Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK) are two models of consent. SSC is a great entry place for non-mainstream relationships, it implies that the activities are agreed upon by all parties as safe, sane, and consensual. RACK is great because it expands the information side of things. One must be aware of a risk in order to consent to taking it.
What about minors?
It cannot be overstated that I do not condone adult/minor romantic or sexual relationships. A minor’s inability to consent is protected by law, as it should be. Ethically and legally, the onus of not crossing the line is squarely on the adult, no exceptions.
Are there minors who will seek out sex or relationships with adults anyway? Sure there are, and they will also reject the implication that they don’t know what they want, aren’t old enough to make their own decisions, or have been “groomed.” So-called adult-attracted minors might even be heartbroken at being unable to get what they believe they want. Yet it’s because minors, in general, lack mature perspective that their apparent consent to sex with an adult doesn’t absolve the adult from responsibility. Simply put, it is unfair for an adult to allow a minor to assume the risk of regretting it later, regardless of how willing they may seem now.
As a minor, you can exercise your right to bodily autonomy by giving or refusing your consent to non-sexual touch such as hugs from friends, relatives, or colleagues. Depending on where you live, it might also be legal for you to have consensual sex with a partner who is close to your own age, if that’s something that you want. Until then, you can explore your own body through masturbation so that you are in a better position to understand what kinds of sexual touch you might be ready to consent to later.
Consent is the foundation of healthy relationships. Learning about it can begin at any age, at an age-appropriate level. But it shouldn’t stop at age 18. There are workshops and webinars from adult sex educators, no-pressure munches from the kink community, and books that you can read to learn more. Also please feel free to engage with us on this topic in the forum post linked to this article. What have you learned about consent from this article, and what questions do you still have?