Why Consent Matters

August 25, 2022, Written by Joeun Chong and Belinda Karsen

Consent matters, not just in personal, sexual relationships–and not just among university students–but in all aspects of our daily lives–whether we are students, staff, or faculty. Consent is vital in the workplace and the classroom, in professional relationships and friendships, and among intimate partners and family members. Because, fundamentally, consent is about respecting the autonomy and dignity of other people. And while sexual consent is legislated by various policies and laws, consent, more generally, is integral to respectful and equitable relationships of all kinds. 

Just as consent extends beyond intimate relationships, so too does it surpass sexual/physical interactions. We can practice consent in various realms by considering how to respect an individual's right to autonomy and self-determination. Here are a few examples:

  • the physical realm: personal space, physical touch (eg. handshakes or hugs), location in and movement through the physical environment (eg. where to sit or stand in a classroom or meeting room)

  • the social realm: personal social identity (eg. gender identity and expression), types of social interactions, topics of conversation

  • the emotional realm: validation of an individual’s emotions or emotional responses, consideration of others’ personal emotional capacity 

  • the academic/professional realm: academic or professional autonomy and choice, academic integrity

  • the virtual realm: sharing of personal information or images online, options to have video on or off, choice of online communications platforms 

We must also be aware of how social location, such as race, ability, gender identity and expression, sexuality, and class, influence how individuals and communities seek or give consent. Within our socio-political environment, all people are not equally empowered to practice consent in ways that support their autonomy and dignity. 

If we adopt a wholistic approach to consent that is attuned to these social inequities, we will identify new opportunities to practice consent that extend beyond personal or sexual relationships. We can also take action to embed consent into our policies, procedures, and practices. To truly create a culture of consent–in our workplaces, classrooms, and institutions–consent must be foundational to interpersonal relationships and interactions as well as communities and systems.

In the section below, we offer some sample scenarios and considerations for how to practice consent wholistically in various settings and relationships. 

In the workplace: 

At the start of every team meeting, the manager calls on each employee to share what they did over the weekend. 

While some folks may be fine with sharing personal details at work, others may prefer keeping their professional and personal lives separate. Whether you’re in a supervisory role or you’re an employee, asking and being mindful of everyone’s boundaries is the first step to creating a respectful workspace.

Here are some other suggestions for how to practice consent in the workplace:

  • If you’re in a supervisory position, ask employees if they have the capacity to take on new projects or serve on committees. If the task or project is required, work with the employee to figure out what needs to change so they have the capacity to take on the new task or project.

  • Ask colleagues how they would like you to refer to them. For example, ask them what personal pronouns they would like you to use.

  • Make a sincere effort to pronounce people’s names correctly. If you’re unsure, put aside your own feelings of discomfort or awkwardness and ask them to pronounce their name for you–and then practice until you get it right. 

  • Check-in with colleagues about their personal and professional boundaries. 

  • Engage in collaborative decision-making and involve colleagues and stakeholders in the planning processes. 

  • Respect colleagues’ diverse strengths. Invite people to do their work in ways that leverage their skills and strengths. 

  • Respect colleagues’ privacy by not sharing information that was disclosed in confidence or that you think might be sensitive or personal. 

In the classroom:

If you’re a student:

On the first day of class, a student films a Boomerang of another student who they find cute and uploads it to their Instagram story.

It is impossible to differentiate who is okay with being recorded and who is not, so it’s best to ask for permission before taking photos of or filming any of your classmates. 

Some people may not feel comfortable being recorded and having their image shared on social media. Regardless of their reasoning, everybody has the right to feel safe and comfortable on campus. 

Here are some other suggestions for how to practice consent in your classes:

  • Ask if a person would like to hear your thoughts before offering advice or feedback. Helping others may feel like a good thing, but giving advice or feedback out of the blue may come off as being condescending. Try asking, “I have a couple of suggestions. Can I share them with you?”

  • Ask for other folks’ boundaries when working on a group project. Check in with your group mates about what times are okay for communication or what communication platform they are comfortable using. 

If you’re an instructor or TA:

At the start of the term, an instructor tells their students that anyone who arrives more than 5 minutes late will not be allowed to enter the classroom unless they provide a note ahead of time to explain their tardiness.

While it can be distracting to have students coming in after class has started, students could have very legitimate reasons for running late, which they may not feel comfortable sharing with their instructor or TA. Compelling a student to disclose potentially sensitive personal information to the person who is grading them does not respect the student’s right to privacy and choice over how to engage in their studies. If an instructor or TA is concerned about the wellbeing of a student, they could share their concern with the student and invite them to connect with a relevant campus resource. That way, the student can get personal support without feeling pressured to tell their instructor or TA personal details that they may not wish to share.  

  • Ask students how they would like to be referred to. For example, ask them what name and pronouns they would like you to use when addressing them. 

  • Apply Universal Design principles in your course planning and teaching. To the extent that you are able, give students options for what course content they are required to engage with and how to demonstrate their learning. 

  • If you are teaching potentially sensitive topics, such as sexual violence, trauma, suicide, or substance abuse, use content notes in your course outlines, syllabi, assignments, and lectures/seminars, so students have the ability to prepare themselves for potentially triggering course content.

  • Consult with students and get their permission before sharing their personal information or circumstances with other individuals or SFU departments. For example, if you are concerned about a student’s mental health and well-being, have a conversation with the student and ask how they are doing. If it seems like they are struggling, offer to connect them to relevant support services. If you are concerned about an SFU student, you can always consult with the Office of Student Support, Rights, and Responsibilities or the Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office

In friendships:

A person calls their friend and starts to vent about their tough day as soon as their friend picks up the phone. 

Friends can act as a great support system after a hard day, and many people rely on their friends to listen. While calling someone up to vent may seem normal between friends, not everyone has the time or capacity to listen all the time. They may also be going through a hard day or are just not in the mindset to support anyone emotionally, which is okay. Although it may not seem like a big deal, simple ways of checking in with each other’s boundaries can help create a mutually respectful and meaningful friendship. 

Here are some other suggestions for how to practice consent in friendships:

  • Asking your friends their preferred method of communicating (eg. texts, phone calls, Facetime), how quickly they expect replies, and if there are times of day when they need space. 

  • Asking for consent before taking pictures of others, especially if the picture is to be shared with others or on social media.

  • Checking in with each other’s financial capacity before going on an outing, especially with a group of people. Avoid making assumptions that everyone has the financial ability to attend whatever is being planned.

  • Asking for permission before introducing a new acquaintance to someone or inviting another acquaintance to an outing.

  • Establishing boundaries on what kinds of personal details your friend is okay with you sharing with others. 

In sex:

Two partners are having sex and one partner wants to try something new. 

Consent is fundamental to all sexual activity, whether it’s in a casual or long-term relationship. If one person wants to try something new during sex, they should check with their sexual partner(s) to see if it is okay. It’s essential to not assume that just because someone agrees to one kind of sexual activity, they’re agreeing to all kinds of sexual activity. 

Here are some other suggestions for how to practice sexual consent:

  • Asking to have sex regardless of whether or not it’s happened before.

  • Checking what words, expressions and terms of endearment are okay with each other beforehand and understanding that boundaries can change.

  • Before having sex, having a conversation with your partner(s) about how you will practice safer sex

  • Checking in with your sexual partner(s) by asking them how they are doing and paying attention to their body language. 

  • Establishing a safe word to use while engaging in sexual activity and using it to signal when one person is not comfortable with what is happening and wants to stop.

  • If possible, having a conversation with the other person after sex and sharing what each person enjoyed. 

In family relationships

A person expects their spouse / partner to answer their calls or texts immediately, regardless of the topic, and gets annoyed when their partner replies two hours later. 

Family relationships–between parents and children, siblings, spouses or partners, or other family members–can be especially challenging when it comes to setting and respecting personal boundaries. Expectations around individual freedom and family responsibility are unique to each couple or family and vary across cultures and social contexts. However, if one person feels like their partner / spouse / parent / family member isn’t respecting their boundaries around their time, energy, or attention, it may be worthwhile to have a conversation with them about these differing expectations.  

Some other suggestions for practicing consent and respecting boundaries in various family relationships are:

  • Having an open conversation about each person’s expectations on topics such as access to private / personal space (eg. bathrooms or bedrooms) or information (bank accounts, passwords, email accounts, text messages)

  • Encouraging and respecting children’s right to bodily autonomy (eg. respecting a young child’s choice to not hug a particular relative)

  • Involving all family members or partners in important decisions that will affect them

  • Respecting that everybody needs personal time or time outside of the family or relationship

  • Establishing boundaries around what kinds of personal details or stories are okay to share with other people

About the authors: Joeun Chong is an undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University (SFU) pursuing a Criminology and Psychology joint major and a Counselling and Human Development minor. She is currently the Program Assistant with the Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Office (SVSPO). Belinda Karsen is the Educational Specialist with the SVSPO.