understanding consent

Please note that the following information may be triggering to anyone who has experienced or been affected by sexual harm.

Some individuals do not understand or recognise consent and sometimes stereotypes and myths can influence how consent can be perceived. To help explain how the issue of consent can be portrayed, and why this can be harmful, here are some examples:

Consent to sex/sexual activity means agreeing by choice and having the freedom and capacity to make that choice. To give consent, a person must have the capacity (i.e. the age and understanding) to make a choice about whether or not to take part in a sexual activity at the time in question. They also must be in a position to make that choice freely, and not be constrained in any way.

examples of unequal power

In our view consent can only ever take place when there is equal power between people. This list is not exhaustive, but examples of unequal power could be a relationship or interaction where one person:


  • makes all the decisions
  • actively removes choices or the ability to make choices, from another person
  • refuses to compromise during a disagreement
  • does not respect another person and expresses contempt for them
  • isolates another person
  • physically intimidates another person
  • disregards the needs and feelings of another person
  • will not take personal responsibility for their own actions and behaviours
  • always has to have the last word
  • has financial control over another person
  • has a professional position of power higher than another person/group
  • holds a status of power in the community, higher than another person/group
  • has familial control over another person/group
  • is an adult and another person is a child (a boy or girl under the age of 16 cannot consent to sex by law)


Although the issue of consent itself should be easy to understand in terms of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, in our society there are factors that continually undermine and threaten it. The following list is not exhaustive, but examples could include mis-perceptions that:

  • if you are in a relationship with someone and they want sex, you should always have sex with them
  • the types of clothes you wear are an invitation for sex
  • to progress at work or in education you may be required to have sex with someone
  • some activities seen in pornography such as anal sex, are what all people should want and/or are entitled to do
  • some people make themselves ‘vulnerable’ to being the victim of a sexual crime, due to things like walking home alone, using drugs, consuming alcohol, taking part in chemsex, going to a cruising site, visiting a dark room etc.

more information

Further information which explains consent, including an animation about ‘tea’ and consent, can be found online

Freeze, fawn and flop

The human brain is complicated and does things automatically and instinctively which are designed to help keep us safe when we experience danger. Neurochemical processes in our brain help us to survive something dangerous by putting us into certain states such as:

  • Fight – we physically fight and/or struggle for survival
  • Flight – we attempt to get away from the danger by backing away, running etc

Some people perceive that if an individual does not say “no” or ‘fight off’ or attempt to “run away” from the person harming them, then they are consenting to sex, and that what then happens to them is not a sexual offence. Although many people have heard the term ‘fight or flight’ in the context of dangerous situations, what can be less recognised is that the brain can also activate the states of ‘freeze, flop and fawn’ and by recognising what they are, we can begin to understand why saying “no”, ‘fighting back’ and ‘getting away’ are not always possible or even an option.  

  • Freeze – we become silent and still (this is particularly common when experiencing a sexual offence and is not a sign of consent)
  • Flop – similar to freezing but unlike becoming tense, our muscles ‘flop’ which is the brain’s way of trying to protect the body from physical pain and injury
  • Fawn or Submit – this is a response to ‘be-friend’ or placate the person causing us harm, in an attempt to survive whatever it is they are going to do. Again, this is not a form of consent.

Please note that the following information contains detailed references and descriptions of sexual harm

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