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Going to college: ‘Consent is OMFG – Ongoing, Mutual, and Freely Given’

The issue of consent is now receiving the attention it deserves on college campuses.Dr Caroline West and Roisin Nic Lochlainn of NUI Galway share important pointers


Caroline West

Caroline West

NUI Galway Students’ Union President Róisín Nic Lochlainn

NUI Galway Students’ Union President Róisín Nic Lochlainn


Caroline West

Everyone knows now that consent is an important part of sexual communication and wellbeing, but most of the young people in schools and colleges surveyed by Active* Consent say they haven’t heard a lot about it at school. It’s great to know that the vast majority of young people in these surveys also say that it is always important that there is consent between two people for any type of intimacy. But what should that look like?

There are different ways to ask for or give consent. It can be verbal or non-verbal, however the issue with non-verbal consent is that it may not be clear. While some people choose to use non-verbal consent, others may do so because they think their peers don’t talk about it. Taking a consent workshop will help you feel more confident about communicating and asking for consent. Last year, over 18,000 students took the Active* Consent workshop at their college. We have found that attending a workshop leads to people gaining in knowledge and skills, and they are never asked to talk about personal experiences.

One thing you will hear about in the workshop is that consent is OMFG – Ongoing, Mutual, and Freely Given. You can stop your consent and change your mind at any time. And consent to one thing doesn’t mean you have agreed to any other sexual activity, so it is important to communicate clearly with your partner if you want to go further.

Green flags in sexual relationships include asking for consent, openly discussing contraception, ensuring mutual pleasure, and getting STI checks. It is not embarrassing or awkward to ask for consent, in fact the opposite! Red flags to watch out for include pressure to do acts that you don’t want to do, refusing to communicate, refusing to ask for consent, and putting pressure on someone to not use contraception. The more green flags, the healthier the overall relationship will be.

The best ways to achieve a happy and enjoyable sex life is to communicate with your partners. Ask them what they like, tell them what you like, and learn different ways to ask and give consent. Consent can be as simple as ‘hey, I’d love to do x, y, z, with you, what do you think?’ and giving it can be as easy as saying ‘yes! That sounds great!’

Saying no can be very straightforward – over 90pc of students in Active* Consent surveys say that it is ok to say, “No, I don’t want to”. If someone says no, they are not rejecting you, just the act at that moment.

Some young adults also explore digital intimacy, where they send nudes online. This can be fun and help build sexual confidence in a new relationship, but there may be people who will choose to send those images on to someone else without consent. This is illegal and is called ‘image based sexual abuse’ (formerly ‘revenge porn’). Also, if someone keeps asking you for nudes after you have said no, this is not ok and this is abusive behaviour. If someone takes images of you without your consent, this is illegal. If this happens to you and you need support, your college will have free resources that are non-judgemental, or you can go to the Gardaí.

Your Students’ Union will be well equipped to advise and help students to find the support services they may need in these situations. It is important to remember that this is never your fault and that there are people who want to help and support you.

While in college some people choose to drink alcohol, and sometimes they also have sex while they are under the influence. It is important to be conscious of consent here as this is a risky space. Many of the students who tell us in Active* Consent surveys that they have experienced sexual assault state that they were assaulted when they were intoxicated and could not give consent. At the very least, alcohol can result in a situation where communication can be misinterpreted or signals misread. Many students we work with say that there are sure signs that someone cannot given consent because of alcohol – slurring your words, feeling really drunk, difficulty walking straight and so on.

However, there is no blood alcohol limit for consent in the same way that there is for driving, so we don’t know whether there is a safe limit either — a lot depends on the situation, who you are with, and what you are comfortable with. Of course, if someone is blacked out or unconscious, they cannot give consent.

You can expect your college to help you ensure that your college experience is healthy and safe.

You should receive clear information on sexual violence and harassment policies, workshops about consent, and be informed what supports and services are available if you or a friend are affected by any of these issues. In the meantime, go online to the USI to spend 30 minutes learning more about consent: https://activeconsent.usi.ie/index.php/take-the-module/

Dr Caroline West, outreach coordinator, NUI Galway Active* Consent; Roisin Nic Lochlainn, president, NUI Galway Students’ Union

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