Sunday 16 June 2019

Relationships: Every student needs to understand sexual consent

Here, Síona Cahill, the president of the Union of Students in Ireland, offers a really useful guide to help students navigate the 'dos' and 'don'ts' around consent.

USI president Síona Cahill: ‘Consent must always be ongoing, mutual and freely given.’ Photo: Conor McCabe
USI president Síona Cahill: ‘Consent must always be ongoing, mutual and freely given.’ Photo: Conor McCabe

A recent survey provides an insight into some worrying attitudes and behaviour among third-level students in Ireland around sexual consent and sexual harassment, including the impact of excess alcohol consumption on perceptions.

The findings from the SMART Consent research team at NUI Galway also show that the majority of students were dissatisfied with their relationships and sex education at school, which helps to explain why 18- 19-year-olds are moving into adulthood without all they need to know to empower their choices.

A number of colleges are now offering sexual consent workshops, and first years are well advised to check out what is available on that front. They shold also familiarise themselves with other support services they or their friends may need. There are some suggestions at the bottom of this article.

Consent is something you're definitely used to. When you ask someone to borrow their coat, you ask for consent to use it. If someone wants you to stop taking their coat, you respect that. This applies to sexual consent too.

College may be a time where you engage more in sexual experiences, and it is intimidating. Communication, consent and mutual understanding will help you to feel more comfortable and enjoy the experience.

During sexual encounters, people are vulnerable and they trust you with a very private part of their lives. This is something you must respect, and treat it as such. Being communicative about what both people are happy with is central to that, and it also makes it more enjoyable.

Situations are never black and white, so to help with the grey areas, we can define consent as Ongoing, Mutual and Freely Given (OMFG).


Consent must always be ongoing. Agreeing to go home with someone, or having had sex before, doesn't mean that a person still wants to do this. Consent can be retracted before or during sex. If you feel that a person isn't into it, ask to be sure.


Consent must always be mutual. What you think is implied could be different than your partner's thinking. When you ask them to go home with you, that could imply different expectations in the evening. Make sure that you are on the same page of what you are comfortable with.

Freely Given

Consent must always be freely given. Pressuring someone can be in several forms, such as pestering, continuous or unwelcome physical contact, or emotional manipulation. "Yes" does not mean yes if it is not freely given. A person cannot freely give their consent if they are too intoxicated to give it, if they're unconscious or don't understand what they've consented to.

Consent is very easy to ask for before and during sex. You can use a combination of phrases, gestures and verbal cues. Using phrases like, "You OK?" or, "Is this OK?" can be simple and effective - they're not embarrassing. Asking questions at different stages can help to show consent. Instead of heading to a bedroom, you could ask, "Do you want to go to my room?", "Do you want me to get a condom?" etc, and wait for a response.

In practice, it is not only simple to ask for consent regularly, but it's 100pc necessary.

Not every sexual encounter may be enjoyable. You may feel disappointed, let down, regretful. You may feel embarrassed to talk to your friends about this but there are always supports that you can use.

In my experience of hearing students' stories, they can feel embarrassed, guilty, doubtful or a combination of the three, even if they fancied the person. By talking to supports available, you are able to work out what you are uncomfortable with and what support could help you to recover. These supports include your friend group. Talk to them - be open - then everyone is more comfortable to share experiences.

If you are uncertain about an experience, but feel you were taken advantage of, you can talk to a students' union officer as a peer. They are there to support you, and they want to help you. There are also anonymous helplines you can talk to, in order to build up your trust with a person.

Consent is necessary, it's simple to ask for, it will ensure that you are more comfortable. Make sure your partner is saying "OMFG"!

Supports available to you:

  • Your local Students' Union
  • Rape Crisis Centre 24-hour helpline: 1800 77 8888 (text 086 823 8443, Monday-Friday, 8am-6.30pm for those with hearing difficulties)
  • Samaritans: 116 123 (text 087 260 9090 for those with hearing difficulties)

Síona Cahill is president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI)

Irish Independent

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