You’re in the middle of a hook-up. For whatever reason, you want to stop. You already consented to having sex so is it okay to change your mind? It’s not surprising that plenty of women have found themselves in this exact situation – most of us don’t know we could say ‘no’ whenever we want to … even during sex.
Research conducted by Studysoup.com found that over 14% of men believe that you cannot withdraw consent. The survey asked 1 000 men and women different questions, including their perceptions on withdrawing consent. One in 10 participants said that reversing consent during sex isn’t a thing. That’s a problem.
‘Nobody is taught about consent. People don’t speak about consent’
While there are no comprehensive studies of this nature in SA, it’s safe to assume that with one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world, consent isn’t an issue we fully recognise. Sexual-health advocate and writer Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng says consent is a conversation SA never had. ‘Consent is linked to pleasure, but it also brings up issues of street harassment – cat-calling women on the street that perpetuates rape culture,’ says Mofokeng.
In sexual education and life orientation, consent is a topic that doesn’t go further than ‘no means no’. We discuss all the doom and gloom of sex from teen pregnancy to STIs, but we’re never taught about pleasure and how to navigate desire in a safe and healthy way. The key pillar of consent and how that should permeate every sexual and social scenario we have is the missing piece of ending gender-based violence.
Mofokeng says at the basis of rape culture is our lack of understanding when it comes to consent. And consent is a lesson that needs to start long before life orientation. ‘From kissing to holding hands, someone can say no at any point and any time,’ says Mofokeng. ‘From an early age we’re not taught how to ask for consent socially or sexually, and respect when someone says no.’
Mofokeng says that from the time we’re children and forced to hug an auntie or uncle even if we didn’t want to, we’re taught to ignore our instincts and accept non-consensual behaviour. ‘Even as children, we’re taught we don’t have the right to say no.’ But the problem goes deeper than just saying ‘no means no’. ‘People struggle with the language of consent. We teach “no means no”, but we don’t give advice on how to say no to your boyfriend when you’re in an on-going relationships,’ says Mofokeng. ‘We don’t assist people with that language. Sex by definition is consensual. When it’s not, it’s rape.’
What is consent?
Consent is required to be involved in any form of sexual activity. In terms of South African law, someone cannot consent if they are asleep, unconscious or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, under the age of 12 or mentally disabled. According to Rape Crisis Cape Town, consent is ‘to agree to something, give permission or say “yes” when you understand what is being asked of you and when you are not forced or deceived into giving consent.’
But what happens when you’ve said ‘yes’ but now you want to withdraw your consent?
There are any and all reasons why you may want to stop having sex – all of them are valid. You may not feel like it any more because it’s painful, or you simply just want it to stop. Mofokeng says: ‘People who come in to deal with sexual trauma and receive therapy from us often say they only have sex on their partner’s terms, meaning they don’t consent but are pressured to perform.’ Mofokeng notes that when you consent to the conditions of a type of sex, you have to give permission to change those conditions. ‘When you say yes to having sex with a condom and then someone takes that condom off while you’re having sex, you didn’t consent. Acts like stealthing are also rape.’
Planned Parenthood is the brain behind FRIES, the five main conditions for sex to be consensual. FRIES stands for freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific.
Reversible means ‘anybody can change their mind about what they want to do, at any time.’ This includes if you’ve had sex with that person before or agreed to have sex moments before. You have the right to reverse that consent but it’s a lot easier said than done.
Women are socialised to take a back seat when it comes to our sexuality, while men have agency to control how and when to exercise their desire. ‘We can assist people with the tools to say no. But we also place too much value on forcing women in relationships even if they don’t work,’ says Mofokeng. Women are taught that it’s normal to be disrespected and humiliated. ‘You can’t be assertive and say no when you’ve been coerced and abused in a physically and emotionally abusive situation where saying no could be met with violence and you being violated.’
How to withdraw your consent
‘The most clear way is to say, “No, please stop.” But saying, “I don’t like this” or “Can we change position?” or “I need a break” also works,’ says Mofokeng. Most importantly, consent must involve ongoing communication, every step of the way. ‘What consent requires from all of us to is to be more aware of respect for autonomy and agency of others to say no.’
If you withdrew your consent but are ignored and sexually assaulted, you have the right to report your rape to the police and lay a charge.
How to report sexual assault
Step 1 – Tell someone you trust. This person is the first contact and may be called to testify in court
Step 2 – Go to the nearest police station and report your rape
Step 3 – See a medical examiner and fill a J88 form to give consent to a full forensic exam
Step 4 – Give your statement to the investigating officer: make sure to get your case number and a copy of your statement
Step 5 – Get the IO’s contact details to keep in contact
NB: If you want to report your assault but don’t want to take the investigation further, make sure the police record it in the Occurrence Book and give you your OB number.
Lawyers Against Abuse
- Visit Lva.org.za
Legal Aid Advice Line (free)
- Call 0800 110 110 (toll-free) or the Please Call Me service through 079 835 7179
- They will also be able to tell you which Legal Aid office is closest to your location
- Call their HQ: 011 642 4335
- Download the free POWA GBV app for Android or iOS to report abuse and find help centres near to you
- Call 0861 322 322
- Dial *134*7355#
- Call 10111
- Visit their FCS Unit