By Tyler Osterhaus, Guest Blogger & Sexual Violence Prevention Unit Coordinator at the CO Dept. of Public Health & Environment
You’ve probably heard by now that recreational marijuana use is legal in Colorado, but you might still have questions about the impacts of marijuana use and sexual consent. It’s important not to get too caught in the weeds, per say. While different substances do affect users in different ways, the rules of consent don’t change from substance to substance.
Consent is based on the idea that all parties involved in a sexual situation have given their full and enthusiastic permission as participants, and that they are free to opt out at any point. To consent to sexual activity means that you are of sound mind when you give permission, and that you are doing so under your own free will – no one is pressuring, threatening, or forcing you to do so.
While drugs and alcohol are often used as tools by perpetrators of sexual assault to incapacitate and increase the vulnerability of their victims, drugs and alcohol in and of themselves are not the cause of these violent acts – the choices and actions of the perpetrator are. Unlike drunk driving laws, there is no clear set limit (such as a BAC of .08) when it comes to substance use, consent, and the law.
So whether we are we are sober or under the influence, how do we ensure that we are navigating consent correctly? First and foremost, consent is based on communication. Ideally verbal communication is best and leaves less room for misinterpretation, but we also communicate nonverbally by our body language and actions. We might be tempted to rely solely on the actions of our partner(s) as cues for consent, such as when you both begin mutually undressing each other, or when they reciprocate your touch, but these nonverbal cues aren’t necessarily enough. The only definitive way to know for sure is to ask. For many people talking about sex, even with their partner(s), can feel awkward and uncomfortable.
Here are a few simple tips:
1. Consent is an eager and enthusiastic “Yes”. Not the absence of “No.” Let’s start by affirming the positive. Sex should be safe, fun, and enjoyable for everyone involved. The only way to know for sure if someone is consenting to sex is by asking them AND waiting to receive back their affirmative response.
• “Do you want to go back to my place and have sex?”
• “Would it be ok if I kissed you?”
• “Is it ok if I take your pants off?”
2. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Your partner may have given you that enthusiastic “yes” 10 minutes ago, and things are really starting to heat up, but now they’re reconsidering. Maybe they aren’t communicating this directly, but their body language shows that they aren’t that into it or seem uncomfortable. It’s your responsibility to continually check in with each other and respect each other’s limits at all times.
• “Does this feel good?”
• “Do you want me to keep going?”
• “You don’t seem like you’re into this anymore. Do you want me to stop?”
3. Consent for one activity is not consent for all activities. Just because someone has given you consent doesn’t mean it’s a sexual free-for-all and you have full, unlimited access to their body. Talk to your partner(s) about what they’re into, what turns them on, and what their limits are.
• “Wow! That felt really good. I’ve been curious about trying this new position. Is that something you would like to try with me? It’s ok if you don’t, but I think it might be fun. We can stop at any time if you aren’t enjoying it.”
4. The responsibility for misinterpretation of consent when either party is under the influence falls on the initiator of further sexual activity. There’s no doubt that using any substance can impair our ability to make good judgments, but for too long our culture has blamed victims of sexual assault for getting too drunk or too high. That’s not how consent works. If there is any doubt whether or not someone who has been using drugs or alcohol is of sound mind to give consent it is our responsibility to err on the side of caution. This might seem disappointing in the moment, but chances are if they’re really into you they’ll appreciate the care and respect you show them by waiting and revisiting the topic when everyone is sober.
• “Hey, I was so hot for you last night, but I was worried that you had too much to drink and then you smoked that joint so I didn’t try to make a move. Now that we’re both sober I wanted to see if you might still be interested in hooking up sometime. What do you think?”
Tyler Osterhaus is an artist, advocate, and anti-violence educator dedicated to promoting concepts of healthy relationships, responsible fatherhood, and gender equality. He has brought his high energy and often humorous approach to anti-violence education to non-profits, schools, human services agencies, military installations, community groups, and most recently to the National Sexual Assault Conference. He has also served in the trenches as a front line Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Victim Advocate and has worked with the Department of the Navy’s Family Advocacy Program and Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program. Tyler currently serves as the Sexual Violence Prevention Unit Coordinator at Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.