golden rule of consent

The concept of the “golden rule” can be found in every major culture and dates back to ancient times. The version I grew up with, “do onto others as you wish to be treated” is a popular saying often used to explain what respect means.

The problem with the golden rule, especially when it comes to relationships and sexual activity (which could be anything from kissing, touching, to intercourse or taking nude pics) is that it teaches us to assume everyone wants to be treated the same way we do when of course, in reality, each of us is incredibly unique in our sexual likes, dislikes, turn-ons, and hang ups; how could we ever expect to know what another person wants until we ask them? These likes and dislikes change over time as we grow and learn more about ourselves, our bodies, relationships, and the world around us.

A far better golden rule when it comes to being a respectful sexual partner is to avoid assuming they like the same things as you or have the same expectations of what is going to happen (or not happen) sexually. Obtain consent in a very clear way by asking things like “can I kiss you?” and “do you want to have sex?” then listen for an enthusiastic, freely given “yes” in response before you continue.

This golden rule of consent is echoed by the law in Canada which is clear that silence, a lack of resistance, or absence of the word “no” do not equal consent. In Canada sexual consent must be explicit and cannot be given in certain situations such as:

  • Either of you are under 12
  • If you are under 18 and are paid, or offered payment, for sex
  • If you are under 18 and the other person is in a position of authority, trust, or dependency (like a camp counsellor, step parent, or teacher)
    If the other person is a family member (brother, sister, parent, grandparent)
  • If you are 12-13 years old and the other person is more than 2 years older
  • If you are 14-15 years old and the other person is more than 5 years older
  • If one person is afraid of saying no or is threatened, bullied, harassed or intimidated into saying yes (if someone says maybe or is not sure, this means STOP, do not pressure them)
  • If the other person is unconscious (consent can also not be given in advance of unconsciousness)
  • When either of you is drunk or high and can’t think clearly (as the person seeking sex cannot assess if someone is capable of giving consent)

The law puts the responsibility on the person seeking sex to pay attention to any signs from the other person that they do not consent. This doesn’t just mean the other person saying no or pushing you away. Sometimes the person we are with is not comfortable saying no, but this does not mean they are giving consent.

What does “no” sound like?

  • “not right now”
  • “let’s just cuddle”
  • “I’m not sure if I’m ready”
  • “maybe later”
  • crying
  • complete silence
  • lack of feedback showing your partner is enjoying themselves

What does “no” feel like?

  • turning away or moving your hands away or pushing you away
  • rigid body language
  • signs that she is afraid
  • she is not moving, is asleep, or unconscious

When it comes to sex, remember this new version of the golden rule and treat others the way they want to be treated by asking, checking in, and checking again. You might have had cake for dessert tonight but this doesn’t automatically mean you want a piece tomorrow or a week from now. Never assume, never guess, and never push a yes.

Written by Amber Wardell, Haldimand & Norfolk Women’s Services