Sexual Consent

Barker, Meg John (2016). Sexual Consent. In: Goldberg, Abbie E. ed. The Sage Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Studies, Volume 3. London: SAGE, pp. 1044–1048.



Despite its obvious importance, sexual consent remains a remarkably under-researched and under-theorized topic. Sexual consent has important implications in the areas of: sexual violence and the law; sex education and sex advice; and LGBTQ studies, particularly in relation to drugs and sex, BDSM/kink/leather, and debates around age of consent for various sexual practices and identities.

Reviews of the literature find a notable absence of studies and articles relating specifically to the topic of sexual consent: specifically, only 1-2% of the number of those relating to rape or sexual assault. Similarly, analyses of mainstream sex advice books, articles, and websites find that the topic of consent is rarely, if ever, mentioned, despite its pivotal role in ensuring that sex is not abusive. Frequently the only time consent is covered is in relation to BDSM or kinky sex, as a form of delineating such practices from ‘normal’ sex which is generally assumed not to require any strategies to ensure consent. This seems problematic given the consistently high level of incidents of sexual violence, and increasing awareness of the prevalence of sexual assaults and abuse across various contexts.

This entry provides a brief overview of five of the main ways of understanding sexual consent which exist within the psychological and legal literature, and within feminist writings and writings from within BDSM communities. It starts with assumptions that consent is implicitly understood, moving onto definitions wherein it is assumed that consent has been given as long as nobody has explicitly refused or said ‘no’. It then moves on to the concept of ‘enthusiastic consent’, and consent as an ongoing communication between people, ending with a consideration of ‘consent cultures’: the idea that consent negotiations occur within a wider social context and are impacted by the power relations between those involved.

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