This April the National Sexual Violence Resource Center leads the Sexual Assault Awareness Month(SAAM) campaign, I Ask. The goal of SAAM is to raise public awareness about sexual violence and educate communities on how to prevent it. The focus of the I Ask campaign is to champion the power of asking by putting it into practice.
Asking for consent is a healthy, normal, and necessary part of everyday interactions. Consent is about choosing to respect the personal and emotional boundaries of others—asking for consent, or permission, demonstrates that respect. Loss of consent is one of the most devastating aspects of experiencing sexual violence (i.e., unwanted touching, penetration, rape, or harassment).
Asking for consent helps prevent sexual encounters that fall into the “gray area” where it is unclear whether both persons freely and willingly agreed to participate in the sexual act or whether one person may have felt coerced or pressured into going along. The gray area can happen in first time hook-ups or long-term relationships.
Asking for consent doesn’t have to be awkward but sometimes it might be—and that’s okay. Own the awkwardness—consent is about open and honest communication. It’s always best to ask before starting any sexual act, like kissing, caressing, rubbing, touching, or taking it further. Be clear that saying no is okay and understand that by continuing to ask without checking in about what the other person wants can become coercive and aggressive.
So how do you ask for consent? Be direct. If you’re unsure of the response, stop and talk it out.
- Can I kiss you?
- Do you want to have sex?
- Are you comfortable with me doing this?
- Do you want to make out and cuddle or just watch the movie?
- How far do you want to go tonight?
- Do you want me to stop?
- Can we try something new?
With the CDC reporting that in the U.S. one in three women and one in six men experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime, it is clear that unwanted sexual assault continues to occur. There is help for survivors who have had any range of unwanted sexual contact. Each state and county across the country have rape crisis centers that provide immediate crisis counseling, victim advocacy, medical and legal accompaniment, community outreach, prevention education, and referrals for other services.
As doulas and birth workers, it is important that we understand the impact of sexual violence on the lives of the clients we serve, particularly during pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenting. There are excellent resources available on this topic. Mickey Sperlich and Julia Seng wrote about healing from sexual abuse while giving birth and mothering in Survivor Moms. Penny Simkin has researched the intersection of childhood sexual abuse on women of childbearing age in When Survivors Give Birth and in With Harp & Sword: A Doula’s Guide to Trauma-Informed Birth Support, Kenya Fairley writes about being a trauma-informed doula supporting survivors of intimate partner violence.
If you or someone you know would like to talk with a knowledgeable, compassionate advocate about recovering from sexual violence, contact RAINN: the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network 24/7 by phone at 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE) or online live chat in English or in Spanish. Contact the DoD Safe-line for enlisted service members, Veterans, and the military community.
Access more resources and tools for raising awareness of sexual violence throughout the year at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.