Teen Health 411
Teen Health 411

Is it Consensual Sex or Rape?

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The Washington Post recently published a story that disturbed me deeply. The story "Court Says Consensual Sex Can't Become Rape" by Ernesto Londono reported about a Court of Special Appeals in Maryland that overturned a rape conviction based on a legal view that "a woman cannot be raped after she has agreed to have sex."

According to this story, the issue was that at some point during a sexual encounter the female asked the male to stop, and he did not. His defense is "she had started to have sex," so it was consensual. Her perspective is that she did not feel she could say no and when she experienced pain during intercourse, she told him to stop, and he did not. The legal issue at hand is the difference between rape and sexual assault.

As a parent, I want to be able to teach my children that "no means no" and that they can stop any behavior, at any time, and have the right to expect the person they are with to respect their decision and choice. As a health educator, we are teaching sexuality education classes that include the message that if a sexual partner refuses to use a reliable method of birth control or a barrier method to prevent HIV, or if there is a perceived sexually transmitted infection, or the intercourse is rough or includes violence or coercion, a person can say "stop." Do we need to add the caveat, "unless you already consented?"

But what is "consent to have sex?" According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) consent must be explicit. A prior or current relationship or previous acts of intimacy are insufficient indicators of consent and verbal consent must be obtained both in each instance of sexual intimacy and as the level of sexual intimacy increases (e.g., moving from kissing to petting, from petting to oral sex, from oral sex to intercourse, etc...). Wouldn't that suggest that at any point in a sexually intimate encounter, a person can withdraw their consent, and the other person would be expected to stop?

As a community, including the courts, medical professionals and parents, we need to be clear - rape is sexual contact that occurs against a person's will by means of force, violence, duress, or fear of bodily injury. How hard is that to understand?

Photo credit: scammah

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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.

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