Consider this scenario - Kim becomes acquaintances with her colleague, John, and over the next few months they begin developing an intimate relationship. They met up frequently at a hotel and had sexual intercourse. However, their relationship soon took a sour turn and they broke off. Despite the breakup, they still continued to meet each other and even had consensual intercourse at one point. John then asks Kim to have intercourse with him once more, but she refused and he did it anyways. A few weeks later, they both willingly had intercourse once more.
Was there consent or was that sexual assault? Although Kim had willingly had intercourse with John before and after, there was one incident when she did not give consent – making her a victim of sexual assault. Regardless of the relationship that one has with another, or the acts that one has previously consented to, consent is always needed for a new act or that is sexual assault.
Although such extreme scenarios are often not seen, it is important to note that sexual assault can take on many forms and anyone can be a victim. It could just be a simple act of touching or kissing, but as long as consent was not given, that is sexual assault.
So, what exactly is sexual assault?
Sexual assault, or as some might call it – sexual trauma, is an umbrella term that can generally be used to describe any sexual act that is imposed on another person without their consent. It should be noted that there are many legal definitions of the terms 'sexual assault' and 'sexual trauma', but for the purpose of this article, we define sexual assault as such. Sexual assault need not involve physical violence and can be a one-time event or an ongoing experience. Sexual assault can include the following:
Any type of penetration without consent, including vaginal, anal and oral, using any part of the body or object.
Any unconsented sexual touching, such as kissing and groping.
Any unwanted sexual requests, messaging or gestures, even if it was done via an electronic medium.
Being forced to view pornography against one’s will.
Unwanted taking and/or sharing of nude or intimate photographs or videos
Victims of sexual assault need not have to physically struggle against the attacker due to shock, fear or due to any type of dependance on the attacker, as long as there was no consent given, it is sexual trauma.
SEXUAL ASSAULT IS NEVER THE FAULT OF THE VICTIM, REGARDLESS OF THEIR BEHAVIOUR, WHAT THEY WERE WEARING, WHAT THEY WERE DRINKING OR THEIR SEXUAL HISTORY.
Was consent given?
Sometimes, it can be quite difficult to know if consent was given. In such a passionate moment, we may find it awkward to ask our partners if they agree to a certain act, and we often rely on how they behave to know if consent was given. However, it should be noted that to reach a conclusion as to whether consent was given, all of the parties’ words, conduct and circumstances must be taken into consideration.
One cannot solely rely on another’s action to reach a conclusion, because the other party may be feeling pressured into saying ‘yes’ – and that is not consent. Neither is silence. Consent means that one actively agrees to be sexual with another, and most importantly, it must be given freely and voluntarily. If you are unsure if consent was given, you should always ask verbally. Consenting and asking for consent sets your boundaries and allows you to respect that of your partner’s. Any act carried out without consent infringes on one’s rights to bodily integrity and sexual autonomy.
It should be remembered that consent is reversible, even if you said ‘yes’ earlier, you can always change your mind, and your partner has to respect your decision. You are also allowed to say ‘stop’ and your partner should respect it. A consent to some sexual acts does not mean that consent was given for other sexual acts, for example if consent was given was kissing, this does not mean the consent was given for penetration.
Consent is never implied by one’s past behavior, what one wear, or where one went. The importance of giving consent also does not just apply to one’s first time with someone. Even between current and/or past partners, and married couples, each sexual act calls for mutual consent.
How do I give consent, or ensure that consent was given then?
It is very important for there to be clear communication between both parties so that both understands where each other’s boundaries lie at. Here are some tips one may use to talk to one’s partner about sexual consent:
Think about your boundaries and desires. What are you comfortable with and what makes you uncomfortable.
Ask your partner if they are interested in being sexual with you.
Ask every time and check in with your partner.
Always keep an open mind and be open with any response. Accept a ‘no’ as readily as you would a ‘yes’.
Make specific requests so that it is clear what you are consenting to.
Feel free to speak up if you are unsure or if you change your mind.
Did they say yes?
So, we learnt the importance of consent and how to clearly communicate our consent. However, sometimes we think that the other party has consented (he/she did say ‘yes’ after all!), but because of the situation they were in, their consent may not be valid. There are many misunderstandings as to what constitutes consent. Listed below are some examples where consent was not given and it is wrong to continue with whatever was the intended act.
The victim was drunk. In fact, as in most states, under the Singapore law, the attacker can be convicted under Section 90 of the Penal Code. There is no consent given if one is unable to understand the nature and consequences of their consent, be it due to unsoundness of the mind, intoxication or being under the influence of drugs, even if one has said ‘yes’ to the act.
The victim consented before passing out. Again, their consent is no longer valid. The moment they passed out, they are not consenting anymore.
Some believe that agreeing to a sleepover, especially knowing that there will be an absence of parents, constitutes as consent. This is definitely not true. Even if both parties expected to have intercourse during the sleepover, they could have a change of mind and their decisions should still be respected.
The victim did not struggle. There is a line drawn between consent and submission. Every consent involves submission, but every submission does not equate to consent.
The impact of sexual assault
Sexual assault has a different effect on every victim and there is no wrong or right way on how a victim should feel or react. However, there are some common reactions that victims of sexual assault will have, and these includes feeling shameful (such as feeling dirty or permanently flawed), guilty as they believed that they were at fault, and being in denial (for example, ‘It only happened once.’).
In the long run, many victims develop coping mechanisms which may be beneficial – such as finding social support, or it may be counterproductive and have a negative impact on their mental and physical health.
If you are a woman in Singapore and have experienced sexual assault, you may wish to reach out to AWARE Singapore, where they are able to provide you the support and help you may need.
Hence, when engaging in a sexual act with your partner, it is very important to be able to communicate clearly what you consent to and what you are not comfortable with. Our doctors at Dear Doc are well-equipped to help you effectively communicate your consent, as well as provide more information on sexual assault and the importance of consent. Our doors are open to everyone, regardless of your gender, as anyone can experience sexual assault.
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What is Sexual Assault. (n.d.). Sexual Assault Care Center, AWARE Singapore. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from http://sacc.aware.org.sg/get-information/what-is-sexual-assault/.
Understanding Consent. AWARE Singapore. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/relationships/sexual-consent
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Sexual Communication. (2019, July 12). Student Health and Counseling Services, University of California, Davis. https://shcs.ucdavis.edu/health-topic/sexual-communication
The Effects of Sexual Assault. Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. Retrieved May 28, 2021, from https://www.wcsap.org/help/about-sexual-assault/effects-sexual-assault