Sexual Consent and Mental Health

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

You try to tell yourself maybe it wasn’t such a big deal. And you just need to forget about it, like it never happened. You aren’t pregnant, you didn’t catch anything, best to just leave it be.

But acts of sexual violation that override your consent can have knock on effects for your mental and emotional health.

*[If you need immediate help in the UK, find your nearest NHS rape and assault support centre here].

What is sexual consent?

Sexual consent means you gave your clear permission for someone to be sexual with you and for a sexual act to be carried out, and that that permission was not in any way forced out of you with bullying or manipulation. You wanted the sexual act to happen and you voiced it.

Planned Parenthood use the acronym 'FRIES'. Consent is

  • Freely given (made without pressure or manipulation)
  • Reversible (you can change your mind, even at the last second)
  • Informed (you know about it. If they don't use a condom and don't tell you this is not informed).
  • Enthusiastic (you want to do it and are not feeling obligated or like it's expected)
  • Specific. (They need your consent for each thing. Agreeing to oral sex, for example, does not give them permission to then attempt penetration).

Violations of consent

Violent rape and aggressive assault are obviously far outside the line of sexual consent. But it’s important to understand what is and isn’t consent when it comes to things that might not feel as clear to you.

Things that are NOT okay and do not respect sexual consent include someone:

  • touching your body when you have not clearly said they can or clearly don’t want them to
  • having sex with you when you are too drunk or high to know what’s really happening
  • taking off the condom mid act without telling you ('stealthing')
  • pushing physical touching further when you have said stop or obviously aren't comfortable
  • turning one sexual act into another without your permission to do so
  • having sex with you when you are asleep even if you are in a relationship
  • ejaculating inside of you when you have told them not to or they haven't asked
  • spying on your when you undress or are sexual with someone else
  • taking photos or a video of your body without your permission.

Why sexual consent matters

Even if it seems small, like being grabbed when you didn’t say it was okay, if it keeps happening, several moments of disregarded consent to add up to long term consequences. These can include:

1. A diminished ability to trust others.

This might mean we can’t then have relationships, might pull away from friends and family, and are left lonely and depressed. Or that we end up avoiding our life goals of having a family, for example.

2. Damaged self-esteem.

It can play on already low self-esteem, or send your brain the message that you aren’t able to protect yourself, or that you aren’t worthy of good things.

3. Negative beliefs that can affect all areas of your life.

If you don’t feel worthy, you might, say, then not apply for that promotion you’ve spent years preparing for. If you are left with a belief that the world is dangerous, you can stop going out much, or be left with ongoing anxiety when you do.

4. Losing interest in the things that used to matter to you.

This is a sign of depression but it can start gradually. You can slowly let things drop away, hobbies, friends, not realising you are depressed.

5. Bigger unresolved traumas are triggered.

If you were abused as a child, a person not respecting your physical boundaries can trigger that trauma and leave you feeling worthless and overwhelmed and reliving all the pain of that past experience.

6. No longer feeling comfortable in your body.

You might see changes to things like eating and exercise, or develop an eating disorder.

You can turn all your negative thoughts and feelings on yourself. This can look like abusing substances or self harm.

Sexual violation and mental health issues.

In summary, issues of consent and violation are connected to:

What do I do if I was violated by someone?

Do not blame yourself. Sexual assault and violation can happen to anyone, regardless of sex, gender, age, religion, or culture. It's not your fault.

If you are upset about your consent not being respected, it’s important to talk to someone you trust.

Of course it’s also important to be discerning here so you don't end up feeling worse. Don’t talk to someone who won’t understand or will diminish your experience.

If you don’t trust those around you to understand, look for online support groups, or call a free helpline to speak with an understanding trained listener ready to help.

When to seek counselling

If the violation you experienced is affecting your ability to cope on a daily basis, or you feel you might have anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue? It’s important to seek professional support.

You can talk to your GP for a NHS referral for counselling. You don’t have to tell them exactly why, you can just say you are feeling low. If you don’t want to be on a waiting list, need help soon, and want to pick who you talk to, then consider working with a private therapist with experience.

Need help to regain your confidence after a sexual assault? Use our easy booking tool to find a warm, understanding therapist now.

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