Framing Sexual Consent

How you frame sexual consent in your reporting can greatly affect how the community thinks and responds to the topic. The campaign’s developmental research showed that 86% of Australians agree that adults need to talk to young people about consent. However, the research also shows that many adults aren’t comfortable talking about this topic even with their peers. Many Australians find the topic confusing and taboo. These guidelines have been developed to equip you with up-to-date definitions and language, and consideration of victim-survivors to help your reporting.

Please note, this campaign presents a community definition of sexual consent, not a legal definition. Sexual consent is defined differently by each Australian state and territory.

Positive framing
  • consent is a set of skills people can learn to have healthy relationships and sexual experiences, rather than a problem to be solved. 
  • Understanding sexual consent isn’t just about knowing enough to not break the law. It’s about making sure sexual activity is positive and pleasurable for everyone, and reducing the potential for harm to sexual partners.   
  • These skills include empathy, communication, setting and respecting boundaries, reaching consent, withdrawing consent and dealing with rejection. 
Consent is not a contract
  • Consent isn’t a transaction where one person gives or gets consent from the other. It is part of an ongoing conversation and communication, and involves reading the situation – and it can change. 
  • A person needs to consent to something. 
  • A person needs to regularly check for consent with someone. 
  • Consent can be withdrawn at any time. 
Affirmative consent is everyone’s responsibility
  • Consent is all about communication. People must check if their sexual partner wants to take part in a sexual activity. Not saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean that someone agrees; they must communicate that they agree.
Consent is more than using words
  • Consent can be conveyed through behavioural cues and actions too. It is about paying attention to how the other person is responding in their words and actions. It is important to understand that some people freeze or fawn when they are afraid, or may say ‘yes’ due to pressure, coercion or fear of rejection.
Everyone is invited to the conversation 
  • Consent is a society wide issue that many people want to talk about but don’t know where to start. Many people feel shame and fear about consent. We want to invite everyone into the conversation regardless of gender. While most perpetrators of sexual violence are men, we also know that men are a large part of the solution.
Consent doesn’t have to be awkward
  • Reaching consent does not always have to be a stilted formal conversation. It includes reading body language, facial expressions and cues. It can be flirty questions such as ‘do you like that?’
More than penetrative sex
  • Sexual consent applies to all sexual interactions. Descriptions such as ‘sexual activity’/ ‘sexual interaction’ / ‘sexual encounter’ should be used as they are umbrella terms for sexual activities that require consent within or outside of relationships - sexual intercourse, sexual touching, online sexual imagery and online activities.
Support
  • When reporting about sexual consent, always include support services such as 1800RESPECT. Discussing consent and sexual violence can be triggering to victim-survivors and it is important to include the contact details for support services. A full list of support services can be found on the consent.gov.au website. 
Terminology and language to avoid 
Instead use 

The issue of consent 
The problem of consent

This frames consent as a problem that needs to be solved and makes people feel like it is too taboo to engage in. 

The topic of consent 
The concept of consent 
Sexual consent 

This reframes consent as something neutral – a set of skills that people can learn. 

During sex 

This term is generally understood as sexual intercourse, however consent is required for any sexual activity. 

During a sexual encounter / 
sexual experience / sexual activity 

This covers all sexual activities that require consent including kissing, sexual touching and online activities like sharing sexual images and sexting. 

Giving consent 
Granting consent 

This implies that consent is a contract that one person gets from another. It puts the responsibility on one person.  

Reaching consent
Consenting
Communicating consent
Expressing consent 

Everyone involved in the sexual encounter consents. This shows that it is a mutual agreement and everyone’s responsibility. 

Does not give consent 

This implies that consent is a transaction to be given and received at the beginning of a sexual activity.  

Withdrawing consent 
Not consenting
Consent is not present 

This is when someone communicates that they don’t consent – and they can withdraw consent at any time during the sexual experience. 

Getting consent 
Asking for consent 

Implies that consent is a one-time contract or transaction between people where one person gets consent from the other.  

Communicating consent
Checking for consent 
Looking and listening for consent

Presenting consent as active, and everyone’s responsibility. 

No means no

This puts all the pressure on one person to express that they do not consent. The absence of a no doesn’t mean someone is consenting. It ignores the freeze and fawn responses where people may not speak up due to pressure, fear, coercion or people pleasing.  

Actively say or do something to check for consent. 
Affirmative consent
Withdrawing consent
Consent is ongoing and mutual 

Affirmative consent is where everyone involved is responsible for making sure everyone consents.  

If someone no longer consents, that is withdrawing consent and it can happen before or during the sexual experience/sexual activity or encounter.  

Asking why someone didn’t express consent 

This puts responsibility on one person and excuses coercion and power dynamics. 

Asking why everyone didn’t check for consent 

This frames consent as the responsibility of everyone involved. 

Consent is always a verbal agreement 
Make sure everyone says ‘yes’ 

This fails to acknowledge /ignores non-verbal forms of affirmative consent. It also risks framing consent as a stilted and ‘unsexy’ interaction.  

Consent is about checking that others are actively saying or doing something to communicate consent.  

Consent can be verbal and non-verbal, it is in cues like body language, tone and words.  

Focus on actions of the victim-survivor. 
The victim-survivor was drunk 
The victim-survivor was walking alone

This perpetuates attitudes of victim blaming, showing that sexual violence is the fault of the victim-survivor. 

Focus on actions of the person using/who used violence.   

This puts the focus on the behaviour of the person using violence and away from the victim-survivor. 

Victim 

This reduces the person to the act of violence that happened to them. 

Victim-survivor 
People with lived experience  
Their occupation

This frames them as a whole person. It’s best to ask the person their preference when appropriate. 

Enthusiastic consent 

It is recommended the phrase “enthusiastic consent” is not used on its own. Best practice is using the phrase “genuine or enthusiastic consent”. 

While enthusiastic consent as a concept is not wrong, not all consensual sexual encounters will be enthusiastic. Sometimes people will consent to a sexual experience, but they might not be  bubbling with enthusiasm and that’s ok.  

Genuine or enthusiastic consent 

Consent is present when people mutually and genuinely want to take part in the sexual encounter. Genuinely wanting to be there can look like an enthusiastic hook up, or a tired but affectionate ‘alright’ between partners and everything in between. Use the phrase ‘genuine or enthusiastic’ to cover all of these scenarios.  

They didn’t say ‘no’ 
They went along with it 

Language which questions why the victim didn’t speak up ignores coercion, and trauma responses like freezing or fawning.  

Consent wasn’t present. 

Consent can never be assumed. Silence, freezing, the absence of a ‘no’, appearing disengaged or a lack of any apparent discomfort, hesitation or resistance, does not imply consent. Signs of physical arousal do not mean there is consent. 

Had his way with her 
Took advantage 
Non-consensual sex Unwanted touching 

Using language which dilutes violence can influence the audience’s attitude towards it. For example, they are less likely to have empathy for victim-survivors. 

Sexual violence 
Rape
Sexual assault 
Sexual harassment 

Name the violence for what it is. This reinforces how wrong it is.  

Woman sexually assaulted 

Sexual harassment or sexual assault is a choice the perpetrator makes. How you frame the issues can affect whether a survivor is believed or can reinforce attitudes in society around sexual violence. 

Man convicted of sexually assaulting woman.

Use active language that focuses on the person who chose to use violence.  

Avoid sensational language, use a respectful and appropriate tone. 

Key statistics 

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) - Personal Safety Survey 2021-22: 

Australians experience sexual violence at an alarming rate, particularly younger age groups:  

  • 1 in 5 women (22 per cent) and 1 in 16 men (6.1 per cent) have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
  • 1 in 2 women (53 per cent) and 1 in 4 men (25 per cent) have experienced sexual harassment during their lifetime. (PSS, 2016) 
  • In 2023 in Australia, the most common age for sexual violence to occur is between 10 and 17 years. This age group makes up 41% of all victims of sexual assault, the majority of whom are female.1
National Community Attitudes Survey - Youth Report 2023: 

Young people aged 16-24 years old continue to hold problematic attitudes on consent and equality in relationships. For example:  

  • 20 per cent of young people believed that a lot of times women who say they were raped had led the man on and later had regrets.
  • 29 per cent of young people agreed with the statement, “when a man is very sexually aroused, he may not even realise that the woman doesn’t want to have sex”.
  • 10 per cent of young people agree that women often say no when they actually mean yes

Reporting on sexual harassment and assault

For a comprehensive guide on reporting sexual harassment, visit Our Watch

How you frame discussions or articles about sexual consent can impact whether you reinforce problematic attitudes in society. It can affect whether victim-survivors are believed or the likelihood of people engaging in the topic in a constructive way. When reporting on specific incidents of sexual assault or sexual harassment: 

  • Use active language with the perpetrator as the focus: 
  • Say a ‘man assaults’ rather than ‘woman assaulted by.’  
  • When safe and legally possible, consider naming any gender or power dynamics, to highlight the link to broader systemic issues.
  • Be respectful to victim-survivors and avoid trivialising or downplaying the issue.
  • Focus on the actions of the perpetrator rather than the actions of the victim-survivor.  
  • Avoid perpetuating myths around sexual violence like referring to whether the victim-survivor had been drinking, what they were wearing and their past history, as this perpetuates victim blaming.
  • Avoid excusing the actions of the perpetrator including by presenting them as a ‘good bloke’ whose behaviour went too far, or was out of character, on this occasion.
  • Be careful about how you present myths about sexual consent.  
  • Restating misinformation can have the unintended consequence of reinforcing the myth. If you do refer to a myth, ensure you are clear that it is a myth and present the facts.
  • Don’t identify victim-survivors without permission – for safety reasons, leave out details of victim-survivors unless they have told you they want to be identified.
  • As can be inferred from the statistics above, perpetrators come from all socio-economic groups in our society. It is important to not present perpetrators as social outcasts or misfits.

Glossary of terms

Consent: A free and voluntary agreement between people for something to happen.

Sexual consent: Sexual consent is a free, voluntary and informed agreement between people to participate in a sexual act. Consent is only present when these people mutually and genuinely feel they want to engage in that sexual act and actively make sure their partner does too. The communication of consent can be verbal and non-verbal.

Sexual encounter/ sexual experience/ sexual activity: Acts that a reasonable person would see as sexual, including but not limited to, kissing, sexualised touching, penetration of any kind and oral sex. It also includes non-physical acts such as online sexual activity, sexting and sharing sexual images.

Victim-survivor (from the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children, 2022-32): People who have experienced family and domestic violence or gender-based violence. This term is understood to acknowledge the strength and resilience shown by people who have experienced or are currently living with violence. People who have experienced violence have different preferences about how they would like to be identified and may choose to use ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ separately, or another term altogether. Some people prefer to use ‘people who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, violence’.

Sexual violence: The intentional perpetration of sexual acts without consent, capturing all forms of sexual assault and sexual harassment. This definition of sexual violence refers to both criminal and non-criminal sexual activity perpetrated without consent to reflect that some emerging forms of sexual violence have not yet been addressed in legislation.

Sexual assault: Sexual assault is an act of a sexual nature carried out against a person’s will through the use of physical force, intimidation or coercion, including any attempts to do this. This includes rape, attempted rape, aggravated sexual assault (assault with a weapon), indecent assault, penetration by objects, forced sexual activity that did not end in penetration and attempts to force a person into sexual activity. Note sexual assault occurs when a person is forced, coerced or tricked into sexual acts against their will or without their consent, including when they have withdrawn their consent.

Sexual harassment: An unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated, where a reasonable person would anticipate that reaction in the circumstances.

Freeze response: A trauma response where someone’s body reacts from a perceived threat by being unable to move, speak, fight or flee. This is an unconscious reaction to an unsafe situation.

Fawn response: A trauma response where someone people-pleases or ignores their own needs to neutralise a perceived threat and keep themself safe. This is an unconscious reaction to an unsafe situation.

References:

1 ABS – Recorded Crime – Victims Report 2024