April: Sexual Assault Awareness Month – A Focus On Safety & Consent
Lucrecia Ayala, LMSW is a bilingual Social Worker (Spanish and English) and the Sexual Assault Services Coordinator at Barrier Free Living’s Secret Garden program. She has 10 years’ experience working with teens and adults in community and clinical settings, specializing in crisis services, housing and sexual & public health. She provides individual sexual violence counseling as well as group education.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month* and this year the theme is Building Safe Online Spaces Together.
Barrier Free Living has been a leader in developing various levels of safety for survivors for the past decade at our shelter and programs, offering counseling and workshops on everything from cyber safety to understanding consent.
Many of us have heard the word consent, especially when it comes to sex. We learn through school, the media or at home that we need to give consent, ask for consent, and that consent can change over time.
Sex without consent is sexual assault.
Part of the sexual assault services at Barrier Free Living involve educating clients about consent. Though many of our clients have received basic sex ed classes they reveal a lack of knowledge about communicating consent or how to recognize when consent is not being respected. Many survivors we work with say they feel uncomfortable or pressured to say yes or no in a sexual situation. Part of our education is clarifying that consent is something that we communicate daily, not just during sex.
Secret Garden’s Healthy Relationships workshop focuses on identifying boundaries and understanding consent.
 What is consent?
Consent is giving clear permission for something to happen. It means you agree to engage in an activity or request such as:
● Asking for a friendly hug
● Tickling your child
● Asking to borrow someone’s property, like clothes or a pen
● Agreeing to go to an event
● Helping someone with a mobility device (not everyone needs or wants help).
Consent requires communication, respect, and an understanding of our own personal boundaries and space. It shows that you value the person’s choices and preferences.
How do we respond to no?
Anytime we ask or are asked for consent, it’s possible we might get a “no” response. It’s always important to respect and accept this answer; do not feel pressured to change your mind or try to change someone else’s.
Although we might feel upset or disappointed, respecting someone’s boundaries is the best way to show we care.
SAAM and Digital Consent
Digital consent is just as important as “real life” consent and refers to how we interact through our screens and devices.
When it comes to online sexual interactions, consent is still needed, whether it’s to send or receive a photo, send a sext, or connect with possible intimate partners.
You can cause sexual harm digitally; just as in real life.
Online sex interactions without consent are forms of sexual harassment or harm.
At Secret Garden we teach individuals to recognize online red flags, learn how to date safely online, and review available safety measures on various social media apps such as Instagram or Snapchat.
For example, a client had been sent direct messages requesting nudes on Instagram by a person pretending to be someone else; the account sent pictures that looked as if they took them themselves but were actually images that could be found with a Google search. We focused on recognizing clues and learning how to use app safety measures in instances like this.
 Tips to keep in mind when engaging in online sexual activities are:
● Asking permission when exchanging any sexual images or messages
● Avoid sharing, saving, or screenshotting any images or messages without permission
● Respecting boundaries around meeting up for a date in real life
● Remembering to ask for permission each time you interact; consent can change and be taken away.
There are also many ways we communicate digital consent in our everyday life such as:
● Asking for permission to share or post a photo on social media, including something you want to repost or reshare from another account.
● Respecting personal devices and accounts. Never try to unlock a phone or computer without permission or attempt to look through private messages.
● If you have a shared household device, make sure you log out of accounts or ask permission to use it first. Making individual profiles on streaming services can help maintain privacy.
● Always check communication preferences; not everyone is available for a phone call or video chat. If a person is d/Deaf or Hard of Hearing, check which telecommunication platform is best for them. Never assume!
The bottom line: consent should be respected and communicated both online and offline. Asking others for their permission, input, and preferences and communicating consent helps prevent actions that can cause discomfort or harm to others. Although consent is important when engaging in sexual activity, it helps to remember the ways we express consent outside the context of sex.
*Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) is an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault and educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence.
This project was supported by 2019-X0677-NY-UD -1244 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women