Consent is a short word, but long on meaning. There is much to know about consent, and there is much to misunderstand about consent.
Consent is more than permission. Consent implies that you understand your decision or your behavior, and you understand the consequences of that decision, too. Dr. Marie Fortune of the Faith Trust Institute in Seattle, Washington, uses the term "meaningful consent" when describing both awareness of behavior and the consequences that follow. She expands the term to be useful in other contexts, and we'll talk about those in another article.
In a legal context, the term consent arises in different ways. Consent could arise as in an agreement, i.e. consent to sign a will or consent to marry. Because the consequences to some legal agreements are high, the issue of consent is explorable and in many instances, there are laws to clarify what consent means. For example, in most communities, the legal age to sign one's own will is 18 years old. A person might be 17 years old and have knowledge about all his or her possessions. He or she could give away all of his or her possessions. But a statute won't allow him or her to sign a will about those possessions until the person becomes 18, or of legal age. Permission to give away, yes, but consent to sign a will, no.
Similarly, suppose a couple wants to marry. Before the marriage ceremony, the couple must take out a marriage license. Before they are able to sign the license, the statute in that community might require the couple to be of a "legal age" to marry (or, of a legal age to give consent to marry). The legal age in most communities is 18 years old. If the bride or groom is 16 years old and wants to marry, she or he may not be able to give consent, but their parents can give consent for them. Why should parents give consent when it is their son or daughter who wants to get married? Because the consequences of entering marriage are great. As a society we have determined that consent is necessary to enter marriage, and some individuals are too young to give consent. In most instances, the statute doesn't disallow the marriage between two persons who aren't of legal age to give consent - except in some situations where the age of the bride or groom is even younger than 16. In that case, even though both parents are able to give consent, the statute may protect the bride or groom if she or he is 14 years old. So even the parents' ability to give consent can be trumped by a statute. Keep this idea in mind as we go further.
Using the same scenario, and another usage of consent, there are statutes that prohibit a person who is incapacitated from signing documents or prohibit a person who is cognitively impaired from entering marriage - sometimes not at all and sometimes only with the consent of a parent or guardian. So age is not the only factor in giving consent; a person's capacity or cognitive ability can be another factor.
In this article, we briefly look at the concept of consent. We said it is more than just giving permission; a person must understand both their actions and the consequences of their actions. Consent is an important concept in many legal contexts. Statutes have been created to safeguard contracts, agreements, and other relationships between parties and statutes have clearly spoken about the concept of consent. And in some instances, we said the statute will trump a person's ability to consent even when they are of age or cognitive ability because there might be a greater societal issue at stake.
The next article will look at consent in the context of sexual assault.