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The Ethics of Consent

Does anything go if prior consent has been given?
Every day we give our consent. We agree to do certain things, and give permission for certain things to be done to us.

But how many of our choices are made on free will alone? Have you ever agreed to go to a baby shower you didn’t want to attend, just so you wouldn’t offend the expectant mum? Have you chosen not to raise something that annoys you with your partner, just to keep the peace? And how many countless times have you accepted T&Cs without reading them?

The idea of consent gets especially tricky when we start talking about things most of us don’t fully understand – complex surgery, where our super is invested, and how companies access and use our personal data. How informed do we have to be before we can give ‘informed consent’?

The law has also makes determinations on who is capable of giving consent. It holds minors can’t grant it for sex, medical matters and legally binding contracts. Case law has found people with mental disabilities could not give informed and legally binding consent in certain situations. And no Australian is allowed to agree to have someone else help them end their own life.

When is consent truly ours to give?

Thanks to those who joined us to challenge the “yes means yes” and “no means no” definition of consent.


Lucie Bee deals with consent every day as a sex worker, adult entertainer and activist. She has appeared on the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That and Hack LiveThe Project and has written for Junkee and other media outlets. She shared with us the difficult stigmas she faces every day, and how many people think that she no longer has the right to consent to certain things, because of the line of work she's in.
Eleanor Gordon-Smith is a philosopher and radio producer who has extensively researched, thought about and taught on the ethics of consent. You can hear her work – and voice – on ABC RN’s The Philosopher’s Zone and This American Life. Eleanor focused on medical consent, and shared some tricky examples of where ignoring someone's consent can sometimes be the best course of action to help protect them and save their life.
Elisabeth Shaw is a clinical and counselling psychologist who deals with the grey areas of consent in relationships and families. She is the clinical director of Relationships Australia and a Senior Consultant at The Ethics Centre. She explained how and why all of us sometimes consent to things we don't necessarily want to, in order to keep the peace in our relationships.

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