Opinion Consent matters whether you've just met or you've been together for years

Dr Caroline West says we know about ‘red flags’ in relation to consent, but it’s worth thinking about ‘green flags’, the signs that work.

WHEN DISCUSSING HEALTHY and unhealthy relationships, people may have heard of red flags – behaviours to watch out for that are warning signs that there is potential for abuse in the relationship.

Our gut instinct is an early warning system when it comes to red flags – we might often feel that something is wrong but lack the words or confidence to identify something as abusive behaviour.

We don’t get a lot of education in school about healthy and abusive relationships, so we are often left to figure this out for ourselves.

Abusive relationships

It can be difficult for those in unhealthy or abusive relationships to identify what is going on, as abusive partners often use gaslighting to keep their victims confused and unsure of what the reality is.

Gaslighting is psychological abuse and happens when the abuser makes the victim doubt their memories. They will minimise what happened or tell the victim it never happened.

This can impact the victim and cause brain fog, anxiety, and confusion, which makes it hard to name what is really going on. Others outside the relationship tend to take a more black-and-white view, and it is easier to see the red flags when we aren’t emotionally involved and subject to confusion, gaslighting, and trauma.

Green flags

We can help avoid this by learning about red flags in relationships, but also it is essential to learn about green flags too. These are signs of a healthy, nurturing relationship where both partners support each other to grow and thrive. Dating and intimacy are meant to be fun and mutually satisfying, and only talking about the negatives can disempower people from embracing their sexual wellness.

Recently, we asked students at University of Galway (UG) what behaviours and feelings they identified as green flags, and they shared these suggestions on a board full of green post-its, as seen in these photos.

Some students said they had heard of red flags but not green flags and found it fun to think of the ways we can support each other in healthy relationships. Similar to red flags, green flags come in three main categories – sexual behaviour, general behaviour, and our gut feeling when around them/thinking of them.

Sexual behaviour

Green flags around sexual behaviour include asking for consent, which is the baseline for any sexual activity. Active*Consents’ research found that over 80% of students think that it is important to have consent for any sexual activity, from hand holding, kissing, and intercourse.

But because we often don’t talk about this, we think that other people don’t think it is as important. This can lead to feeling awkward about asking for consent, but we can take reassurance that most people are on the same page as us, so it’s not weird to ask.

UG students shared their sexual green flags, saying ‘they don’t judge me for having previous partners’, ‘aftercare’, ‘asks what you want to do’ and ‘gets an STI test’. When we take care of our sexual health as well as our physical and mental health, we are telling our partners that we care about both our health and theirs, as we don’t want to pass on STIs if we can help it.

Being able to openly discuss contraception is another green flag, as safer sex is an essential component of sexual wellness.

General behaviour

Generally, healthy relationships involve supporting each other to be independent and successful, maintaining friendships and hobbies, paying bills equally, and being open to working through issues.

It is almost evitable that in a relationship, something we do will hurt our partners by accident. We are all raised differently, communicate differently, and must seek to compromise and learn what a healthy relationship is. However, the key here is learning how to fix the situation. Developing the skills to give a genuine apology and change the behaviour that caused the issue is essential.

Some UG students listed ‘emotional maturity’, ‘honesty’ and ‘’trust’ as green flags and learning how to rebuild trust after we mess up is crucial to building a lasting relationship. Working on ourselves is an ongoing process but is a very positive sign that someone is willing to work on issues they have, rather than taking them out on partners or refusing to work on emotional health.

Many students listed ‘communication’ and ‘listens to me’ as green flags, as well as ‘makes sure I am comfortable’. Communication and actively listening to a partner is a skill that takes practice but reaps benefits. When we feel truly heard, we can build trust and intimacy.

Other students listed practical activities such as ‘cooks food for me’ and ‘picks me up after work’. Lots of people show their love and respect in practical ways instead of, or in addition to, verbal ways – these different love languages can make someone frustrated if there is a clash or misunderstanding. Therefore, clear and active communication can help each person understand how the other person shows love and wants to be looked after themselves.

General feeling

Far too often, films and TV shows have portrayed love as wild and passionate, akin to being on a rollercoaster. But when we are in this state, there is no stability. Constant ups and downs are not sustainable and can leave us feeling like we aren’t sure what is going on or what the future of the relationship is.

Green flags for how we feel in a relationship are feeling calm, feeling comfortable being our authentic selves, feeling trusted, and feeling safe and secure. No one will feel happy all the time, but we can feel safe sharing our feelings with our partner and working through them.

Respect underlines all positive sexual interactions, whether that interaction is five minutes long or after being married for decades. Consent is for all genders, relationships, and orientations and is ongoing through all encounters – everyone always has the right to change their mind at any time.

Knowing about green flags can help us to enjoy positive sexual rights and have the kind of relationships that nourish us on a sexual, physical, and emotional level.

Dr Caroline West, Alexandra Black, and Eva O’Byrne are part of Active*Consent based in University of Galway. Find out more at

voices logo

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel