By Imogen Robinson
Consent, when it comes to sexual activity, is not just about whether someone says “No”. It involves listening and paying attention to your partner’s body language and creating an environment where permission can be given enthusiastically and clearly: not just for penetrative sex, but any sexual contact. Easy, right?
Sadly not. Many people, as the stories emerging off the back of #metoo show, still struggle with the concept itself, or deliberately choose to ignore it completely. “She never said no”, you hear people say, or “I didn’t know she was drunk!”
This week is Sexual Health Week, and the theme is consent. We’re running a series of interviews, entitled Teaching consent, with sexual health educators, asking them how they go about teaching consent, and all its related implications, to young people and/or adults. We are also posting content on Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtag #NoGreyArea, and the general campaign hashtag #SHW18. Get involved and join the conversation!
An interview with Heather Teaches Consent
Heather is a freelance consent workshop facilitator who works with secondary schools. She started teaching consent at university, working with the NUS’s I <3 Consent campaign, and the charity Sexpression. After leaving university she started reaching out to secondary schools to see if they wanted her to come in and run workshops - which they did!
What do you cover in your workshops?
Heather: There is so much to cover in terms of consent and so many layers of nuance and social conditioning that I could spend hours peeling back and examining – but I only have one hour! As a good starting point, I’ve used the legal definition of consent, which explains how in sexual violence cases prosecutors need to prove a lack of freedom, capacity or consent itself.
These three ideas, freedom, capacity and consent, become the main focus of my classes. We explore what consent looks and sounds like and, often more importantly, what it is not. This is where the ideas of freedom and capacity come in – it’s the next step of the conversation for me to say, well they said “yes”, but is that “yes” meaningful?
Why do you think schools ask you to come in?
Heather: I think it’s easier for schools to have outside educators teaching all parts of sex and relationship education. An outside educator can be so much more open and honest, without having to worry if the students will take them seriously when they go back to teaching Geography the next day. I think it’s also a bit of an unfair burden to put onto teachers, especially if those teachers have had any personal experience of sexual violence.
How do you go about teaching consent to young people?
Heather: I do a mix of what would be classed as “theory” and then lots of examples of fictional situations. The latter are a mix of good behaviour and bad; showing even just a snapshot of non-consensual behaviour in an implied long term relationship gives the students the chance to call it like it is without trying to justify it or explain it away. I think practicing naming that behaviour, even if it’s about made-up people, makes it that little bit easier to recognise it in your own relationships.
I teach from a sex positive and inclusive position. I refuse to victim blame or slut shame and when we discuss power imbalances, issues directly concerning the LGBT* community are explored. I would add that we also the huge pressure there is on young people to be sexually active – saying yes is only meaningful if you are ready and there hasn’t been any pressure for you to make your decision.
What sort of questions do you get asked about consent?
Heather: There always seem to be two main questions – ‘How do you know if someone is too drunk?’, and, ‘How do I communicate about what I want with someone?’
Which age group do you find the hardest to teach?
Heather: Adults! Honestly, young people are incredibly receptive and they find the basics, like that sleeping people can’t consent, utterly obvious. The responses from the young people I’ve worked with does give me hope after reading various adult’s responses to sexual violence in the media.
Which aspect of teaching consent do you find the hardest?
Heather: The hardest part for me is the fine line between refusing to engage in victim blaming and not being depressingly fatalistic. I don’t want to imply that there are specific things you can do to prevent sexual violence because I know that all of them have been shown to fail or been used blame survivors.
But it feels terrible to stand up in a room full of young women and say 20% of women will be sexually assaulted in their life time and there was nothing they could have done to prevent that. Because that means that, if there aren’t massive changes in the way the rest of the world acts towards sexual violence, 20% of those students themselves might end up survivors in five, ten years time, if they aren’t already. It’s a difficulty I’m still dealing with.
What are common ‘grey areas’ people are often confused about?
Heather: The ‘grey areas’ always involve alcohol. I think people want there not to be a grey area, but they go about it the wrong way. I get asked “How drunk is too drunk?” as if I can suggest a precise number of units. I don’t think it’s good enough to say there’s a grey area around people who are a bit drunk. I think if two people have both been drinking, especially if they’ve just met and so have no way of having learnt each others’ “tells”, they have a responsibility to sober up before trying it on.
The only other ‘grey area’ that comes up occasionally, usually with older people, is the idea of ‘unenthusiastic consent’. It’s the idea that you can still consent to sex with a partner if you don’t really want to have sex, if you’re tired or have a headache or whatever reason.
I am always left wondering, do your partners know that you don’t want sex? Why are they happy for you to be unenthusiastic? Have you even talked about it, and if not, why not? And quite often, what was presented as a grey area, begins to look a lot darker and reveals a lot of power imbalances and a lack of communication in relationships.
How do you go about teaching people that there are no ‘grey areas’ when it comes to consent?
Heather: I have complicated feelings about analogies. I am really sick of people comparing being raped to having your wallet stolen, or your house burgled, or even being made to drink tea you don’t want. I do understand their uses, but I can’t help but feel it minimises the reality of sexual violence and I try to avoid them.
I rely a lot more on scenarios, where we look at a paragraph long description of fictional people, usually just before or during sex. I think this humanises what can be fairly abstract discussions and we can talk about language and actions used to coerce people.
What do you think people learn the most about in your classes?
Heather: The main thing I hope people learn about is how and when to check in with a partner. Whether it’s looking for non-verbal signs of discomfort during sex, or thinking about changes in the power structures of a long standing relationship, these are hugely powerful things we can do to make sure whoever we are with feels looked after and respected.
Still in doubt about what consent means? Check out The Femedic’s new resource designed specifically to clear up any lingering confusion.