Teaching consent: there is no ‘grey area’
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’ve launched a series of interviews, entitled Teaching consent: there is no ‘grey area’, with sexual health educators, asking them how they go about teaching consent, and all its related implications, to young people and/or adults. We’ll also be 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 Sexplain
Sexplain provides comprehensive and inclusive relationships and sex education (RSE) workshops for young people across the UK, covering everything from porn, to consent, to sexual pleasure. No subject is off-limits, and the group’s workshops are delivered by relatable, unembarrassable ‘sexperts’. Their approach is feminist, sex positive and LGBTQIA+ inclusive.
What are your aims as a group?
Sexplain: Sexplain’s mission is to improve people’s physical health and emotional wellbeing, and give them the critical tools to develop and defend a more equal society. In 2016, the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Schools found that 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year. And this is perhaps less surprising — albeit no less shocking — when we learn that 34% of young people say they learnt nothing about sexual consent in their RSE lessons.
Sexplain aims to change this, working with schools and partnering with similar organisations to ensure that all children have access to a complete, inclusive, sex education.
Our work is informed by the latest RSE research, expert input, and crucially, the voices of young people themselves — which is particularly vital in this time of constantly evolving digital technologies.
Why do schools ask you to deliver workshops?
Sexplain: Schools often ask us to deliver workshops on specific topics as part of PSHE Days, to give students the opportunity to ask questions to someone external, and/or on topics that they feel would be more appropriately delivered by an external provider. Our aim is to be flexible and work closely with school staff to support their RSE provision in the most useful way for that particular school.
How do you go about teaching consent to young people?
Sexplain: At Sexplain we teach about the idea of affirmative consent, going beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and towards an ongoing conversation between sexual partners in which we are all responsible for making sure our sexual partners are actually into what’s happening between us.
We explore the signs to look out for — the verbal and non-verbal signs of consent and non-consent — and how it’s our responsibility to say “is this okay?”, not the other person’s responsibility to say “stop”.
We unpack the issue of subjectivity and vagueness in the phrase “do you want to have sex?”, emphasising the vital importance of asking very specific questions (“Can I touch your ____ like ___?”). We look at the difference between a ‘hard no’ (“stop”) and ‘soft no’ (“can we just chill for a bit?”) — and the likelihood of someone actually giving a ‘hard no’. We teach the law around consent both offline and online, and ensure students understand what we mean when we say ‘freedom’ and ‘capacity’ to consent.
We look at various scenarios, applying this learning so that students understand what these ideas around consent look like in practise. We often include digital scenarios, stressing that just because an interaction is online, we must still think about it within this framework of consent and respectful relationships.
What sort of questions do people you teach ask you when it comes to consent?
Sexplain: We find that young people nearly always have questions around the age of consent and the law. Young people also often have specific scenario-based questions, emphasising the importance of looking at what consent means in practical terms, rather than just theoretically. For instance, “What if one person is drunk but says yes?” and “What if one person is a sex worker?”
Have you ever found that people struggle to understand consent?
Sexplain: There is no doubt that our society has a problem with understanding consent, and the various myths and misconceptions that we are taught from a young age certainly arise during our workshops. There is a huge amount of myth-busting and re-learning to be done, from challenging the ‘stranger down the dark alley’ myth, to the notion that lots of women lie about being raped to get attention or revenge, or the idea that there is often a ‘grey area’ when it comes to consent.
How do you go about busting these myths?
Sexplain: We bust these myths through non-judgemental discussion, posing thoughtful questions (Why are we so scared to ask for consent? Do you think rape or assault occurs because of confusion? Where might this idea that women’s resistance is a fun challenge for men to overcome come from?). By playing out scenarios and re-framing them within this idea of ‘affirmative consent’, we begin to undo some of these deeply embedded and harmful ideas.
What do you find hardest about teaching consent?
Sexplain: Sadly, we do come across a lot of victim-blaming and slut-shaming attitudes, which is most depressing when it comes from young girls themselves, indicating how early rape culture narratives are internalised, even by those most adversely affected by them. To address this, we encourage discussion where people consider another person’s perspective, as well as encouraging a positive attitude to sex and pleasure, in order to minimise taboo so that young people can challenge these attitudes or negative behaviours.
What do you think people learn the most about in your classes, and how can you tell whether or not your classes have had a positive impact?
Sexplain: Since talking openly about sexual pleasure in the classroom is unusual, we find a key thing young people take away from our workshops is that sex should be fun and pleasurable for everyone involved — but that what actually is pleasurable varies hugely from person to person. So, we must have top-notch communication skills to find out someone’s likes, dislikes and lay out boundaries. By understanding sex in these terms, we find that students then have a much better understanding of sexual consent.
We see the impact of this new way of thinking in our scenario-based discussion when we see students applying their knowledge, identifying features such as “soft nos” or how how the person who has been pestered for sex and eventually says, “okay then”, did not have the freedom to consent.