Over the last year or two, we’ve been having plenty of public discussions around consent: from the revelations of the #MeToo movement, which have highlighted just how much work there is still to do, to campaigns pushing for better consent education as part of Sex Education at school, you’d expect most people to be more aware of the importance of consent in sexual interactions.
However, recent cases at criminal trials and general discussions surrounding consent online and in the media shows that the topic is still misunderstood amongst young people and adults.
According to research by Revolt Against Sexual Assault, almost two thirds (62%) of students and graduates have experienced sexual violence at UK universities. This figure is shocking to some, but not to many. Sexual violence at universities is an all too common issue, and highlights the importance of the consent debate in this area.
Revolt Against Sexual Assault also found that a third of students (31%) felt pressured into doing something sexual.
Studies from FPA (The Family Planning Association) also show that only 13% of people surveyed said they would be likely to discuss issues of consent with a partner. They also found that 9% of people don’t think it is okay to withdraw consent if they have been bought dinner/drinks, or if they have previously engaged in other sexual activity with a person (i.e. kissing, previous sex, getting naked together)
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
It is always okay to withdraw consent for a sexual interaction.
No matter what the situation is or the act itself, you can always revoke your consent and say no or tell them to stop. Whether you’ve done it before, whether the person you’re with really wants to, and no matter what you have previously said. Sometimes things just don’t feel right, or you might just change your mind. Sometimes what seemed like a bit of harmless fun turns into something that feels pressured or uncomfortable: you are always allowed to say ‘no.’ And it should go without saying that a ‘no’ should always be respected.
So What Is Consent?
Sexual consent is an agreement between both/all members of the sexual interaction to engage in activity. Before being intimate with someone, you need to know if they are comfortable and consenting of this act happening. It’s also important to be honest with anyone involved about what you want and don’t want.
Consenting and asking for consent are all about setting your personal boundaries, respecting those of the people around you and checking in if things aren’t clear. A simple “are you okay” or “do you mind if I…” can be enough to check in that someone is willing and consenting to continue. Everyone involved must agree to any intimate or sexual activity — every single time — for it to be consensual. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done it 100 times before, you cannot assume consent and it must be explicitly agreed before you continue.
- Freely given. Consenting is a choice you make without peer pressure, manipulation, persuasion or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if you’ve done it before, and even if you’re already naked in bed or halfway through an act.
- Informed. You can only consent to something if you have the full story. For example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t, there isn’t full consent.
- Enthusiastic. When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do and feel comfortable with, not things that you feel you’re expected to do by the other person/people involved.
- Specific. Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to kiss and cuddle) doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to others (like having sex)
You always get the final say over what happens with your body. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had sex before or even if you said yes earlier and then changed your mind. You’re allowed to say “stop” or “no” at any time, and whoever you are with needs to respect that.
Consent is never implied by things like your past behaviour, what you wear, or where you go. Sexual consent is always clearly communicated — there should be no question or mystery. Silence is not consent. If you’re not sure if someone has consented or not, then just ask! It can be as simple as “are you having fun” or “is it okay if we carry on”.
It can feel awkward and sometimes daunting when discussing how to ask for consent, but isn’t it easier to ask a simple question mid-shag than to potentially harm someone that you care about?
How Do We Educate People About Consent?
For the vast majority of us who are adults today, consent was not a key focus in our sex education at school. Let’s face it, some of us didn’t even have a proper sex education in school. So it’s not surprising that consent is something that is now frequently being taught at universities as well as secondary schools. At my university, we had a whole series of events and workshops in a campaign called Consent Week, which aims to educate as many students as possible on what consent is, how it works and how to recognise whether or not consent has been given before and during sexual interactions.
One of the key aims of sex educators today is to ensure that consent is included on the sex education curriculum. Young people need to be taught the basics:
- that it is okay to say “no” or “stop” at any time, before or during sexual activity
- that sexual activity should be something you do with someone, not to them
- that you should be aware of all the factors that can influence someone’s capacity to consent including (but not limited to) alcohol or drugs, power imbalances, peer pressure, and many more
A survey conducted in 2018 by the FPA (The Family Planning Association) found that 86% of people felt it was important that consent is covered on the school curriculum, yet 42% of people stated that they had learnt about consent from discussions with friends.
I can’t stress enough how important consent is. It’s the difference between a sexual encounter and sexual assault. I know that might sound dramatic but it’s true – and I don’t personally believe that enough is being done to educate young people and teenagers about consent, how to give it, how to know if it has been given, or what to do when someone says no.
To me, issues surrounding consent are as important to learn in secondary school as the biology of sex. It is so important that young people know how to communicate their feelings during sex, as well as understand biologically what is happening. Young people’s emotional intelligence and welfare is an ever pressing issue – and I think consent needs to be considered as part of that.
Were you taught about sexual consent at school or university? Do you feel it is an important discussions for teenagers and young people to be aware of?