My heart sinks. I’m teaching consent to a classroom of year 9s, and a large cluster of them move to the true side of the classroom: the myth goes something like ‘if two people have had sexual activity together before, they don’t need to ask for consent again’. It’s false.
Luckily, after lots of mythbusting, we move on to the law, how to navigate/discuss consent etc. I’d like to mirror something like that here. Mayra (blog illustrator and often editor) suggested an illustrative aid – so we’ve chosen the idea of a phone password. In a digital age, asking for someone’s password is seen as commonplace and respectful; picking up their phone and sifting through it without their consent would be a violation of their privacy.
You may give your password freely/enthusiastically to someone you trust; you might be hesitant to give it to someone you don’t know very well; you might change the password entirely even if you’ve given it to someone once before. We’ll return to this analogy in ‘talking about consent’.
‘Not really present’ consent education
Many of us may have been taught about consent during school, although I know I’m not alone in thinking it certainly wasn’t drilled in. In the UK, it will be introduced at primary school level through healthy relationships education from September this year (PHE, 2019). This is promising news for younger generations.
If you find yourself as an adult post-mandatory sex education, you may be a bit stumped. There’s a lot to (un)learn. When I say this is one of, if not the most important message to take from sex education, burn these words into your brain.
You do not have to engage in any sexual activity that you are not 100% up for.
You can also change your mind and withdraw your consent at any time. Your consent is not frozen.
As many say: “consent is sexy!”.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Consent and the law
The legal age of consent in the UK is 16 (Brook, 2020). The Sexual Offences Act from 2003 defines a personing consenting if said person “agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice” (Brook, 2020). Choice represents being given the option to choose, and freedom would be to feel free from pressure/coercion/abuse influencing your decision-making. Power/trust also comes in here: if someone is between 16-18, having a relationship with a boss/doctor/teacher would also be illegal.
Things that affect your capacity are drinking alcohol, taking drugs, being asleep/unconscious and your age. Although the law indicates someone would have to be very drunk or high for their capacity to be compromised, it is important to note that any drinking/drug taking etc. can still affect decision-making and reflexes etc.
During sexual activity, individuals ideally “affirmatively communicate their willingness to participate in the activity on offer” (Gilbert, 2018, pp. 268). If consent is not present – it is non-consensual = rape/sexual assault.
Additionally, with the increase of ‘revenge porn’ (not an apt title to use given that intimate image sharing is different to acting and being paid to be in porn), it is clear that online safety is becoming an increasing issue; proliferating in coronavirus lockdowns globally. It is important to include consent in online activities such as sexting.
Unfortunately, it has taken #MeToo, or #WhyIDidn’tReport to get society talking about sexual violence (Fiennes, F, 2019) and the importance of consent. Most of this happens in online spaces; this fact is not insignificant. In many ways, discussions have ‘resurfaced’, although the appropriate age to be able to consent has often been debated through time.
Consent in society
Certain ideas are ‘written’ in social scripts, which we often unconsciously absorb. Given that sexual consent is often not clearly portrayed in culture, it is understandable there is not much clarity.
Although “consent can be messy” (N, Fiennes, 2019, p. 64), it should be seen as something that becomes commonplace. In a 2018 YouGov poll, “around one in 10 are unsure or think it’s usually not rape to have sex with a woman who is asleep or too drunk to consent” (EVAW, 2018).
Young men, in particular, might find it harder to discuss consent. Nathaniel Cole (2019) discusses the ‘man box’: a specific way that men are socialised, which reifies heteronormative ideals, and also misogynistic/sexist tropes that women are property/conquests. He argues that whilst ‘men need to do better’, we also need to engrain in people that consent is something we should all strive for in sexual relationships and activity.
Meg-John Barker (2019) discusses how we live in a ‘non-consensual society’. They argue that in wider social relationships there is a large pressure to say yes to activities, join in, be social, rather than simply say: “no, I don’t want to come to the pub today”. Such norms make it harder for people to articulate and expect mutuality and ongoing communication that is needed during sex.
Meg-John (2017) (and several others) discuss that we have marginalised communities, such as the BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) community to thank for ‘consent culture’. Consent needs to be negotiated before BDSM activities, during including the use of ‘safewords’, and aftercare tends to be practiced. Such culture needn’t be limited to marginalised communities. Windows always need to be created for people to opt-out, and be given several options. Consent, Barker argues, is the goal, rather than successful sexual activity/conquest.
To start with, each individual has the capacity to enjoy some form of sexual activity: “everyone’s genitals are made of the same parts, organized in different ways” (Nagoski, 2015, p. 40). But what you like/at what times needs to be negotiated and discussed. If this makes you feel awkward/uncomfortable/confused, check-in with yourself.
Why wouldn’t you want to receive consent? There is nothing unsexy about people communicating during sexual activity and having no expectations of the other beforehand, even if they are already partners. Actually, people can use this to their advantage to articulate their desires. Ever sat there and thought someone doesn’t know what you like? Tell them. They won’t know automatically! You can easily weave consent into these everyday conversations.
There are some arguments that people might actually like something they wouldn’t initially consent to – does consent shroud sexual experimentation (Gilbert, 2018)?
The difference here lies in not assuming someone is always experimental vs. two people consensually trying something new, one person doesn’t like it, partners check-in and they discuss changing something/stopping. It can be a delicate dance.
It is important that ‘through this having and giving and sharing and receiving, we too can share and love and have… and receive” (Joey, from Friends). You get the message.
In 2018, there were talks of apps that would serve to legally bind consent for sexual activities and preferences. Thankfully, such discussions of technologising something that needs to be on-going, in real-time and checked in, was not met well (see the Twitter outrage on anti-blockchain consent).
The ‘yes means yes, no means no’ phrasing doesn’t always manifest IRL: there are situations where people might feel pressured to say yes/have an inability to say no. Thus, it is important to consider non-verbal communication around consent.
It is also important to steer away from the construction of responsibility to say ‘NO’. In ways, this can be victim-blaming. The responsibility lies with the initiator to seek consent. Re: a phone password: if someone looks uncomfortable, or shrugs if you ask, they probably don’t want to give their password away.
Dr. Zhana, a sex researcher, offers tips such as discussing blanket consent. This could be for more experienced people/partners who know they are willing to consent to something, but offer a sort of tap-in/tap-out setup (Vrangalova, 2016). Some people feel that their sexual experiences are most enjoyable when based on spontaneity and ‘flow’ – they speak with their bodies. Back to the password example: some people are happy to let people they know have their passwords: and they’ll express so otherwise. Some people might also really enthusiastically respond with: “yes of course!!!”, or “YESSSSS!”.
Given that our sexual preferences and desire are not fixed, and are context-dependent (Nagoski, 2015), we can’t expect consent to be this way either. So keep the dialogue open – even if you think someone will let you have their password, check anway.
A quick note by Emily Nagoski concerning arousal non-concordance (which is very common, moreso in women), which is a bodily state where people can be sexually aroused when they don’t want to be/or don’t think they are: thererefore: “my genitals do not tell you what I want or like. I do” (Nagoski, 2018).
To wrap up: I hope I’ve made the case for consent, and clearly defined it, but also shown that actually, it can be simple to understand, and makes for lots of sexy time to be had ;).
Communication is always beneficial – recognising how consent and discussing pleasure can sit together is crucial for lifelong societal wellbeing.
- Consent 101: What It Looks Like, What It Sounds Like, How to Give It, and How to Get It
- How To Chat Up Someone Without Being a Creep – BISH
- What we need to learn from the Aziz Ansari clusterfuck
- Self consent: an introduction
- That’s what she said report: on university lad culture and sexual harassment
- Consent in the media article
- The ages of consent around the world
- How do young men navigate consent in a post Me Too world?
- Hannah Witton talking to Dr. Meg-John Barker on Consent Culture
- Cocktails vs. Consent on the Science of Sex
- Make Consent Your Aim on the Meg-John and Justin
- What does one rape trial tell us about lad culture and consent?
- Why we need to change the way young men think about consent
- Screwball – a dramatised sex education video about consent (it won a children’s BAFTA)
- Handshakes and Consent – video
- Consent and Tea
- Consent and Cycling
- Emily Nagoski: The truth about unwanted arousal
- Discussing consent portrayal in Normal People (watch it too!)
Blog illustration by the ever phenomenal Mayra Salazar, @mayra.tee on Instagram
Barker, M-J. (2015). Make Consent Your Aim. Podcasts Webpage. (Accessed online: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-meg-john-justin-podcast/id1196374474?i=1000395192916 04/05/2020)
Brook. (2020). Sex and Consent. Your Life Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.brook.org.uk/your-life/sex-and-consent/ 04/05/2020)
Cole, N. (2019). Why we need to change the way young men think about consent. TED talk. (Accessed online: https://www.ted.com/talks/nathaniel_cole_why_we_need_to_change_the_way_young_men_think_about_consent 05/05/2020)
EVAW. (2018). Attitudes to sexual consent researching findings. Uploads Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/1-Attitudes-to-sexual-consent-Research-findings-FINAL.pdf 05/05/2020)
Fiennes, F. (2019). Believe Her. Restless Magazine. (Accessed online: https://restlessmagazine.net/believe-her/ 05/05/2020)
Fiennes, N. (2019). Behind Closed Doors : Sex Education Transformed. London: Pluto Press.
Gilbert, J. (2018). Contesting Consent in Sex Education. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, 18(3), pp. 268–279.
Nagoski, E. (2015). Come As You Are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Croydon: CPI group.
Nagoski, E. (2018). The truth about unwanted arousal. TED Talk. (Accessed online: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-meg-john-justin-podcast/id1196374474?i=1000395192916 04/02/2020)
PHE. (2019). RSE and Health Education. Publications Webpage. (Accessed online: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/805781/Relationships_Education__Relationships_and_Sex_Education__RSE__and_Health_Education.pdf 05/05/2020)
Vrangalova, Z. (2016). Everything You Need to Know About Consent That You Never Learned in Sex Ed. Story Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/consent-how-to 05/05/2020)
Witton, H & Barker, M-J. (2019). Consent Culture and Intentional Relationships with Dr Meg-John Barker. Podcast. (Accessed at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/doing-it-with-hannah-witton/id1464870183?i=1000444652351 04/05/2020)