Young people and consent have been in the media a lot of late. The Crown Prosecution Service has launched its new #ConsentIs campaign, and this week BBC 3 broadcast a programme called ‘Is This Rape? Sex on Trial’, exploring sexual consent with young people. New studies report that around 5,500 instances of sexual violence have been committed at UK schools over the past 3 years, and the Business Secretary has ordered an inquiry into sexism and sexual violence at British universities. Our Prevention Worker, Nadine shares with us what our approach to #consentis,
Above Image: From Bruin Consent Coalition.
As the Prevention Worker at Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre, a key part of my job is to deliver workshops to young people on issues to do with sexual violence, including consent. I often use scenario based discussions featuring sexual violence.In one workshop we have Aisha, who is being threatened by an older boy at school into sending a sexual image. Marisha, who is being pressured by her husband to have sex, and Pete, who Connor plies with drink and then sexually assaults. Time and time again in these discussions one of the first responses we hear from young people is “but they didn’t say no?” To which we reply, “but did they - soberly, clearly, enthusiastically - say yes?”
One of the reasons we try to reframe consent as saying ‘yes’ rather than saying ‘no’ is to explore the many reasons why someone may not be able to say no in the first place. Aisha fears the consequences of saying no to an older and more popular pupil. Marisha feels her ability to say no being worn down by pressure from her husband, until ‘no’ is not an option. Connor uses alcohol as a tool to ensure Pete isn’t in control of what happens next. All these scenarios have one key thing in common; the perpetrator using their power to control another.
In the face of this imbalance of power, and the perpetrator’s use of it to pressure and manipulate, to put the responsibility for communicating consent onto the person affected to ‘say no’ falls dramatically short. Further, it ignores the reality that to ‘freeze’ is a common trauma response and one many survivors of sexual violence report. By framing consent as ‘saying no’ we risk both blaming survivors and easing responsibility from perpetrators, who reason “if they didn’t want to do it, they could have just said no”.
Another reason why we also seek to have a discussion broader than ‘saying no’, is that we recognise in order to talk about what rape is, we need to talk about what sex is too. Dismayingly, in the BBC 3 programme ‘Is This Rape? Sex on Trial’ we heard from a participant that it is a common experience for young women to have “a boy trying to force himself on us – in the end you just… [say] ‘OK, fine, whatever”. The status quo here is of sex being something which men initiate, and which women ‘give in’ to – a message which is emphasised and re-in forced repeatedly through our media and wider culture.
We see it in the persistent Mr Grey of the Fifty Shades series who won’t take no for an answer, and in the jokes made in popular sitcoms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother, in which men persuade women into sex, or women have sex for a whole host of reasons other than actually just wanting to. This is why we need to start talking about consent as an enthusiastic yes, much more than just a word, because we are aware of wider dynamics of coercion, or lack of comprehension (i.e due to age or the influence of alcohol or drugs). ‘OK, fine, whatever’ is not enthusiasm, is not wanting to do something, it’s giving in to pressure, it’s doing what you can to get by, it’s feeling you can’t say no, and that isn’t consent.
Above: Image created by artist Tatsuya Ishida.
We need to unpick this idea that sex is something that is ‘done’ to young women, and make space for their own sexual agency. By emphasising wanting to do something we set a standard that sex is something for all partners to enjoy, not something which one person tries to ‘get’ from the other. The dynamics here are keenly gendered; and talking about enthusiastic consent allows us to address some of the gendered-dynamics and sexism which surround young people’s sexual experiences.
Young women often report being called ‘sluts’; from everything to how they are dressed, to asking a question in sex ed class. Where for them to be seen to be sexual risks being ostracised as ‘sluts’, young men who display the same behaviour are praised as ‘lads’ and ‘players’. If we are to truly address the issue of consent with young people we have to address such gendered dynamics; instead creating a healthy environment which recognises that sexual pleasure and enthusiasm is something that is just as permissible for young women as it is for their male peers, sending a message that sex is something women are allowed to enjoy, rather than simply perform.
Crucially we need to question with young people messages which prioritise young men’s sexual desires over young women’s, which say it’s okay for young men to keep asking until they stop saying no, and unpicking men’s entitlement to women’s bodies in the first place. To paraphrase Kurt Cobain, we need to go to the source – and teach people not to rape, rather than not to be raped.
If we don’t do this then we are leaving a gap in young people’s knowledge about healthy sexual relationships. A gap which exists against a backdrop of coercion and misinformation. Too often young people’s understandings of what ‘sex’ is and what their sex life ‘should’ look like are dictated to them by their partner, peers, porn and the media. We need to start framing sex as something which people can explore as equals, discovering what feels good rather than enacting what they perceive is expected. Talking about the role of enthusiasm in consent is a key step towards this. By doing so, we are equipping young people with the skills to recognise behaviour which is persistent, forceful and coercive not as normal but for what it really is; sexual violence.
Above: Image from participants (S5) taking part in ERCC prevention workshop 'What is Sexual Violence'.
If we continue to focus on ‘saying no’ we fail to help young people see that a variety of behaviours and words mean no, including silence. We situate ‘yes’ as a default position, as a given, and place the responsibility for sexual assault on survivors, ignoring the agency of the perpetrator. Consent is more than a three-lettered word or one question deal (which is why apps claiming that people can state their consent before sex aren’t the way forward). It is something which needs to be ongoing: consenting to one thing doesn’t mean to another, or to that same thing again, or to that thing with someone else. It can be withdrawn at any time. We all have the right to have happy healthy sex lives defined by what we want, not what the porn industry, our friends or our partners wants. We have to respect if someone else doesn’t want what we do and not try to change their mind. However, many young women are being denied that right. 1 in 3 young women experience violence from an intimate partner, 4 in 10 are coerced into sex, 70% experience sexual harassment, and alarming number are being forced into sex acts they don’t want that their boyfriends have seen in porn. By reframing the conversation and talking about enthusiastic consent, and adopting a gender-based analysis which recognises the inequalities already at play - we are taking a vital step towards ensuring that this changes.