Consent: why education needs to be nuanced

In this blog, Dr Elsie Whittington, discusses teaching young people about consent, and why we have to take a more nuanced approach in education.  Elsie is a youth researcher and Lecturer at Manchester Centre for Youth Studies and her research focuses on youth sexuality, sexual consent, youth participation and RSE.  

Over the past few years, topics of consent and assault have found their way into mainstream dialogue thanks to things like the #MeToo movement, issues of consent and rape taking key storylines in major TV soaps and series, and the successful campaign to make Relationships and Sex Education mandatory in schools – which will come into place from September 2020.

The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) acknowledge that:

“Asking ourselves and young people what we think consent means is revealing… however it is also key to enabling children and young people to navigate relationships” (NCB, 2014)

Indeed, consent needs to be the foundation of any teaching we do with any age group. However, based on my teaching and research experience, approaching and managing conversations on this topic can be difficult and daunting. If we’re going to equip young people with the vocabulary, confidence and competence to navigate sexual encounters now, or in the future, we’ve got to also embrace some of the awkwardness that comes with this.

While it may feel easier and more straightforward to begin your teaching about consent with the ‘facts’ and the laws, the young people I did my research with and those who I work with in schools, youth clubs and universities are much more interested in the messy, complex and ‘grey areas’ associated with negotiating consent. 

Education and campaigns around sexual consent tend to focus on extreme experiences. But there is a need to think more about the everyday, mundane encounters that more people can relate to, and which people might initially struggle to label as one thing or another and which with very small changes could be more positive communicative and ethical encounters.  

Brook educators I’ve interviewed noticed that when they go into schools to do a consent session everyone can define consent, but find it more difficult to relate to real life:They can like parrot off what consent is, but they haven’t actually learned any of it for themselves.”

The young people I work with want to have conversations that go beyond consent being about ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and explore different ways to negotiate different kinds of interactions.

Talking and teaching about the ‘grey areas’ in between good sex and rape may be considered a risky and difficult task – one that many schools, teachers and youth practitioners may, understandably, be wary of. It may feel safer to provide a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ and to refer to the legal definitions of consent and rape.

In my research and teaching however I’ve found that there is real educational value in stepping back from the law and ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and using the language that children and young people themselves use.

It’s better to use scenarios that ground the consent conversation and enable us to engage with nuance, and context. 

Building these scenarios together can help ensure that the examples that you use resonate with the young people that you are working with.  This helps us to consider what could go wrong, but also what could go right and how even small things can make something more ethical or actively consensual.

We need to think about managing rather than avoiding risk associated with opening up conversation about consent, as risk avoidance can be complicit with silencing.  Educators can and should deliver more critical sessions that explore the values, morals and ethics around sex and relationships as much, if not more, than the legalistic and public health framings of ‘risk’.  This will mean that young people can gain the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe as well as developing the competence to explore their sexuality and desires in a positive way

In an attempt to support teachers who might be unsure about how to approach and contain conversations about consent that go beyond the law and simple (and important) ideas of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, I have been fortunate enough to be part of a collaboration with colleagues at Brook, the University of Sussex and digital design company Onclick to develop free training and educational resources.  There is a 4-part module and each one directly relates to a key finding from this research and draws on activities, data, and learning that have been co-produced with young people during this PhD research.  This can be accessed for free via: learn.brook.org.uk

In addition to the Brook Learn unit, one of the fantastic groups of young people I worked with made a great short video for schools and youth clubs to encourage group discussions about consent.  This was a youth led project where young people interviewed each other about consent and posed questions for others to answer in RSE classes. The conversations that happened off camera and with other groups have formed a key part of the Brook Learn units and helped me to develop my own ideas about consent and how to be better at teaching about it with diverse groups of young people.

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