Consent education: from the 1980s to Love Island

Toby Hollins smiling at the camera.

The theme of Sexual Health Week 2021 is Consent: Do You Get It? In this blog, we hear from Toby Hollins, a Brook Champion aged 20, about how RSE could benefit from drawing on the current culture to facilitate conversations about consent.

The 1980s have undoubtedly left footprints on our society: lycra, legwarmers, the biggest haircuts you’ve ever seen and of course – Kylie Minogue. Although my 14-year-old self had a significantly smaller understanding of the social and cultural legacy of the 80s than I do now aged 20, even then I was taken aback to discover that Wednesday’s double RSE lesson around consent was going to use an 80s story book as its primary source material. 

I’ve worked with Brook and other Sexual health charities a fair bit over the last few years and have spoken often about the RSE I received, frequently citing similar stories of the overly clinical approach and lack of LGBT+ content, and yet somehow this bizarre and somewhat comical Wednesday morning has repeatedly slipped my mind.  

If I recall correctly, the class of about 25 were handed a script about a boy and a girl who were both around 16. The story followed them through their relationship together, the conversations they had about their feelings, consent, and the external pressures on them both such as school, families and exams. The script was based on an educational book designed for teaching about relationships in the 1980s. I’m pretty sure that one of the teachers grabbed it in a charity shop for about 27 pence and just ran with it, changing a few place names and swapping out outdated details such as fax machines and phone boxes to make it a bit more relevant. 

I’m not writing this to scrutinise my secondary school R.E department but I wouldn’t say this was the best way to go about teaching consent. It all just felt a bit random and out of context because it was a one-off lesson and not part of an ongoing curriculum. 

I don’t think the activity was necessarily a bad one, I just think our lesson could have been more relevant to us as the generation that rushed home for Skins rather than Neighbours. 

I think what my teachers were trying to do is attach the concept of consent to a narrative which can then be discussed and explored as a group. This is something Brook advocates for, and I would argue is more interesting and more likely to be retained than the cup-of-tea video which seems to be a school favourite.  

Something Brook has spoken about in the past is using storylines from TV programmes to spark conversations with young people about consent. Despite its controversy, one show that lends itself well to this is Love Island.  Using an existing narrative can help us to have wider conversations around topics which we find difficult to broach, and makes understanding these topics in relation to our own lives a lot easier. In recent years Love Island has become one of the most watched programs on television; viewers who don’t normally indulge in reality television find themselves scrambling to tune in to ITV2 at 9pm.  

The sheer success of Love Island means that there is an enormous amount of online content surrounding the show throughout its entire eight-week stretch.

Wouldn’t this be an excellent opportunity for schools to teach an ongoing programme of relationships and sex education dissecting the show in the context of consent, body image, communication and respect, jealousy, friendships and other vital RSE topics?  

A big part of the enjoyment of Love Island is talking about the relationships between the islanders before, during and afterwards, so young people are already engaged and have an opinion on what’s going on in the villa. Teachers would simply need to provide a safe space and structure, which is what is missing from the conversations online.  

The advent of internet culture means we’re constantly having our own opinions influenced, validated, and challenged on a mass scale. With thousands of us sharing our opinions all at once, the rapidity of conversations around consent has increased. In a perfect world, Love Island’s success would be able to procure dialogue around consent which is constructive and healthy. But the relationship between the show’s success and the growth of social media means that exchanges are more tribal and aggressive; people group themselves to back certain islanders and opinions surrounding them and their behaviours on the show. 

It would be wrong for me to blame ITV2 and their addictive telly for the way social media influences our relationships in the modern world, but the intersection of the internet and Love Island is certainly interesting.

Both my education experience and Love Island follow the idea of using a story and narrative journey to inspire conversations about relationships.

Despite this obviously not being Love Island’s aim it is a product of it nonetheless. Of course, my RSE lesson was done in a controlled environment with a small group, very different to how we talk about Love Island, but I think there is space for both. 

It would be dangerous of me to say that we should go back to the times of my 80s book to better grasp consent. We should not take backwards steps, but learning to drop some of the social volatility brought into our lives by technology would not go amiss. It’s so important we give young people a space to discuss these thorny issues in real life and away from the often toxic environment of social media. 

Now that relationships and sex education is mandatory in schools, it’s time we focus on the quality of the lessons. 

My experience was by no means the worst but when it comes to consent I wish my time in the classroom had been more impactful than recycling a dusty old book from the 80s.  

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