Consent is a word we may think we have an understanding of, given its commonplace and importance in the law. But when it comes to sex and relationships we need to clarify and talk far more openly about it, particularly in schools, to help combat the widespread sexual violence against women; a problem that is reaching alarming levels.
However, in recent news, much more has been spoken about consent, and there are some amazing campaigns pushing to get consent on the curriculum or to educate those in particularly volatile circumstances about consent. There is also finally, thanks mainly to Everyday Sexism but also recent media activism, a move towards a consensus that sexism and sexist language is still rife. As a consequence of this it seems that finally, (something I have been bashing my head against a brick wall trying to convince people), we are starting to draw a link between sexism and sexist language and discrimination and sexual violence. The recent BBC documentary, Blurred Lines, is a good example of this. A lot of discussion and academic evidence arguing that the everyday use of sexist language, in particular sexist humour, can lead to increase sexist discrimination. That documentary also drew attention to some amazing grassroot campaigns lead by young women, such as the Campaign 4 Consent to be a compulsory part of the national curriculum which I fully support.
So what is our understanding of consent with regards to sex?
The other day I was listening to one of Michael Sandel's Public Philosopher lectures where he argues how consent must always be informed. In another source, NHS medical treatment guidelines add another level to Sandel's philosophy that it should be voluntary and informed. In other words, you must have adequate information about the situation you are consenting to, and you must be consenting completely under your own terms and not out of any force or coercion. And there is by no means a consensus on this; as I recall a UK judge declaring in common law that 'drunken consent is still consent' when it can be argued that you are not informed or may be under coercion when drunk.
A programme of study by the PSHE association, who support the development of PSHE curriculum in schools (which by the way is still not compulsory), says consent, in the context of sex and relationship education is ' 'Positive and active communication that goes beyond saying no' This is good, because too often our understanding has been that consent is permission granted. Rarely are sexual encounters text book situations with the question 'do you want to have sex with me' followed by a straight forward 'yes or no' response. The author Rachel Vail spoke out saying that 'Consent is really too low a bar. Hold out for enthusiasm.' Consent so often does sound permissive - usually a man asking a women for permission to have sex with her, not the other way around, always in a very heteronormative context, not always a two way discussion. This is certainly not positive and active communication.
But then, what does positive and active communication really look like when you are taking your clothes off with somebody? Many adults are terrified of talking about sex, with their sexual partners or others. Often communication during, before and after sex is non verbal. Notions of consent are also tied up with relationships; yet fully consensual sex can occur with someone you are not in a long term relationship with, and assault, sexual violence and rape is even more likely to occur by someone that you know well or are in a long term relationship with.
So I still think consent is more than active and positive communication, more than saying no, more than giving permission, more than an act that is voluntary and informed, and certainly more than a man asking a woman if he can have sex with her. I think you can only consent when you respect one another. And I think you can only show true respect for one another when you see each other as equals in society and treat others as equals in society. Sandel, again, argues that rape is a worse crime than other forms of violence or assault because it ignores the respect and dignity of a person.
How then, should we educate young people about consent?
I remember turning to teenage magazines as the sex education I had from school was pretty limited and I don't recall touching on the idea of consent. The magazine message was that you should only have sex once you are 16 and in a loving and stable relationship and that as young girls we should not feel pressurised into having sex. (Surely being pressurised into sex is rape? It certainly doesn't comply with our earlier idea of consent being voluntary). They didn't emphasise positive and active communication, nor any idea of respect, equality and trust. And if boys are taught the more permissive form of consent, then if a girl says yes because she is under pressure (particularly if that pressure may not be coming from him) as far as the boy is concerned he has gained consent. But I'm not certainly not happy with this set up. What other ways do young people learn about consent? Hollywood either tells you that sex is a wonderful romantic moment, or a lustful exciting encounter. Porn portrays sex in a very unrealistic manner which also sends out very confusing and harmful messages about consent. These illustrate ever more the case for clear information about sex. If we do not talk about it a vacuum breeds which Hollywood and the internet will inevitably fill.
We need to therefore talk about equality and respect (as we should be doing anyhow I have argued before), but very much in relation to consent. Being on equal terms suggests one person is not pressuring the other. Respecting the other person is respecting their decisions and not coercing. Equality implies equal enthusiasm for sex, and equal consideration for sexual preferences. Overall this is respect for each other as equals in society. This can be brought about through positive and active communication, which actually means that in the event of very little verbal communication, there is an underlying consensus of equality and respect for one another which supports or enables consent to take place. As soon as one person is not showing respect or treating someone as an equal, they are unlikely to be in a consenting situation, even if they may give verbal or similar permission (such as a shy nod of the head). 86% of adults agree, according to a recent YouGov poll, that sex and relationship education needs to address sexual consent and respectful relationships and should be taught in all schools.
This brings us back to the start and shows why raising awareness of sexism and sexist language is so important. Otherwise sexism directly undermines the notion of respect and equality between the sexes. And without respect and equality we do not have consent. Let's talk more about this.