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There Are Shades Of Grey in Consent Too

Perhaps we owe it to these teenagers to talk more openly and honestly about those many shades of grey they're discovering in sex, and how to bridge the difficult and confusing gap between their own desires and the clear-cut, oh-so-simple version of consent they're being presented.

Now I know this isn't an especially appealing prospect, but for just a minute or two, lets spend some time inside the mind of a teenager; just an intelligent, rational, normal teenager gradually discovering their sexuality.

They may have heard their mum and her friends talk about Fifty Shades of Grey as light, amusing entertainment and they've snuck it of the shelf for a quick read about violent and submissive sex. They've seen the trailer. Maybe they even faked IDs and went with their girlfriend or boyfriend for Valentines Day.

Perhaps their Dad let them watch Game of Thrones with him, they've sat together and witnessed victims of marital rape fall in love with their abuser, women violently assaulted or killed for pleasure with no consequence, countless female bodies on display.

They may have resisted the temptation to click on stolen pictures of celebrities last September, but couldn't understand why they were somehow more appealing than the countless other naked pictures available online.

Because, lets face it, they've seen porn. Lots of porn. Whether on their own computer going down their own rabbit hole, stumbled upon on Tumblr, or rushed images passed around on mobiles at school. Porn where the female consent on view will range everywhere on the scale from artificially over-enthusiastic, through happily given, to unsought-for and unfound.

These same young adults have probably also been very exposed to the recent upswing of awareness of feminist issues, or the campaigns to stop campus rape, or the calls for "enthusiastic consent" being the new baseline for healthy sexual activity. They agree wholeheartedly; these aren't stupid kids, it all sounds like obvious common sense. They get it. It's rational. Of course you would only have sex with someone who positively wanted to.

But hang on a minute... is that actually what they want? Then why are they racing to the cinema to see Fifty Shades? And what about them? Why do they get turned on by it? Are they some kind of doomed sexual deviant from the start? The images they're bombarded with from popular culture just don't match the narrative they're taught at school, and for many its the former that's going to ring true with their own feelings.

Perhaps we owe it to these teenagers to talk more openly and honestly about those many shades of grey they're discovering in sex, and how to bridge the difficult and confusing gap between their own desires and the clear-cut, oh-so-simple version of consent they're being presented.

As Fifty Shades racks up record breaking opening weekend takings in the UK, it's clear ideas of BDSM are not fringe interests. For many of us sex can be a weird, dark, place. Even in a well established, loving, adult relationship it can be hard to pinpoint where that elusive little line of consent is. And of course that tricky little line has a dangerous habit of moving.

One night a bit of degradation, or even pain, can be exactly right for the sex place you're in, the next night a loving partner trying the same thing might find it is absolutely NOT welcome. And of course checking in for encouragement would ruin the moment - this kind of complicated consent has to be agreed in advance: something established BDSM practitioners like the fictional, contract-obsessed, Christian Grey have nailed. For others it can take years of gently nudging the borders of your comfort zone, developing subtle mid-sex communications, safe words, long post-coital post-mortems, a building of trust and love, to work out an equilibrium.

Every sexual partner will have different tastes, different lines, and crucially different levels of understanding of their own lines, their own sexuality. The trouble is that what's black and white in life, is not black and white in sex. And getting the elusive issue of consent right is so very crucial... from misunderstood signals it is all too easy to get to rape.

I love the call for "enthusiastic consent". The new CPS guidelines make so much sense. They're designed to move beyond the concept of "no means no," and put the onus on accused rapists to convince police a woman consented. I grew up thinking you needed a physical struggle to prove you weren't consenting, or at least that definitive 'no'. These guidelines aim to acknowledge the vital grey area where the 'no' is not articulated but still present, but what of the grey area where the 'yes' is shifting or we're pretending it doesn't exist?

Because did I mention sex is confusing? It's not always easy to be clear headed. In my pre-teen sex education classes, I was self-righteously shocked that anyone would ever not wear a condom! Ah, how wrong I was... now I worry that for those discovering their sexuality there could be a similar disconnect between the theory of consent, and the reality of the complicated sexual contradictions blooming inside them. That disconnect creates a dangerous precipice over which any well intentioned person could fall in confusion

So what about that teenage boy, schooled on porn, sneakily reading his mum's copy of Fifty Shades, trying to get to grips with what's an appropriate way to treat women? Trying to work out how to be sexy. How to be sexy? Wow, thats complicated. How do we explain the contradictions between images of women wanting submission during sex, and the rule that to have sex with a girl they've got to enthusiastically egg you on. Is anyone surprised they're confused?

Perhaps we should admit to them that actually SOME girls will SOMEtimes love that, but you have absolutely got to earn their trust first so you can plan that kind of sex together, in advance. And if their role-call of wanking images includes ones they may not be proud of, that doesn't mean they're a sexual predator, it doesn't even mean they would enjoy it in real life. It also doesn't mean they won't ever get to explore that side of their sexuality with an enthusiastically consenting girl someday.

And what about the girls who are learning their own sexuality, that have been confused when they get turned on by things they didn't expect? That have strayed into dark realms in fantasy? Perhaps we should tell them too that they can fantasise about whatever the hell they like and that doesn't mean they want it to actually happen? Or if they decide to try it they can change their mind whenever and as often as they like. It does NOT make it their fault if some jerk takes advantage of them.

It would be easier if female sexuality had no taste for the idea of submission, or pain or power struggles, if male sexuality didn't sometimes crave dominance. And, of course, vice versa. But if we don't acknowledge the grey areas, the confusion, and the dark and different paths our sexuality can take us down, then I worry simplistic talk of consent will fall on deaf ears. Or more likely will be lapped up, but then fall away at the crucial moment. If we want a new generation to grow up to respect consent, first they need to understand it.