We need to teach kids about consent as early as possible, because rape culture doesn’t start with rugby lads in the Union bar. It starts at school.
Like most young people in the UK, I had sex education in secondary school. Mostly, sex ed consisted of PSHE days dedicated to showing terrified teenagers giant blown-up pictures of advanced venereal diseases and graphic descriptions of perineum tears during childbirth. I suppose our school was more progressive than some, because we saw a condom put on an intimidatingly giant dildo, rather than a banana, and the female orgasm was mentioned. Many schools leave that bit out.
The one solid piece of advice I got during sex ed (and consequently the only piece of advice I’ve remembered) was from our notoriously liberal, motherly Religious Studies teacher Mrs Currie: “Girls, sex is messy. There are fluids everywhere. But it’s fun.”
“Girls, sex is messy. There are fluids everywhere. But it’s fun.”
We all howled at the time, of course, but ‘messiness’ (and to an extent, ‘fun’) is so notably absent from the ultra-sanitised TV and film depictions of sex that it really was an important take-home message. Sex – almost always heterosexual, of course – isn’t messy in films. The heroine is always wearing matching underwear, and she never has to tell the man what to do. You never hear phrases like “that doesn’t feel good”, “I’m not comfortable with this”, “can you move because my arm is numb”, or “that’s the wrong hole”. Nobody ever talks. Nobody ever farts.
Looking back, the attitudes of my teenage self and my peers to consent and boundaries were shockingly anti-feminist
Looking back, the attitudes of my teenage self and my peers to consent and boundaries were shockingly anti-feminist. Stories were passed around of girls stripped while passed out drunk, and girls so drunk during sex that they were semi-conscious. Revenge porn – ex-boyfriends circling intimate pictures of their exes after a break-up – wasn’t just normalised, it was expected. The girls were blamed for being sluts who deserved what they got, despite the fact that there was an enormous amount of pressure to send those pictures in the first place. I was a victim of revenge-porn related blackmail and sexual assault, and the school friends that I have spoken to since have expressed similar shock and outrage at the gross normalisation of violating women’s boundaries that happened back then.
My school experience is by no means an outlier. Research has shown that teenagers are most likely to victim-blame in the event of a sexual assault. A 2013/14 study by the Office of National Statistics asked if a victim was to blame for rape if they had been drunk, under the influence of drugs or flirting heavily beforehand, and then broke down the results by age band. In all scenarios, teenagers (aged 16-19) were most likely to blame the victim – 34%, 45% and 46% of 16-19 year olds respectively said that the victim was completely, mostly, or a little bit responsible.
Part of the problem in this regard is that sex education is so woefully lacking. The Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) Guidance currently in use in schools hasn’t been updated since 2000. Last year, Parliament voted to make relationships and sex education compulsory in all schools from September 2019, and in December 2017 former education secretary Justine Greening called for teachers and pupils to contribute to a new and revised guidance system for sex education, saying: “It’s unacceptable that relationships and sex education guidance has not been updated for almost 20 years, especially given the online risks our children and young people face.” The call for evidence contains a lot of promising potential additions to the guidance – including respect, boundaries and consent. It’s long overdue. But today’s young people were educated under the 2000 guidance – and the word “consent” is not mentioned anywhere in the 34-page document.
My university didn’t offer consent classes at all, and I wish they had.
My university didn’t offer consent classes at all, and I wish they had. The idea that consent is more complex than just ‘no means no’, that consent is retractable and not a contract, that I had absolute right over my own body and my own boundaries was something that I really only came to grips with in my second year of university when I had my feminist awakening and grew all my pubes back.
There has been a lot of talk about how consent classes are patronising, Orwellian and/or ‘misandrist’, but reading the experiences of people who have attended them provides a different story – an informal group discussion of boundaries with sample scenarios to play out and talk about.
I don’t understand the backlash, although I’m not surprised by it. Men are conditioned throughout their lives to believe that they should instinctively know what a woman wants, to push boundaries, to chase women, and most importantly, to not give up until they get what they want. The hero gets the prize, and the prize is a woman. There’s a lot of education that needs to be done to undo that, and in the process, you get to learn how to be a more considerate lover and a more respectful human being.
The crux of the problem is that by the time you get to university you’ve already done most of your developing. Societal conditioning has firmly kicked in and problematic attitudes to consent have burrowed so deeply and insidiously into your brain that you don’t even know they’re there. So it’s understandable to suppose that you already know everything there is to know about consent. You’ve probably already had sex a few times too – on average, Brits have sex for the first time at 16.
But at the moment, compulsory university consent classes (only implemented at Oxford and Bristol currently) are the only form of consent-focused sex education that can be standardised across the board.
You might have come from a school that neglected to mention queer sex, bad sex or female orgasm sex.Your parents might have withdrawn you from sex education classes, which the guidance says is perfectly fine. You might have come from a very religious school – and religious schools are allowed to have their own form of sex education, which the guidance says is perfectly fine. Your school might have linked “unwanted sex” with “other risk-taking behaviour such as drugs and alcohol”, which is in the guidance anyway. Students starting at university, therefore, will have a whole range of potentially very harmful attitudes to sex and consent, and so a compulsory consent class provides an opportunity to standardise that education and makes sure everyone’s starting on the same page.
We are in the middle of a revolutionary feminist movement – the collective outpouring of rage has led to the righteous toppling of so many powerful abusive men. The topic of consent and sexual assault is in the limelight. For the 2019 update of the SRE guidance I’m still holding out hope that the #metoo movement will influence the government enough to write in comprehensive, compulsory consent education.
We need to teach kids about consent as early as possible, because rape culture doesn’t start with rugby lads in the Union bar. It starts at school. Teenagers have sex, and they have sex a lot, and right now they’re having sex without really being fully informed.
We need to teach kids about consent as early as possible, because rape culture doesn’t start with rugby lads in the Union bar. It starts at school. Teenagers have sex, and they have sex a lot, and right now they’re having sex without really being fully informed. Maybe if early education focuses on consent – on fully consensual, mutually enthusiastic, fun, messy and fluid-drenched sex (thanks Mrs C!) – before too long we won’t need university consent classes at all.
This opinion piece is part of The London Students’ campaign on behalf of Revolt Sexual Assault