In the lead up to the election, and since, there has been discussion about the role of consent in teenage sexual behaviour and sexual health outcomes. A recent research report was published suggesting a strong association between sexual coercion and teenage pregnancy. Meanwhile the Government seems committed to addressing consent issues:
'To help stop sexual violence before it occurs, we will ensure that the school curriculum includes teaching young people about sexual consent' – Conservative party election manifesto 2010
'...working with schools to teach young people about sexual consent and respect in relationships' – Theresa May at Womens Aid conference in 2010.
I welcome any educational initiatives that reinforce mutual respect and consent as the basis of sexual relationships. However, in case anyone thinks it is an opportunity to promote conservative messages about adolescent sexuality I would sound a cautionary note. Convenient as it would be to believe that sex amongst teenagers was just happening because of peer pressure, coercion and at worst violence, the fact is it isn’t. Sex is happening because it’s natural, it feels good physically and emotionally, because it is fun, because it is exciting and adventurous, because young people fall in love and for a whole load of other positive reasons as well as all the scary negative stuff. It is important that we acknowledge that as our starting point.
It is also vital that we consider what consent means in its broadest sense and once we have defined consent, what the implications of that are for educators and service providers.
We can probably take it for granted that everyone agrees both parties should ‘consent’ to sex, but I bet we’d find a very wide range of views of what constitutes consent amongst both policy makers, lawyers and sexually active people of all ages.
I think that these two things are essential pre-requisites of consent:
i) An absence of coercion: the real possibility of saying no if you want to, or saying yes to some things/activities and no to others, or yes now and no later...
ii) The capacity, education and skills to make an informed choice: to understand the risks (physical, emotional) that you are taking, to be able to predict a range of positive and negative outcomes and to be able to balance these and make a choice
Here are just some of the things that need to be in place in order to meet those pre-requisites so that consent is the norm in sexual relations amongst people of all ages:
• An understanding that coercion is a spectrum of behaviour from persuasion to persistence, to incentives to insistence, to threats, to force and even more shades of behaviour in between and that true informed consent is not possible in any of these scenarios
• An opportunity to explore the association between gender, age, wealth, power and sexual coercion
• An ability to recognise and decipher information presented on the internet and in the mainstream media in order to understand and critically evaluate messages, conventions and representations of sexual relationships
• An opportunity to consider the role of pornography in influencing people’s expectations of their own and their sexual partners desire, physique and performance
• A full understanding of all the possible consequences of having sex including the risks of contracting STIs with all the immediate and long-term health implications
• A full understanding of the risk of pregnancy, a consideration of all the decisions that can lead to and result from an unintended pregnancy and an understanding of all pregnancy options
• A full understanding of the positive reasons that people have sex, including the emotional and physical pleasure it can bring
• A full understanding of the range of sexualities and sexual preferences that exist and understanding that people of different sexualities have the same right to personal safety and bodily integrity
• An understanding that the onus is on the coercer to listen to and hear their partner and not just on the coercee to be assertive and confident enough to keep saying no
There’s a lot more, but this would be a start. Even with this brief list it looks pretty much like a comprehensive sex and relationships curriculum!
I am glad the Government is looking at consent issues. I hope they’ve learned the lessons of the past and they know that it’s not enough to teach us ‘just say no’.