How we learn about consent

June 29, 2022

‘Pressuring For Nudes’ – drawings with acrylics by Kate Rogers

Kate Rogers investigates the history of sex education and the serious issue of consent

When the word consent comes to mind, behind the political agendas, court cases and news reports, what is it that we think about?

Is it textbook definitions that don’t truly encapsulate the real meaning of the word? Is it a toxic relationship or do we remember the awkward sex education (sex ed.) lessons taught by people more qualified to lecture about the Battle of Hastings than the ins and outs of your first sexual experience? They often delivered painful renditions of that same speech they heard 30 years before, adding some ill-timed jokes about pronouns or same sex relationships.

It was a New Year’s resolution of mine to ease up on my slander of the British education system. But now I’ve run out of patience; especially when it comes to the topic of consent.

Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) was introduced in 1999. This was the first time it was officially acknowledged that sex ed. was about more than just biology. With the AIDS epidemic hitting its peak in Britain just four years before, it couldn’t have come at a better time for young people to learn about safe sex and contraceptives.

Before this, sex ed. was based on scientific facts with a heavy emphasis on sex being for reproduction only. Sex ed. in the 1950s was mechanical, with no reference to safety, enjoyment or exploration. You can check more here in this 1950s archive sex ed. film.

All that was taught was that you had sex with someone of the opposite sex to have a baby, and most likely if you had sex before marriage or with the same sex you’d go to hell! Alongside that disturbing image was the often used comparison of farm animals and plants as a way to describe reproduction without even mentioning sexual intercourse or people!

Young people in the 2000s were taught how to put a condom on a banana and shown graphic images of gonorrhoea as a scare tactic

One would hope that by the late 90s, when Britain finally moved past the farm animal comparisons, talks of consent and healthy sexual relationships would be discussed, with a transition away from binary attitudes about sex. This wasn’t the case. SRE was only a minor step forward from what was taught 40 years before.

Yes, young people in the 2000s were taught how to put a condom on a banana and were shown graphic images of gonorrhoea as a scare tactic. Discussions about the safety of sending nudes and sexting would be much more useful within SRE. There’s definitely a growing culture of pressuring for nudes according to a new survey with 1 in 5 teenagers saying they sent “sexts” because they were coerced or blackmailed into it.

It was only if a teacher had a personal interest in talking about consent in relationships that the topic was brought up. A dedicated teacher often discussed consent through a video called ‘Tea and Consent’. This two minute video uses the metaphor of having a cup of tea in place of sex. Giving imagined scenarios such as someone asking for a cup of tea and then changing their mind when it arrives. It demonstrates you’re not entitled to force them to drink the tea, as they don’t want it anymore. The video, while a simple and funny animation, was informative and upfront in a way that neither my peers nor I had ever been taught.

From birth to age 12 my ‘No’ had never really been treated as a ‘No’. When a child doesn’t want to give an adult a hug, guilt tripping almost always ensued; “You’re making Aunty Sally really sad by not giving her a cuddle”, or “Uncle Sam only wants to be nice, you should be nice too”. So after years of “Nos” not meaning “No” because you’re only a child, ‘Tea and Consent’ gave a clear idea of what “No” really means.

Tea and Consent

Interestingly, the angle of the video wasn’t from the perspective of the victim, which is how consent is often discussed. It speaks from the perspective of someone offering tea, not receiving it.

It didn’t occur to me that when teachers told me I should never let anyone coerce me into sex, because saying “No” is never bad, they should also have told me that when someone tells me “No” or is drunk or unsure, I should listen to them. Just like first aid isn’t taught from the perspective of the wounded, consent shouldn’t only be discussed from the point of view of the victim.

Post 2020, with the introduction of the new Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum, an in-depth plan for each stage of education has been laid out. The curriculum starts in primary school where boundaries are discussed, alongside the importance of not keeping secrets for people if they’re causing you harm.

At secondary school, information is provided about sexual violence and harassment, criminal relationships and grooming. Schools are also instructed to be alert to sexism, misogyny and homophobia, in person and online. That homophobia is being listed as something to look out for ensures that mandatory discussions about LGBTQ+ relationships are now taking place in school.

This seems exactly what everyone has been asking for. And when combing through the RSE documents, I was pleased to see the use of s/he when discussing assault by penetration as over 60% of male sexual harassment victims are between the age of five and 19. So it’s vital that education boards look at young boys as victims too.

It would be presumptuous to say that new RSE lessons are going to fix the issues surrounding consent, unhealthy relationships and sexual acts

So, on paper, the new RSE scheme seems good, like it will do the job. In fact, I’m sure that’s how everyone felt when this was introduced. However, it isn’t that simple. Discussions of consent have been with us throughout time, with both male and female rape being a common theme in Greek mythology. Yet the problem still hasn’t been resolved.

So, it would be presumptuous to say that these lessons are going to fix the issues surrounding consent, unhealthy relationships and sexual acts. Especially considering the Office for National Statistics reported 73,260 sexual offences in the year to March 2019. In addition, more have been reported on the Everyone’s invited website where 10,000 students have shared their stories of sexual harassment in schools.

It’s a waiting game to see the impact of the new RSE lessons. Or more importantly if they’ll be delivered as urgently as SATS prep and as enthusiastically as GCSE maths. If we stopped teaching young people to memorise Macbeth the repercussions would be minimal, but if we continue with sex ed. the way that we are now, how many more pupils will become another sexual offence statistic?

You can get more advice here from the Your Best Friend #FriendsCanTell campaign.

Thanks to SafeLives, which is operating the Your Best Friend Fund, for making this fantastic #FriendsCanTell campaign possible.

Kate studies English language, History and Philosophy at Woodhouse College. She’s interested in social and political issues, concerning women, her local community and the Black-British community, and demonstrates her interests through volunteering as well as in her art and writing.

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