Navigating “consent” in the #MeToo era

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, the issue of “consent” is now a talking point for men, women, boys and girls across the world.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 3 women worldwide experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. Some countries are introducing change at legislative levels. In Spain, the government will introduce a new law aimed at removing ambiguity in rape cases that states “yes means yes” and anything else means no (including silence). Sweden introduced a new law to recognise that sex without explicit mutual consent constitutes rape. Prosecutors will no longer need to prove that violence or threats were used by the accused in order to obtain a conviction, making it the 10th European country to amend its legislation in this way.

Education is key in resolving such matters. In the UK, some groups use theatre, such as the Theatre for Change group, a partnership between the UK and Malawi, and the Cat’s Paw Theatre in Wales.

Following the publication of That’s What She Said, a report on “lad culture” in higher education, the National Union of Students held workshops at 20 universities, as part of the I Heart Consent project to raise awareness during Fresher’s week.

Other initiatives include consent apps. Cody Swan, CEO of Gunner Technology said: “This is like a digital handshake agreement. You talk about what you are agreeing to, and then shake on it.”

However, ask a group of teenagers what consent, or even rape means, and the responses are surprisingly confused, ranging from defensive and wary to embarrassed.

A defensive attitude has arisen as part of the backlash from the #MeToo movement. At the University of York a student objected to a consent talk saying “it is not the place of a student how to tell another student how to act in the bedroom”. However, he later admitted that the definition of rape confuses him, highlighting the need for such education.

For young people today, casual relationships can be fraught. The influence of social media and films, as well as alcohol and drugs create confusion that blur an understanding about what is acceptable behaviour in a sexual relationship.

Oundle School has recognised that education is pivotal and the issue is part of its Learning for Life programme for Years 7 to 13. In Year 7 permission is a focus. Year 9 is where the syllabus is based around consent, the main topics being sex and consent, pleasure, and social media.

Hannah Dawes, the head of the programme, said: “Consent is actively agreeing to be sexual with someone. Consent lets someone know that sex is wanted. Sexual activity without consent is rape or sexual assault.”

Providing a clear definition, as well as informing teenagers of the law is essential. Alex Fryer is a leading PSHE speaker on sex and healthy relationships. She argues clearly and unambiguously, “no means no, not convince me!”

Prince William School includes consent related topics in their PSHE programme. Mark Cooper, Assistant Principal said: “The teaching of Sex and Relationship Education lies within the PSHE curriculum where we help students to consider their development as individuals within the context of society.”

In Years 7 and 8 the pupils look at the issues surrounding friendships such as freedom and individuality as well as different relationships and appropriate behaviour within a relationship.

In Year 9 the focus is on sexual relationships: peer pressure, the law regarding consent, and myths about ‘who is doing what’.

In Year 10 the importance of both parties consenting and different forms of contraception are involved.

Sixth Form students are encouraged to explore ideas of meaningful relationships and the main topics include issues of consent, contraception, promiscuity and the dangers of unprotected sex.

Pupils think having good information through education about this important issue is vital. One said: “I feel educated by the talks, and I think that consent is taken seriously as a result.”

Lily Hunter
December 2018