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Sexual consent ought to be easy, so why are we making it so hard?

This week the Children’s Commissioner for England released a report into how young people in England understand sexual consent. “Sex without consent, I suppose that is rape” is well worth reading - and it’s every bit as unpleasant as you’d expect.

New Statesman
Teenagers know about consent in the abstract, but they aren't always applying that knowledge in real life. Image: Getty

“Your brother does not want a plastic octopus stuck up his bottom!” is one of the many things I never thought I’d say, at least not until I had children. These days I know better. Shared bath times, an overdose of Matey and a pink Playmobil octopus that turns yellow when immersed in warm water can lead to no end of trouble.

On the bright side, such bath times do at least provide an opportunity to give what I like to think of as impromptu lessons in consent. Whether it’s wet sponges in the face or sea creatures up the bum, the message is always the same: if it’s someone else’s body, you don’t touch unless he or she wants you to. And that’s the case even if, one minute earlier, your devious little brother was giggling away, begging you to empty the entire contents of a Head and Shoulders bottle onto his head. The moment he realises what a stupid idea that was, you put the bottle away.

Messages about ownership of one’s own body seems simple enough, at least when your children are small. You can kid yourself that, providing you hammer it home early, you won’t need to bother in later years. I want my boys to grow up to respect other people’s boundaries and to expect the same treatment in return. In ten years’ time I don’t want to hear whining about consent being “confusing” or resentful mutterings about “prick teases”. I hope my sons never end up lurking around comment threads making flippant comparisons between women and unlocked cars. I want touch, whether sexual or non-sexual, to be a positive thing in their lives, not something that is fraught with doubt, entitlement, misunderstanding and abuse of power. Unfortunately, I fear that all these objectives, which seem so straightforward now, will become harder and harder to achieve as my children grow.

This week the Children’s Commissioner for England released a report into how young people in England understand sexual consent. “Sex without consent, I suppose that is rape” is well worth reading. It’s every bit as unpleasant as you’d expect but at least it’s one more nail in the coffin for the ludicrous belief that lecturing potential victims on “rape prevention” is helpful or that consent is simply too difficult for the average person to understand. On the contrary, such assertions aren’t just untrue, they’re also counterproductive.

If young people don’t “get” consent, it’s not because consent itself is confusing; as the report states, “young people’s understandings of consent in the abstract are relatively clear”. The trouble comes when such understandings are applied to real life situations, whereupon “gendered codes of behaviour and victim blame change how [young people] make sense of sexual negotiation”. The rules on consent itself are fine in  principle -- indeed, even a four-year-old wielding a lethal bath toy can grasp them -- but countless other rules and social judgments end up contradicting them. We can’t teach consent effectively unless we’re willing to un-teach prejudice.

Sex isn’t the problem, nor is that vague-but-suitably-worrying concept “sexualisation”.  Alas, it’s sexism (which is far less sexy than the other two, at least in terms of the kind of images it will bring up if you use it as a search term on Google). According to the report, interactions related to consent take place within a far broader context of sexual inequality:

For many [young people], young women are held responsible for ‘getting themselves in situations’ and expected to physically or verbally demonstrate refusal, while young men are presumed to be reckless about whether or not young women want to have sex, along with a spectrum that ranges from failing to seek consent, through manipulation and persuasion to pressure and coercion.

This is the cultural environment that currently awaits my sons. It’s one in which they’ll feel pressure to achieve “man points” through sexual conquest and in which their female counterparts, the “sexual gatekeepers,” will be “simultaneously blamed for victimisation, yet also denied the possibility of actively desiring sex”. It’s a deeply unbalanced environment in which everyone is assumed to be heterosexual and everyone is expected to stick to their allotted gender roles. It’s horribly oppressive and our children deserve better than this.

The report’s recommendations include encouraging discussion of “the gendered double standard” and “challenging victim blame”. Neither of these aspects have attracted much attention in the media so far. The Evening Standard merely states that “more needs to be done to increase understanding of the concept of consent” (thus creating the impression that the report is wholly focussed on how complex this is) while ITV news refers only to “the significant influence pornography now has in young people's lives, and the lack of effective sex education offered to young people”. If only it were that obvious. To look, not just at teachers and internet search engines, but at the damaging beliefs about sex and gender which underpin our society as a whole is evidently a step too far. We’re too attached both to sexism and to a prurient, half-disapproving, half-titillated and wholly ineffective approach to discussing young people and their choices.

Obviously I hope that, by the time my sons hit their teens, this situation will have improved. I want them to have confidence in their relationships with others and to be able to move beyond all the play acting that reduces bodies to props. I want them to have not just understanding for others, but the space in which to be brave. The thought of them hopelessly chasing approval points, no matter what the consequences, just seems desperately sad. There have to be happier, more imaginative ways to form relationships. It ought to be easy, so why are we making it so hard?