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Consent education: Undoing the binary and embracing ambiguity

Elsie Whittington

Over the last three years I have worked alongside diverse groups of young people, aged 13–25, to develop insight into what sexual consent might mean to them and why. I have also worked with 12 educators, in both school and informal settings, learning about the practices, and practicalities, of delivering consent education.

During this time I have grappled personally and theoretically with the notion of consent – the process, practice and properties of this contested, and at times confusing concept. The young participants have shared their thoughts, ideas and at times their experiences of consent in many iterations. They have spoken candidly of their sex education, both formal and informal, and taken part in a variety of conversations and activities. Due to the diversity of my groups I have been able to pick up on different sexual cultures that are shaped by intersections of age, class, culture, race, geographic location and so on.

Consent is a difficult concept to pin down, but participatory work with young people has allowed me to better understand the abstract and binary ways in which it is commonly constructed. In this blog, I share some findings and reflections about the challenges and opportunities for teaching and talking about consent in ways that move beyond a yes/no binary and embrace ambiguity.

Figure 1
Year 11 definitions of sexual consent

Consent is generally viewed as give-able, posses-able and changeable. The definitions that participants gave tended to have little, or no, reference to the body, and often linked to notions of transaction and legal discourse about rape. Many young people found the term ‘confusing’, and those with sexual experiences reflected that sexual negotiation is ‘complex’, ‘contextual’ and sometimes ‘hard work’. A key finding from my research is that consent is ‘awkward!’, and therefore often ‘done’ on the ‘low key’ in ‘subtle’ and ambiguous ways.

Seeking consent explicitly, and verbally, involves recognising yourself as a desiring and sexual being – something that many, particularly young women, are discouraged from or linguistically ill equipped to do (Holland et al, 1998). Here I turn to educational discourses and consider the ways in which sex and relationship education (SRE) might help young people to develop a more situated and contextual understanding of sexual negotiation.

Overwhelmingly, my participants – both young people and educators – noted that common discourses around consent are ‘not really that helpful’ for developing people’s competence to negotiate a positive sexual encounter. We noted that education and campaigns about sexual consent tend to focus on extreme experiences. There is a need to think more about the everyday, mundane encounters that more people can relate to – we can see this in the recent mobilising of ‘#MeToo’ across different digital spaces. We need to consider what #MeToo means for children and young people? Thus, one branch of my research has moved towards thinking about if and how it is possible teach about sexual negotiation in ways that do not reproduce binary and legal definitions of consent/rape, and polarised representations of pleasure and violation.

Talking and teaching about the ‘grey areas’ in between may be considered a risky and difficult task – one that many schools, teachers and youth practitioners may, understandably, be wary of. It may feel safer to provide a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’. Yet I have found that engaging with young people’s uncertainty and awkwardness about wanting or being ready for sex is far more fruitful, and can provoke reflections on and transformations in the way that people consider (and perhaps thus enact) sexual ethics and communication (Carmody 2015).

Figure 2
Example of body mapping activity

I have had an amazing time using creative methods such as body mapping, continuum and scenario activities. By attempting to avoid static definitions and notions of how to ‘do consent properly’ I have garnered some insightful and at times contradictory data. Together, participants and I have considered what is going on in the bodies and minds of people navigating different sexual encounters and deconstructed binary notions of consent – illustrating the ambiguity that shrouds conversations and experiences of sex.

My recommendations for future education practice about sexual consent are that it is part of our safeguarding role to open conversations about the nuances of consent, and that to do this there needs to be more resources and support for educators who perform this vital and complex task.

I talk more about this work in a Huffington Post blog, and recommend Brook’s free teaching resources on consent, which incorporates much of what I have learned doing this research.

Carmody M (2015) Sex, ethics, and young people: Young people and ethical sex, London: Palgrave Macmillan

Holland J, Ramazanoglu C, Sharpe S and Thomson R (1998) The Male in the Head: Young People, Heterosexuality and Power, London: Tufnell Press.