As the date nears for compulsory Relationship and Sex Education (RSE), the Department for Education's guidance on sexual consent education remains vague.
While many secondary schools in the UK teach about consent, it is often not until year 9. These lessons regularly focus on consent as it pertains to sexual intercourse. However, sexual consent education should start earlier and include other sexual activities.
Data collected by sexual health researchers at Teesside University suggests consent education is needed as early as year 7.
The key is to discuss consent in developmentally-appropriate ways, such as talking about sexual consent as it relates to kissing and touching - behaviours common among pupils in years 7 and 8.
For this study, 66 11- to 13-year-olds in Northern England were asked to discuss their perspectives on coercion and consent in heterosexual relationships using fictional scenarios of kissing and sexual touching.
In both scenarios, the girl gave clear verbal and non-verbal signals that she wanted the activity to stop, while the male engaged in coercive behaviour. Alarmingly, the majority of both boys and girls endorsed elements of rape culture.
GUIDE TO COMPULSORY RSE
From September 2020:
- Primary schools must teach relationships education
- Secondary schools must teach relationships and sex education
- All schools must teach health education
Perceptions of consent
When the children were asked to define "sexual consent", they indicated that consent involves mutual verbal agreement and the absence of force:
- "You have to get personal permission, some way of knowing what's going to happen and some verbal way of saying you can do this, or you can't." (Thomas, aged 12)
- "Full consent is when the person agrees, and the other person agrees with them; they decide to not force anything on each other." (Chloe, 12).
Consent was also thought to include body language or facial expressions. They acknowledged that these could indicate interest but be misinterpreted:
- "If she smiled back, then it would've meant that she did want to kiss him." (Kyle, 12)
- "Seems it would be a bit awkward, say if I smile at you, it don't mean I want to kiss you." (Ben, 12)
As the conversations proceeded, their perspectives of sexual violence conflicted with their initial explanations of sexual consent.
It became evident that these young people showed problematic views towards male and female roles within heterosexual relationships:
- "The girl was in charge because he was coming towards her and she could've said ‘no, get away from me' or ‘sorry, I'm not ready for this'. At first she said it, but then she just gave in." (Kyle, 12)
- "It's the girl's responsibility as she's just sat there while the boy is trying to get her to notice him and so she's responsible for what will happen next. (Kate, 12).
The conversations about the scenarios focused on what the girl could have done to either prevent the situations from occurring in the first place or stop the situations from escalating.
The children were holding her more responsible than the male protagonist, putting their earlier characterisations of consent at odds with these perceptions.
Victim blaming - a major component of rape culture - has been frequently displayed by teens and adults. Evidence from these young people suggests this element of rape culture is already present in early adolescence.
An idea closely linked to victim blaming also emerged. The boys endorsed the myth that women are "asking to be sexually assaulted" due to their clothing choice.
In the sexual-touching scenario, the female was described as wearing a low-cut top. Perceptions about the girl's clothing choice overrode notions about consent being verbally requested and given:
- "When she wore the top… that was a signal that she was alright to give consent." (Kyle, 12)
- "What she was wearing kind of shows she wanted to do something sexual." (Evan, 12).
The girls saw things differently and mentioned potential reasons for wearing certain clothing, but did not believe the clothing choice suggested anything else.
- "She might be wearing that top not because she wants to do anything… maybe she wants him to see her body… then the boy turned it into something that it's really not." (Anna, 12)
- "She might be wearing a low-cutshirt to impress him." (Lauren, 11)
Implications for RSE
While adolescents understand the concept of consent, they may be unable to apply their notions of sexual consent if they buy into gendered stereotypes of heterosexual behaviour, victim blaming and rape myths.
It is vital for early adolescents to receive sexual consent education that disentangles the gendered assumptions that underlie discourses about sexual consent negotiation and allows for critical reflection. Moreover, it must address constructions of rape culture - such as victim blaming and rape myths early on. Waiting for sexual consent provision may leave adolescents without consent education before becoming sexually active.
The absence of this education may put young people at risk of perpetrating sexual violence or becoming victimised. Alternatively, early provision of consent education may help young people identify and resist coercive behaviour in romantic relationships.