My last couple of blogs led to extensive discussion below the line about issues of consent and the value of various models of enthusiastic consent* over a more simplistic ‘no means no’ model.
With impeccable timing, the Scottish government has released preliminary findings of a survey of over 1000 school students, aged approximately 15-18 (Years S3-S6 in the Scottish school system.)
The findings are worrying. When presented with the statement “When a girl says no to sex, she always means no” only 73% said it was definitely or even probably true. When asked about “When a boy says no to sex, he always means no” only 55% said it was definitely or even probably true. Let that sink in. Very nearly half of teenagers don’t believe a boy means no if he says no – and we are surprised to learn that large numbers of males are subjected to unwanted, coercive or abusive sexual contact?
Perhaps most worryingly of all, 89% of respondents agreed that a person could change their mind about having sex at any time, even if they had previously consented – meaning more than one in ten Scottish teenagers failed to agree with that most basic statement of consent principles.
I think this study is particularly troubling because the respondents in this survey are at the precise age when people are learning to negotiate their sexualities and behaviours. Those will often go on to become our habits and our expectations. It’s an age when we are finding out what is acceptable, desirable or enjoyable to ourselves and others. Most of these respondents will not be hugely sexually experienced – they have not learned through their own bitter experience that potential partners sometimes play hard-to-get; they have almost certainly picked up these myths from popular culture, their elders and their peers.
This murky puddle of confusion is the context against which enthusiastic consent (or crystal clear consent, affirmative consent, positive consent or whichever alternative model or jargon you prefer) is recommended. I don’t for a moment believe that teaching enthusiastic consent will solve all problems. It is not a magic bullet to prevent all rapes, assaults, exploitation and abuse. Enthusiastic consent won’t stop determined rapists from raping, but it does tear down the curtain of excuses and justifications behind which they often hide. Enthusiastic consent is not even necessarily a cure to the attitudes revealed in this survey, it is more their natural logical progression.
The uncomfortable truth is that the large proportion of young people who said that no doesn’t always mean no might not be entirely wrong. We live in a culture where people’s desires and intentions are not always immediately apparent to others. For myriad complex reasons people sometimes say no when they mean yes, and sometimes say yes when they mean no. If you are a halfway decent human being (as I firmly believe most of us are) then pinning your behaviour to a simplistic, all or nothing, one word reply has to be inadequate.
None of this relates to criminal law – what is or is not rape or some other form of assault – this is happening at a much more basic level of personal morality. Does it bother you to think you might be violating someone, traumatising someone, hurting someone, even raping someone? If the answer to that question is no, you don’t care, then no amount of consent training will make a difference.
If you do care, then adopting principles of enthusiastic consent is really the only way you can be sure to get it right.
* I’ll be honest and confess that I find extended interrogations of what enthusiastic consent really means and exactly what it looks like to be disingenuous and ugly. In a nutshell, if you’re not sure that consent is enthusiastic, then it isn’t. But if you want a more extended explanation, I like the one by Dr Nerdlove here.