Consent, Sex Ed and Young People

Some thoughts on where we are with consent, Sex Ed and young people, where the gaps are, how the Sex Ed that is taught can contribute to the problem and some ideas on how we can think of working with (and listening to) young people more effectively.


This piece is based on a talk I gave for Gender & Sexuality Talks in May this year (2013). The handout for this is below in case you’re finding this a bit hard to follow. It’s a bit of a long rambly piece but I hope you find it useful/interesting.

Click for full size mindmap


What Young People are Taught About Consent

Where sexual consent is taught, it’s often taught (or understood) as a legal definition in the context of sexual offences. They are taught that no means no (and that yes means yes – often an enthusiastic yes). This is very easy to teach but not necessarily the most useful for them. Too often I come across young people who understand this very narrow version of consent but have very little idea about what consent looks, feels and sounds like

If I have concerns about a young person, and whether the sex they are telling me about was consensual or not, their knowledge of consent doesn’t tally up with their lived experience. If I ask them about whether sex was consensual their immediate response is ‘yeah, it wasn’t rape’. However if I go down a more open line of questioning, around how enjoyable the sex was, we often uncover more for them about how consensual they then feel it was for them or their sex partner.

So in order to teach about consent it’s not enough to just teach a very narrow legalistic concept of no means no (and yes means yes). It’s not enough to teach just about contraception and STIs but we need to teach proper, broad, inclusive SRE. This specifically needs includes how people may be able negotiate and consent to sex which is mutually pleasurable: and to understand the barriers around this. (Check the WHO definition of sexual health here).


Young People’s Experience of Consent

To go back a stage, young people’s experience of consent is often pretty limited and it’s often not something that adults are aware they are modelling. The tension of giving a child agency over their own body but also keeping them safe is one which parents must find very difficult. The language of ‘hold my hand’ or ‘don’t do that’ or ‘you must do this’ are important to keep people feeling safe. However the same language is also used in situations less to do with personal safety and more to do with social interaction and avoiding social embarrassment ‘kiss your nan’ or a parent pulling a child’s hand out of their trousers in Sainsbury’s (though I’m sure this happens in other supermarkets too).

Schools are also often not places where a culture of consent is nurtured. In short, try saying no to a member of staff in school and see what happens. There is also what many see as the ‘rough and tumble of play’ in the corridor or on the playing field but which outside the school gates with adults would be seen as assault (often sexual assaults), harassment, threats and intimidation.

(Click here for sobering statistics on children and young people’s experience of sexual abuse and their likelihood of reporting it. Also see this report on how sexting, harassment, and violence can interplay in school)

Also young people are denied their capacity to consent in the narratives around sexualisation and pornification. Young people are portrayed as innocent and passive on whom adult sexuality is forced through products, films, music videos and the internet. Actually young people are more able to navigate their own path through this than most commentators seem to give them credit for. Young people go through an active process as critical and literate consumers of products and media whilst, for the most part, working out for themselves about whether they are ready for sex or not.


Gaps in Sex Ed

Sex Ed in schools is patchy. Some teach it very well indeed but Ofsted found that almost half of secondary schools need to improve their SRE (sex and relationships education).

Although changes during puberty; reproduction; sexually transmitted infection; contraception; abortion and pregnancy were included in most secondary programmes, there was less emphasis on sexual consent and the influence of pornography.” Not Yet Good Enough, Ofsted

It’s only the ‘outstanding’ schools that teach well enough in my opinion and they make up only 20% of schools. They have headteachers who put SRE at the centre of their curriculum, have trained teachers who both teach well but also offer a supportive environment to students. They also have significant and on-going input from students and parents.

However even if sexual consent is taught in schools, without good teaching on pleasure then young people aren’t going to learn about how consent feels. There are also tremendous barriers to be able to ask for what we want as well as being able to say what we don’t want – really good Sex Ed can help young people understand this for themselves.


It’s often reported that young people are taught about the mechanics of sex rather than relationships. I actually don’t think this is true. I don’t think many young people are taught about how people do ‘it’, what ‘it’ means (that sex isn’t just a synonym for intercourse), the many different ways we can be sexual with or without another, the difference between arousal and desire (where they overlap and where they don’t).

Of course it would be inappropriate to teach this kind of stuff to young people who aren’t thinking about having sex for the first time (which is why everything at Bish is aimed at the over 14s). However we’ve somehow got to the stage where we have taken the sex out of sex education. By only teaching the harm minimisation stuff we are also contributing to one of the barriers around consent: more on this later. Without teaching how to communicate or negotiate sex, how to tune into our own needs and the needs of our partners, we aren’t giving kids the vital tools to learn about consent.

Who is allowed to have sex

Really great Sex Ed is inclusive. If we experience stigma, prejudice, hate, shame and being excluded because of being LGB&T* or having a disability, or a person of colour, or our body shape, or because of our age, HIV status, religion, class then we can also find it harder to be sexually healthy and fulfilled. If we experience stigma because we are one or more of these people then we can receive very negative messages indeed about our sexual selves.

if we have internalised negative and self-hating images of ourselves then this can result in our feeling we are not truly worthy of love. This in turn may mean that when we come to sexual relationships we will bring little sense of our own rights and will have a great need to gain the approval of others at any price. Or we may feel that our pleasure is of little concern compared with that of others.” Jo Adams Explore, Dream Discover: Working with Holistic Models of Sexual Health and Sexuality, Self-Esteem and Mental Health. (pdf)

Additionally, even if we are given permission to have sex by society, it’s important to explore how our gender and sexuality can trap us into performing a sexual identity we aren’t necessarily happy with. For instance women as wifey or hos and having sex (or desiring sex) as an absolute pre-requisite for being a man.


Sex Ed needs to provide us with opportunities to work on ourselves, to think about our values and values we might want in another person. To explore our best bits, what bits we want to work on and what bits others may find attractive in us. Exploring these ideas around ourselves can give us the self worth and the power to be able to choose. If we feel crap about ourselves and not worthy of love or lust or affection from someone else we may make a decision to put someone else’s pleasure before ours without seeking any for ourselves. Or to seek acceptance from another no matter how damaging that relationship may be to our emotional and physical health.



So where young people aren’t taught about the above all they are left with are scripts. The scripts are rules about what sex we should have rather than the sex we might want to have.

‘Only penis in vagina sex counts as sex (if you don’t have a penis in vagina then it’s only ‘sex’ if you do something similar)’

‘Anything other than intercourse is foreplay’

‘Everyone is doing it.’

‘Sex is something one does to another (onw is active and the other passive)’

‘Men always want sex’

These stories about what ‘counts’ as sex and who sex is for come from many many sources.

Socio cultural norms (often from our parents). For instance: ‘I just want normal sex’ ‘Don’t touch yourself it’s dirty’ ‘Women want affection, men want it hard’ ‘Talking about sex is hard and it breaks the spell’ ‘Wanking is only if you are too young for sex/can’t get laid/are in prison’

Sex scenes in media don’t often have lots of communication and often seem to involve telepathy with regard to negotiation and consent. Porn is sometimes explicit about how they have negotiated consent but probably more often not. Talking about pleasure in porn is often just boiled down to “yeah you really like that don’t you/yeah I like that.” Focus in a lot of sex advice is on positions which can make penis in vagina sex mind blowing without reference to the many other kinds of sex that most people with vaginas prefer.

However, for some of the most unhelpful scripts we need to head back to Sex Ed.


Sex Ed scripts that hinder not help …

Sadly some of these scripts also come from not very good Sex Ed – the kind that is being delivered in many or most schools. The focus on contraception, STIs, pregnancy and ‘delay’  focuses on sex as being solely about penis in vagina. Sex in sex education means penis in vagina sex. This reinforces the idea that there is only one authentic sexual expression and the rest doesn’t count. Perhaps this is an unintended learning outcome for many sex educators but the sad fact remains that for most young people sex sounds like it’s about intercourse and that it’s inevitably going to happen for them one day.

They are also taught that for young women it’s probably going to hurt for the first time. Sadly many many young women have been taught that the hymen is a brittle piece of skin tissue which is broken by a penis during first time intercourse. (More about why this is wrong and why it’s called the vaginal corona here). Some people teach this perhaps because they haven’t had up to date training. Perhaps for some it forms part of teaching around ‘delaying’ early sex – the idea that if you wait till you’re older it’s less likely to hurt so you should probably wait (without explaining why that is and that it’s not to do with age). If we are teaching young women that sex always hurts for the first time how can they then understand that when something hurts it’s a sign that something isn’t right and that they need to stop? And in this heteronormative script of sex, how are young men able to understand whether their partner is consenting or not if they are taught that sex usually hurts for their partner the first time?

Sometimes the only reference that is made to non-entry sex in the Sex Ed curriculum for many young people is the risks of pregnancy from dry humping or mutual masturbation. So these really very low risk activities are framed as always having some risk. (I get many questions via with young people panicking about getting pregnant from pre-ejaculatory fluid even when they were both wearing underwear). It seems we can only talk about pleasure if we can make a public health case for saying why people shouldn’t have that kind of sex.

Not talking about non-entry sex or the many ways that people can be sexual with each other reinforces a hierarchy of sex that we *should* have rather than the sex we might *want* to have. The way most Sex Ed is delivered now not only fails to teach adequately about consent in my opinion, but it is one of the factors which mitigates against young people properly understanding how consent feels, looks and sounds like.

Add all of this to young people’s early experiences of consent from parents and school and you can see there is a lot we need to do.

So the sex many young people are left with is ….?

My experience of working with thousands of young people in clinics and confidential advice settings over the last 14 years is that many young people have sex that, whilst at the time they didn’t regard as non-consensual they later realised that perhaps it was. This is because they were doing what was expected of them (the script) rather than making an active choice about what they wanted. Often it can take quite a lot of listening and relationship building to get to that stage. It might be about explaining how sexual arousal works and how we need to feel relaxed, safe enough and close enough to our partners in order for this to happen. Sometimes it’s part of an abusive or an exploitative relationship which where the young person needs a lot of support.

Also young people can have sexual experiences which they consider consensual but regret them for other reasons. Lack of understanding of their bodies can mean it was wanted but painful (torn foreskin or frenulums or vaginal coronas are very common). Or because they found condoms were affecting their sexual arousal they decided not to use them because they really wanted to have sex and couldn’t do that with them (and that there is no other kind of sex). Or they have sex which just doesn’t do it for them: I often encounter young men and women who say that the sex that they have is dull – despite having had sex for a number of years.


What can we do?

Just teaching no means no and yes means yes isn’t enough in my opinion. I think it over-simplifies consent in ways that aren’t helpful. Treating consent in isolation without talking about pleasure, oppression and self (and everything else that should be a part of great Sex Ed) isn’t going to give young people the tools to work this complex stuff out for themselves. I really like Tanya Palmer’s ideas about the ‘freedom to negotiate’, what can we do to give young people this freedom?

We need to address how sexual consent operates within the different balances of power that exist in relationships and in society. Often it’s to do with the context of the sexual situation we are in. Also we need to be realistic and say that lots of people find it very difficult to find a language of sex that they are comfortable using. I think enthusiastic consent is great in theory but we need to acknowledge that there is a lot at stake for many people to be enthusiastic about sex (eg being called a slag or a perve or being rejected). We also need to bear in mind that whilst trust and intimacy of a relationship can help to ensure that sex is consensual but that rape and sexual assaults often happen in relationships too.


Address the barriers to having sex off script

One activity which I tried out at my talk on this at Gender & Sexuality Talks involves handshakes. I told everyone in the room that I wanted them to shake hands with people near them on their table (note the wording of that sentence). Most people in the room then shook hands (though there were some who didn’t). I asked ‘why did you all do that? Simply because I told you to? Because I’m the person standing up? Because I’m the person speaking?’ If I wasn’t rushing for time we would have had an interesting discussion about power and consent. When someone has been given the power to ask it can be really difficult to say no to that person.

I then asked people to do a similar thing again but this time (if they wanted to) to negotiate a handshake (or whatever they like, fist bumps, hugs, kisses whatever). Ask which hand they’d like to use, how firm they want it to be, for how long, how many shakes, up and down or side to side, dry hands first, put gloves on etc. There was a lovely buzz in the room as people negotiated their greetings to each other. I then asked people how they found that. What do we gain from negotiating handshakes? What do we lose? Are there ways which we can negotiate handshakes without speaking but through other methods of communication?

The script of a handshake can be very useful, but it can also be very limiting. Can the same be said for sex? Are there ways we can use scripts but also then write our own?

[edit – me and Meg John Barker have been working on this activity and we’ve found it works brilliantly with young people and practitioners. We’ll hopefully make that available soon.]


Yes, No, Maybe Inventories

Because the scripts about what counts as sex are so strong, it can be very difficult for young people (or ‘people’) to think outside the box about the many other ways which we can be sexual. One way of doing this is to openly talk about the many different kinds of sex which may not involve entry sex. I talk about this a lot on my website (some of my most popular pages – what does that say?).

We can also use inventories of different kinds of sex both personally but also in educational or advice settings. Scarleteen have a great one here, I also have something similar but simpler here. There’s an idea about how we can teach about safer sex whilst also teaching about how pleasurable sex can be here.


Get some tips from young people

Although still placing intercourse as the goal or endpoint for sexual activity, many young people gradually practise non-entry sex as part of ‘leading up’ to sex. There is a mutuality about this which implies that there is consent and negotiation going on for many young people. This report, looking at young people’s non-coital sexual experiences, is really interesting in this respect.

Lots of young people I work with are dry humping and mutually masturbating as a way of exploring their sexuality before they feel ready for intercourse. Quite frankly young people often also don’t have enough time or private space to take all their clothes off and have intercourse: the worry about their parents coming back from work or whether they will be heard in the next room moderates how ‘far’ they can go.

Whilst many people worry about sexting, for many young people in relationships it is a non-problematic form of private communication where they are able to express their desires and wants. Many people find it easier to negotiate their sexual wants and needs via text (BBM) rather than face to face.

Lastly young people are also seeking out the Sex Ed they didn’t get at school online. On for instance some of my most popular pages are about ‘how to have sex’ and non-entry sex, all of which talk explicitly about the importance of consent in good sex.

 “Feeling wet kisses and warm breath on my ears and neck sends shivers down my spine. It turns me on when you whisper in my ear where you would like to touch me.”

Most importantly I think we need to tune into what young people are saying. It’s very easy to say that we need to teach more about consent but to be effective we need to teach a whole lot more. This means teaching Sex Ed that is relevant, credible and based on lived experiences of young people – this means involving them and asking them what Sex Ed they want. Consent, innit.


Further reading

Consent, innit – my piece on consent for the over 14s

Consent Culture – a great project looking at how we can counter rape culture

Blurred Lines – really interesting piece on consent in a very annoying song