Top Tips for Teaching About Consent

Here’s a quick blog of my top tips for teaching about consent and to give you an idea of what good practice looks like. No, don’t watch the Tea and Consent video. 

In our research for the DO… RSE for Schools project a young person said about their sex education: “[t]hey just say ‘just say no’ but sometimes people don’t feel confident to do that.” Over simplifying consent to a ‘just say no’ or ‘wait for an enthusiastic yes’ message is not likely to be helpful. Consent is an extremely complicated topic. It relates to how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to others. It is also about what culture tells us what we should and shouldn’t do.

Young people said to us that RSE was best delivered when young people were asked to think about things themselves. Simply being told what to think in a lecture isn’t real or relevant for them. This is because it won’t give them the tools to help them in real life.

Just giving a legal definition of consent, or showing a brief video, is one way of teaching about consent. However, much more useful would be for people to actually practice consent. If you can bring in experiential learning activities then students can learn: about what makes negotiation difficult. How asking for our needs to be met can be tricky. They can learn how to handle power differences. What it feels like to meet your own and other people’s needs and, exploring the messages we get from society about this.

You could try the handshakes activity which has comprehensive instructions, pro-tips and helpful slides. This is part of the consent lesson but is part of a broader curriculum looking at:

  • How we feel about ourselves
  • Expectations placed on us around gender
  • Relationships and love
  • Consent and communication
  • Safer sex

Another experiential activity you could try is my ‘Choose Chocolate’ exercise in my Consent Teaching Pack. This is where participants get to practice tuning into what they want and learning how to meet their needs and others.

If you’re already an RSE practitioner, you might want to come on my new Advanced RSE Training course.

Open up conversations exploring the difficulties

In my experience young people (and not so young people) love talking about consent in detail. It can bring up so much around social norms, ethics, politics, gender, power, and structural inequality. Good RSE needs to allow people to reflect on, to consider, and to change or build upon their values or ethics. There’s an example of consent conversations at my website for young people BISH about this. Also there’s an extended version of that is available in my Consent Teaching Pack.

Don’t just make it about the person saying no

It’s vitally important that we don’t reinforce some of the problematic messages about consent when we teach about consent. We certainly should not be putting the emphasis on people to be saying no. This puts the responsibility on victims of assault and not on perpetrators. Whilst we can say that it should be okay to say no, and to give people some tools to help them do this, we should be spending more time teaching everyone about how to recognise and respect a no. And, importantly how to increase the opportunities for others to say no to us.

Bring in media and messages

You could ask students to critically review famous film clips and ask them to explore how the characters are relating to each other around consent. Maybe also ask students to think about the messages that mainstream and sexually explicit media sends out about consent, choices and agency.

It’s important not to do this as a way of exonerating perpetrators of sexual violence (ie it was looking at porn that made me do it). However we can look at the sources of consent education we have and consider how useful they all are. Media reflects but also reinforces the dominant narratives we have around power, gender, sexuality, relationships, and ourselves. Critiquing this is important because, as academic Ros Gill says, we can’t escape culture. Much of our culture does not encourage consensual practices with each other or with ourselves.

Talk about power

One of my many criticisms of the use of the Tea and Consent video is that it doesn’t really address power differences in relationships. My key point was that if Nigella Lawson made me an awful cup of tea then I would feel that I had to drink all of it because a) what I’m taught about politeness and b) I want her to like me.

As we saw in the recent iteration of #metoo activism, consent and power differences are intertwined. People were made more vulnerable to sexual assaults and rapes because a lot was at stake for them if they didn’t (their careers and livelihoods) and their attackers knew this. This is something that affects all of us, whether we are in Hollywood or not.

We all have different levels of power and privilege because society gives some people more status than others because of their identity (race, disability, gender, sexuality, class, age etc). We can also experience differences in power in a relationship if, for example, one of us is more confident or experienced than another. Because of this, it’s harder for some people to ask for what they want (or what they don’t want) from sex and relationships. This has to be part of what we teach about consent.

What is sex

Make sure that ‘sex’ is not just intercourse but can include a wide range of practices. Even if you teach some really great stuff about consent, it will be undermined if you don’t teach inclusive and holistically about what sex actually is. Sex is about diverse sexual practices that people may or may not enjoy. It’s not just about intercourse or penis in vagina sex. If you teach that that’s what sex is, then as well as excluding everyone in society who can’t have that kind of sex, you are also sending a non-consensual message about what kind of sex is acceptable and expected.

Model it

We can be bringing good consensual practice into the classroom even when we aren’t teaching about consent. We can enshrine these by having a group agreement whenever we do RSE (but why stop at RSE). However we can also bring this in with different teaching methods.

When putting people into small groups we could ask students if they want to be put into groups or whether they choose their own groups. Small groups means that some students can feel more comfortable participating than in larger groups. When asking people for contributions you could ask open questions and not put people on the spot. You can also subtly give people the option not to participate in a lesson, or in an aspect of a lesson, if they might find it uncomfortable. For example in the handshakes lesson, people could be observers of other people shaking hands rather than taking part in handshakes themselves.

Of course, if you want to go there, you could talk about how consensual it is that students have to be in your classroom, or at school at all. What would consensual schooling look like?

It’s not just in the classroom but look at the culture of the school

How can we bring more consent and choice into the fabric of the school, rather than just in the lessons. This involves looking at policy and practice around things like: reports of harassment and bullying; and safety and inclusion. It’s also about creating positive relationships within schools so that there are enough adults with good relationships with students that every student feels they have someone they can talk to.

So why not have a look at DO… today and use the resources in your teaching this year. They are free and top quality, even though I do say so myself. If you would like more or alternative resources about consent, try my Consent Teaching Pack. 

© Justin Hancock, 2023

Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people and adults in person and millions online at his website for young people BISH. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here and stay up to day by signing up for the newsletter.