At the edge of consent — why education is vital
by R E J Saunders
Consent, be it sexual or social, has become an integral part of societal conversation over the last decade. Not that consent was never important, but as abuse has come to light it is an ever more important tool in both preventing abuse and empowering people to say no to situations they find themselves it. It also places the burden on all parties in sexual and social situation to be aware of their own and other people’s boundaries, and to not just make assumptions.
Back in the not-so-glamourous 1990s sex education was all about condoms and bananas, with no hint of consent or queer sex in the curriculum. It was all about the Tab A in Slot B, as dry as a biology lesson could make it. The future masters of the universe were sent forth to multiply without heed to the needs of others, and even something as basic as foreplay was the stuff of gossip and porn mags found in the woods. Is it little wonder that when we all came to explore intimacy, sex, and relationships things were messy and not at all like the classroom?
One of the biggest consequences of leaving consent out is that it places the burden to say no on the other partner, the warning signs are always for other people to see. That to cool things off is the other person’s issue, never yours. Unless you were the one being coerced into things you may not want to do, at which point the language and vocabulary was severely lacking — you were probably frigid anyhow. Without the means to explain and understand, without the explanation that intimacy of any sort must be mutually consensual, be it a kiss or penetrative sex, then all that is left is awkwardness and peer pressure.
To say no is an empowered act, to say you do not want to do something takes personal strength. To stop when asked takes awareness and consequences if you do not. Consent is a two-way process, both from those who ask and those who are morally and legally obliged to stop. No means no, there is never a hidden yes in a request to stop, even if you think something does not mean it. The stakes are simply too hight to think otherwise. This is not lad culture, this is common decency and respect, and it is the law. Stopping when asked should not come with a frustrated sigh and a shouting match, it should always come with acceptance and immediate backing off. Simple as, yet not what the education system teaches.
The fact that this gets framed as a male/female dichotomy does not cut across queer lives and queer experiences. Consent is just as vital, and just as needed, in queer relationships as it is in cis-heteronormative ones. Two women, two men, or what ever gender pairing entwine all need consent to proceed. If all we say is that women can say stop and men should oblige then we erase the necessity of consent, erase the fact that each of us has bodily autonomy and that without it we are left rape and abuse.
This is where education is vital; we need to educate every single one of us on the necessity of consent from the kissing of cheeks and touching of hair all the way through to intercourse of whatever variety floats our boats. Bodily autonomy is such a vital concept, that to impose ourselves on others without their consent should be deemed completely unacceptable, full stop. There should be excuses made for what clothing the other person was wearing, how much alcohol they had consumed, or that he was just being one of the lads. Abuse is abuse, and should be recognised and treated as such.
Why is the onus always put on women or minorities? Why is that no matter what women or queer folk do they will always be treated with suspicion. Male on male rape, women on male rape, women on women rape is treated less seriously than male of female rape, and even then society at large through the justice system often demands too high a burden of proof for conviction regardless of the circumstances and dynamics. Those with the power do not see where the issues lie because it suits them not to, because to properly educate about consent is to demand society shifts the power from those who chase to those on the receiving end. No should be the end of it, full stop.
Consent is the very start of the process, for setting boundaries is neither frigid nor burdensome. They set expectations, they set the parameters of desire, and most importantly they establish trust. All relationships, be they friendships or amorous, need trust at their very core, and consent allows the seeds to take root and blossom into something rich. By educating on consent you establish that it is a two way process, that anyone in a relationship has the right to bodily autonomy and is capable of say no without fear. This may seem like a pipedream, but ultimately it is only through effective education and punishment for those who break the consent of others that all of us gain true body autonomy. It has to start somewhere, so why not the classroom.