Do we need new ways of explaining consent?

Ilona Harding-Roberts suggests some new ways to approach consent and sexual education

Ilona Harding-Roberts

Instagram @Cambridgeforconsent

What links a cup of tea, monetary theft, and masturbation? That’s right, all have been used as analogies (yep, even that last one) for sexual consent.

The most famous is obviously Thames Valley Police’s ‘Consent: It’s as simple as Tea’ in which sexual consent is likened to offering someone a cuppa. You would never force anyone to drink a cup of tea, wouldn’t get offended if they changed their mind, and sure as hell wouldn’t pour it down their throat if they were unconscious. More recently, 22-year-old Nafisa Ahmed tweeted that everyone who could see a problem with stealing $5 from her purse without her permission should also understand consent – it’s that simple.

And last year, consent was even likened to masturbation by Theresa Lee, who pointed out that people only want to get down to it if the conditions are right. You wouldn’t masturbate (one of my least favourite words ever, but there aren’t many great alternatives) if you didn’t fancy it, and you’d stop if you weren’t feeling it any more. Sex with other people, then, should follow the exact same rules, except you’re also looking out for what the other person’s feeling, thinking and saying.

Now, it’s no secret that analogies like this have a ton of problems. For starters, sexual consent is a pretty specific and potentially painful issue, so many people take issue with it being compared to tea. It’s also been argued that analogies like this stem from logic, and seem to appeal to people’s sense of ludicrousy at the idea of a person being forced to drink tea when they didn’t want to. But the problem there is that sexual consent shouldn’t be up for a logical debate; it should be about safety, comfort, and a clear, equal balance of power in the relationship.

To an extent, I understand these arguments. Consensual sex is a unique issue with a specific context, and by removing or displacing that context through analogy, there is a risk that it could be misunderstood or trivialised.

In fact, when we held our college’s compulsory consent workshops, I was struck by the number of people who were convinced all this was pointless because it was ‘common sense anyway’.

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Which is why it’s so shocking that, according to statistics found by Rape Crisis England and Wales, nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted in England and Wales each year, and 1 in 5 women aged 16-59 has experienced some form of sexual violence. On a more local scale, the presence of a newly-hired Sexual Assault Officer in Cambridge marks both a positive step towards tackling the issue, and a sad reflection on the continued need for such support.

What’s the answer here? It’s not going to be easy, but as usual, much of it comes down to education. And that’s why I support the continued use of analogies, but I think that it needs to be accompanied by something else, and that it needs to come much earlier on in puberty (another of my most hated words).

Unsurprisingly, that something is education. And no, I’m not just talking about educating children about consent, and the emotional distress caused by betraying a person’s trust in this way (although this must, of course, continue to feature prominently in any successful sex ed). But I think we do a disservice to young people if all we discuss is sex in a negative light.

I don’t know about you, but my recollection of sex education dealt with the absolute basics: condoms, STDs, pregnancy, giving birth. In fact, I remember walking out of our (bi-annual) sex ed class wondering why anyone would ever, ever have sex. Ever.

“I remember walking out of our (bi-annual) sex ed class wondering why anyone would ever, ever have sex. Ever.”

I’d give a prize to the person who can pinpoint a time the word ‘orgasm’ was used in a sexual health class, not in the context of male ejaculation but in the context of sexual pleasure. Extra special bonus points if the ‘clitoris’ was ever mentioned as an organ of sexual pleasure, or if the idea of the female orgasm was even referenced at all.

It might seem far-fetched to link this in any way to the issue of consent, but hear me out. The issue is that sex and pleasure have not always been highlighted as inherently linked, and this is particularly true in the case of women. To use a personal anecdote, I remember being confused out of my brain when a boy made a joke about a girl ‘coming’ - in the end, I assumed it was an ironic joke about women not have sperm. Because that was all the word ‘orgasm’ meant to me: producing sperm, for reproduction.


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As cases like that of Aziz Ansari have shown, consent is not always a black and white, clear-cut issue. And part of that is because we don’t teach people to feel confident in rejecting anything that doesn’t feel good. There are boys I know who have no idea that sex can be painful; girls who just accept that sex isn’t always enjoyable but ‘get on with it’ anyway; and people who still claim that consent is ‘just common sense’.

Consent is, for all the boring, patronising, and confusing implications of the term, the most simple and sexy thing in the world. Say that to yourself every single day if you’re in doubt: there is nothing sexier than consent.

Because consent is pleasure, and the second we start acknowledging that in our classrooms, in our universities, and in the bedroom, is the second the whole issue becomes a lot less murky