Sexual consent comprises an agreement to participate in a specific sexual activity. It involves feeling safe, respected, comfortable, enthusiastic, informed, and self-determined. For consent to be genuine, it must be given freely and voluntarily. Consent must be active and demonstrated throughout the whole sexual encounter (RASARA, 2021, pp. 1-2).
Some terms used for this substantive form of consent include ‘affirmative consent’ or ‘positive consent’. It requires that each person involved takes steps to ensure that the other is consenting. Affirmative consent is based on explicit verbal negotiation: asking, talking, and accepting answers, and at every stage of sexual activity and for every sexual practice.
There are powerful challenges in establishing a positive or affirmative standard of consent based on voluntary agreement.
- A negative standard of consent, based only on the absence of overt resistance among women to men’s sexual advances, remains a powerful social norm. In other words, the norm is that a man should stop only when faced with overt resistance from the woman he is with, rather than actively seeking consent throughout.
- This norm is wrapped up in wider constructions of gender and sexuality based in notions of uncontrollable male sexuality, female sexual passivity and subservience, a sexual double standard, and male sexual entitlement.
Norms of sexual respect and consent are constrained by gender norms and gender inequalities:
- Male sexual entitlement – that males have a right of access to women’s bodies, that women owe them sex, etc.
- Male sexual entitlement is a key driver of men’s and boys’ perpetration of sexual violence against women and girls (Jewkes, 2012). Studies find that entitlement is prominent in men’s accounts of why they raped, including rape as fun, entertainment, or ‘sport’, and as a form of punishment for women (Jewkes, 2012).
- For example, a study among over 10,000 men across 6 countries in Asia and the Pacific found that the most common motivation for rape was sexual entitlement - men’s belief that they have the right to sex. (Fulu et al., 2013). Men’s partner violence and non-partner rape were “fundamentally related to unequal gender norms, power inequalities and dominant ideals of manhood that support violence and control over women” (Fulu et al., 2013, p. 14).
- A qualitative study among women whose male partners had sexually assaulted them found that a common feature among these men was their sense of entitlement to sex. Few if any of the perpetrators saw their actions as rape, despite perpetrating severe violence against their victims (Parkinson, 2017).
- Social norms which encourage men to act as sexual initiators and women as gatekeepers;
- Among 16-24 year-olds in Australia for example, 24% of young men and 13% of young women agree that “Women find it flattering to be persistently pursued, even if they are not interested” (Politoff et al., 2019, p. 27).
- The notion of uncontrollable male sex drive. Women shouldn’t ‘provoke’ men or ‘lead them on’.
- Among 16-24 year-olds in Australia for example, 29% of young men and 28% of young women agree that “Rape results from men not being able to control their need for sex” (Politoff et al., 2019, p. 27). (Agreement with this has dropped since 2013, when 40% of young people agreed.)
- The privileging of male sexual pleasure
- Norms of male dominance in relationships
- Among 16-24 year-olds for example, 36% of young men and 26% of young women agree that “Women prefer a man to be in charge of a relationship”. In addition, 22% of men and 12% of women agree that “Men should take control in relationships and be the head of the household” (Politoff et al., 2019, p. 22).
We have to move away from a single-minded focus on what girls and young women can do to minimise their risks of becoming victims of sexual assault, giving far greater emphasis to what boys and young men (and everyone) can do to minimise their risk of becoming *perpetrators* of sexual assault.
In workshops I have run with teenage boys, I have asked, “How can you make sure that you are not pressuring the girl you’re with into sex?” “How can you make it as likely as possible that you are not raping her.”? I encourage them to move beyond problematic indicators of consent (the absence of resistance, body language, reputation, previous or current sexual activity, etc.), to the explicit negotiation of consent. (I wrote some of this up in a flyer, to hand out to male onlookers at a Reclaim The Night march, Canberra, 1988. And extended it in later materials. See http://xyonline.net/content/what-men-can-do-stop-sexism-and-male-violence.)
We have to teach boys and men both:
- Why consent is important
- Young men are taught to see girls women only as sexual objects. As bodies to win and conquer and degrade
- Some young men simply do not care whether or not the girl is consenting, or even find forced sex arousing.
- How to do consent
- Many young men rely on problematic indicators such as the absence of resistance, body language, or previous or current sexual activity. Many have little idea of how to negotiate different forms of sexual activity.
- However, it is not true that sexual assault often occurs because of harmless miscommunication, with young men ‘mistakenly’ believing that the girl was consenting. The research finds that men accurately understand women’s sexual refusals, including ones communicated in subtle ways (Beres & Farvid, 2010; Kristen N Jozkowski, 2015; K. N. Jozkowski & Peterson, 2013; O'Byrne, Rapley, & Hansen, 2006). And in situations of sexual coercion, research finds that most women report using direct refusals, but the men persisted anyway (Senn, 2011).
That is, before we teach boys and young men how to do consent, we must teach them why consent matters, encouraging a fundamental respect for girls’ and women’s (and boys’ and men’s) bodily autonomy and sexual rights, and a recognition of the harms of sexual coercion or pressure.
It is not enough just to focus on consent.
- If we just focus on consent, we may end up encouraging young men ‘pressure for consent’. A tick-box, cover-your-back kind of consent, not based on real regard for the other person (Gavey, 2017).
- We have to also challenge sexism and male sexual entitlement, the privileging of male sexual desires and needs over women’s, etc.
We have to challenge common norms of gender and sexuality that feed into sexual coercion:
- Male sexual entitlement – that men have a right of access to women’s bodies, that women owe them sex, etc.
- Male sexuality as an uncontrollable or barely controllable force.
- Women should be the gatekeepers and guardians of sexual safety, with responsibility for both their own and men’s sexual behaviour.
- Women often lie, and women should be disbelieved
- The sexual double standard, in which women’s sexual behaviour is highly controlled and harshly judged, while men’s sexual behaviour is freer of social constraint.
Effective communication about consent is limited by gender and gender power dynamics, including cultural constraints on women’s sexuality. There is little space for women to say ‘yes’ to sex: they are punished if they say yes ‘too often’ or desire sex ‘too much’ (Jozkowski, 2015). Women are given more cultural space to say no than to say yes. But women’s refusals are not respected either. And women are expected to be accommodating, to not hurt men’s feelings, and so on.
There are further troubling dynamics in relationships in particular:
- The socialization of women to place others’ needs before their own and the naturalisation of male sexuality as biologically driven, makes women internalise a sense of responsibility for men’s sexual pleasure.
- Many men assume the right of sexual access especially when in a relationship. This sense of entitlement involves control over when and how sex shall take place.
- Intercourse often is assumed, again making the negotiation of consent difficult. This means too that women consider unwanted or uncomfortable sex as a form of ‘relationship maintenance’.
How can we prevent sexual violence among young people? One key set of strategies comprises education: consent education, respectful relationships education, and so on.
There is a broad consensus regarding the elements of good practice in violence prevention education (Carmody et al., 2009; Flood, Fergus, & Heenan, 2009). Five criteria represent the minimum standard for effective violence prevention: (1) A whole-of-school approach; (2) A program framework and logic; (3) Effective curriculum delivery; (4) Relevant, inclusive, and culturally sensitive practice; and (5) Impact evaluation (Flood et al., 2009). See this report for more detail, and the summary of these five criteria here.
I comment on best practice in consent education, and the evidence of its effectiveness, here.
[NOTE: I first prepared these notes for an interview with the journalist Wendy Tuohy, on March 5 2021. Some of these materials were published as quotes in her subsequent article in The Age, on March 7.
- Best practice in consent education – This piece covers:
- Effective practice in consent education / respectful relationships education
- Evidence of the effectiveness of sexual violence prevention education
- Consent education and comprehensive sexuality education
- What men can do to prevent and reduce sexual and domestic violence and sexism;
- Consent: An XY collection
Beres, M. A., & Farvid, P. (2010). Sexual Ethics and Young Women’s Accounts of Heterosexual Casual Sex. Sexualities, 13(3), 377-393. doi:10.1177/1363460709363136
Carmody, M., Evans, S., Krogh, C., Flood, M., Heenan, M., & Ovenden, G. (2009). Framing best practice: national standards for the primary prevention of sexual assault through education. Sydney: University of Western Sydney.
Flood, M., Fergus, L., & Heenan, M. (2009). Respectful Relationships Education: Violence prevention and respectful relationships education in Victorian secondary schools. Melbourne: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, State of Victoria.
Fulu, E., Warner, X., Miedema, S., Jewkes, R., Roselli, T., & Lang, J. (2013). Why Do Some Men Use Violence Against Women and How Can We Prevent It? Summary Report of Quantitative Findings from the United Nations Multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific (9746803603). Bangkok: UNDP, UNFPA, UN Women, and UNV.
Gavey, N. (2017). Teaching consent – is it the answer to rape culture? Blog entry.
Jewkes, R. (2012). Rape Perpetration: A review. Pretoria: Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI).
Jozkowski, K. N. (2015). Barriers to affirmative consent policies and the need for affirmative sexuality. The U. of Pac. L. Rev., 47, 741.
Jozkowski, K. N., & Peterson, Z. D. (2013). College students and sexual consent: unique insights. Journal of Sex Research, 50(6), 517-523.
O'Byrne, R., Rapley, M., & Hansen, S. (2006). 'You Couldn't Say "No", Could You?': Young Men's Understandings of Sexual Refusal. Feminism & Psychology, 16(2), 133-154. doi:10.1177/0959-353506062970
Parkinson, D. (2017). Intimate partner sexual violence perpetrators and entitlement. In L. McOrmond-Plummer, J. Y. Levy-Peck, & P. Easteal (Eds.), Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Sexual Violence (pp. 72-82). London & New York: Routledge.
Politoff, V., Crabbe, M., Honey, N., Mannix, S., Mickle, J., Morgan, J., . . . Ward, A. (2019). Young Australians’ attitudes to violence against women and gender equality: Findings from the 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS). Sydney: ANROWS.
RASARA. (2021). Sexual Consent Toolkit. Brisbane: Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy (RASARA).
Senn, C. Y. (2011). An imperfect feminist journey: Reflections on the process to develop an effective sexual assault resistance programme for university women. Feminism & Psychology, 21(1), 121-137.