Consent awareness is a popular topic in social education these days. During orientation week and throughout the year, Western organizes several consent awareness and education activities. That being said, I have noticed that there is a lot of confusion about what consent really is. As a residence advisor, I often overhear students talking about “consent” or lack thereof amongst their friends or romantic interest. When we have awareness weeks or activities in residence, it really seems like everyone gets it. However, when the topic comes up in real time, I’ve found that not everyone is on the same page.
So, how do we get everyone on the same page? So far, it seems that the seminar/poster approach to education is not working as effectively as we think. Others would argue that consent education is something that students should have received in high school and that it is now too late to do anything about it. Although I disagree with the latter, it cannot be overlooked that some of our consent education strategies are failing.
The golden rule of thumb for consent is that “No mean no, and never yes”. However, when you have Justin Beiber singing “What Do You Mean”, it can confuse the messaging. One of the most popular questions that I get asked is simply, “How do I ask for consent?” As odd as the question may sound when you first hear it, there is often a legitimate reason for it. Whether it’s a movie, music video or real life, we’ve always been taught that it’s important to ask, but never how exactly to do it.
Therefore, I suggest that when educating yourself or others about sexual consent, start with how to ask for consent. Although it’s a simple “Want to have sex?” or something along those lines, it’s usually the “something along those lines” that gets people confused. We often infer things from body language or the situation and decide that that is an answer in its own. I’ve seen posters saying that the yes is an “enthusiastic response”. But, what one person perceives as enthusiastic may not be the same as what the other person perceives is enthusiastic. It turns out that consent education requires education about emotional response as well.
Although consent at it’s very core is a very simple concept, we tend to encounter a lot more complexities when seeing things unfold in real time. Now that we’ve established that consent is important, I believe that we need to further consent education by discussing those tricky situations where the lines appear to be blurred. Too often we shut down that conversation by say the old “No means no, and never yes”. Although that is indeed true, we cannot overlook the complexity of human emotion and interaction. In my opinion, it is equally important to educate our student population about the times when they’re not sure and how to steer the conversation to a place where they can get a definitive answer for consent.