Content warning: mentions unwanted sexual advances, sexual violence.
The BBC posted the results of a survey taken by 5,649 people for health charity Brook last week. It revealed concerning statistics about people’s attitudes towards sex and relationships, and their experiences. These statistics identified, amongst other findings, the lack of education and understanding of consent specifically among students.
52 per cent of the respondents were not aware that it was not possible to give consent when you are drunk, more than half had experienced unwanted sexual advances, and, while 90 per cent of all students felt confident to say “no” to unwanted sexual advances, in the remaining 10 per cent that did not feel confident, more than half said that it was because they were afraid it would lead to violence.
What these statistics show is that consent is neither respected nor does there seem to be a complete understanding of where consent does and does not apply.
Chief executive of Brook, Helen Marshall, informed the BBC that “we are failing our young people if they don’t know the law protects them from the unwanted behaviours they are experiencing.” According to this survey, a significant number are unaware of how they are protected; there seems to be a significant number of problematic experiences that come under the idea of consent issues, for example, unwanted sexual advances.
The government’s Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) guidance mentions ‘respect’ as a key aspect of the syllabus. It also aims to provide guidance on developing an understanding of the consequences that certain choices can have, managing conflict, and learning how to recognise and avoid exploitation and abuse. However, there is no direct mention of consent education. There are promising movements to improve legislation but so far little has been set in stone and we are certainly failing to educate young people in healthy approaches to consent.
It is promising that universities have begun to provide consent classes and workshops over the last few years, and the Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s #NoExcuse campaign has run events focused on educating students, such as their series of workshops and performances with Nina Burrowes which explored issues around consent, and offered support to students who have experienced sexual violence. Yet, I would argue that the introduction of classes at this point in an individual’s education is too late, particularly since concepts such as sex and emotional relationships are introduced significantly earlier in an individual’s education.
It is unfortunate that a number of my contemporaries, prior to entering university or during their first year, had already been made to feel uncomfortable or disrespected when unwanted advances were made. One of my first experiences of dating led to someone continuously ignoring my requests for him to stop pressuring me. Although I was fortunate that he walked away and gave up, his attempts to ignore my discomfort and coerce me despite my unwillingness are examples of how a lack of understanding and education allows these attitudes to continue unaddressed. These views exist in a widespread way long before individuals can come into contact with consent classes or workshops that exist to thanks to campaigns such as #NoExcuse.
It is not necessary for so many people to face unwanted sexual advances. Consent is the first step in any relationship and to not be correctly educated on it when sex and relationships are first introduced allows for harmful and incorrect actions and pressure to endure. We are taking a step in the right direction with more classes, and more discussion in the news. However, this education has to be taken further and enforced earlier within our schooling systems.
Image: Nick Youngson via Creative Commons