Educating boys about consent: Why do we do it and how should we do it?

By Emily Setty

At a time when we are more aware than ever of the problem of sexual violence, abuse and harassment (‘sexual harm’) among young people—and in society more generally—it may seem obvious that we need to be educating them about consent. After all, the idea is that sexual harm is, by definition, non-consensual—hence, if young people learn what consent is, why it is important and how to seek, give and refuse consent (and accept refusals), then rates of sexual harm will, it is hoped, fall. This is because potential perpetrators will know what they are and aren’t allowed to do and victim-survivors and bystanders will feel empowered to identify and report incidents. Yet, as depicted in hard-hitting play Prima Facie—not to mention the numerous examples of sexual harm perpetrated by those in positions of high office—knowledge of the law about consent does not necessarily translate into lawful (or, indeed, ethical) sexual conduct. My recent research with teenage boys, conducted in partnership with Life Lessons Education, explored why this may be case and what we need to do to effectively educate our way out of the problem of sexual harm as a—undoubtedly gendered—systemic social problem involving actions and behaviours that may be normalised to the extent that dynamics of consent—non-consent become invisible.

Heterosexual masculinity and consent

Often, it is heterosexual teenage boys who are thought to be doing something wrong when it comes to sex and consent regarding their pursuit of sex and their lack of ability or willingness to take seriously the need to make sure that their female partner is consenting. In the popular imagination—and, indeed, in youth sexual consent culture—teenage boys are, supposedly, hormone-driven and sex-obsessed and liable to violating girls if they ‘get it wrong’ and either consciously or unconsciously disregard any signs that the girl doesn’t consent. Typically, taken-for-granted fatalism about heterosexual masculinity in the teenage years has been associated with implorations made to girls to effectively foresee and gatekeep the desires of boys and, in turn, routinised victim blaming of girls who experience sexual harm. Developments such as Everyone’s Invited, which has exposed the deep-rooted realities of sexual harm in schools, alongside wider movements like MeToo, have challenged the sexist double standards that have long underpinned attitudes and responses to sexual harm. Now, teenage boys are being told that they need to play an active role in creating change through learning how to behave better.

Enter consent education, in which young people are taught about their legal rights and responsibilities regarding consent and, often, instructed to aspire to ‘affirmative consent’ where ‘yes means yes’ and anything less does not constitute consent. In my recent research, I observed such lessons being delivered to pupils in a co-educational academy, an inner-city boys academy and an elite independent boys’ school. I then sat down with groups of boys and asked them what they thought about consent lessons and how helpful or unhelpful they think it is or will be for them in their lives as they navigate and participate in sexual encounters and relationships.

Boys feeling responsible but uncertain and unskilled

The findings were illuminative. Most of the boys I spoke to were not yet sexually active or experienced and it was evident that the entire terrain of heterosexual gender relations filled them with both anticipation and dread. In general, they seemed to appreciate the clear and straightforward diktats about consent, because they felt that they know what they are allowed and need to do. They had internalised the idea that they were responsible—and indeed, ‘at risk’—as initiators of sex and needed to make sure they had obtained consent verbally and directly before they are ‘allowed’ to do anything. Their own rights to consent didn’t really get a look in. One boy told me that he used to think that consent was all about mutually figuring out and deciding on what you want to do and what feels good but now he has learnt that it’s a ‘yes’ and all that matters is hearing a yes. Well-meaning messages about affirmative consent may, therefore, be interpreted by boys in ways that crowd out more mutual and reciprocal consent cultures predicated on genuine respect and empathy and, instead, encourage the pursuit of a ‘yes’ with all the risks of coercive and pressured behaviours thus entailed.

Most boys went to great lengths to emphasise that they were ‘good’ boys and understood consent and would never knowingly violate a girl. They were, however, confused about their own subjectivity; they felt they needed to be competent sexual actors who could ask for and obtain consent ‘seductively’ and ‘smoothly’ without ‘ruining the mood’ but rarely did they know how to actually do this. Many also raised concerns about how sexual encounters (they believed) rarely involve direct, verbal communication and, moreover, even if they do, various social and interpersonal pressures—not to mention intoxication—mean that ‘yes’ may not actually always mean yes. They displayed concern about the emotional and social intelligence and sexual literacy required to navigate complex peer sexual cultures and interpersonal encounters.

‘False accusations’ as an articulation of anxiety about consent

Several of the boys raised the contested notion of ‘false accusations’ and most felt that, one way or the other, they are ‘at risk’ of being accused of perpetrating non-consensual sex by girls. Some believed that girls intentionally lie, maybe because they regret it, or their parents find out. More commonly, however, ‘false accusations’ actually seemed to refer to a possible outcome of sex that is experienced as non-consensual by the girl, but the boy didn’t ‘pick up’ on it at the time. While I am cautious of endorsing the ‘miscommunication model of consent’, it seemed that most of the boys were deeply concerned about the anticipated realities of navigating sexual consent and felt no more skilled to do so following consent education. Instead, they more seemed aware that they are responsible and, indeed, wanted to be responsible as ‘good boys’ but this responsibility translated into risk, risk that some projected onto girls who just ‘don’t know what they want’ or how to communicate effectively. Same-sex sexual interactions were often deemed relatively ‘safer’ because of the supposed deeper understanding and mutual respect that exists, notwithstanding research findings to the contrary.

‘Choice’ and ethical consent cultures

These findings lead me, like others, to suggest that perhaps we need to reflect on the premise and objectives of consent education. My discussions with the boys often explored the nature of ‘choice’ and the constraints on choice that exist, for both boys and girls (of all sexual orientations), within interpersonal and social contexts. Rather that assuming, or hoping, that knowledge will change behaviour in a linear and desired fashion, we may need to consider why,exactly, it doesn’t. We can then start to use consent education to enable young people to practice and develop the skills and emotional literacy required to uphold their own and one another’s rights to free and informed choice. Such education must, I’d argue, critically deconstruct the constraints on free choice that operate for individuals and within interpersonal and social contexts. It is not for boys to solve these problems as smooth, suave sexual operators. Instead, it requires young people developing ethical sexual cultures predicated on mutuality and reciprocity. Education must deal with the realities of ambivalence, ambiguity and uncertainty rather than trying to smooth this over through rationalised consent education. Some of the boys said they liked having a ‘roadmap’ to consent but perhaps for teenagers—and, indeed, adults—the road to consensual and affirming sex and relationships is perhaps far from smooth and we need to go further in helping young people navigate the bends and bumps, both anticipated and encountered.