Teaching consent as part of statutory RSE

Written by: Dr Elsie Whittington | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Young people are keen to explore what consent means for them in practice, including potential ‘grey areas’. Dr Elsie Whittington, who has helped develop new teaching resources to support consent education, discusses the challenges and opportunities for opening up the consent conversation as part of RSE

Consent is a key foundation for relationships and sex education (RSE) whether we are teaching early years, adolescents or adults. However, it can feel like a tricky topic to get right when we are teaching and talking about it with teenagers, many of whom are concerned about miscommunication and the law.

Consent has been on the educational agenda for a number for years, but increasingly those of us who research or provide external RSE in schools find that, as one sex educator from the charity Brook said: “Sometimes students are almost over-taught consent – they can parrot off what consent is, but they haven’t actually learned any of it for themselves.”

In fact, in conducting recent research with educators and secondary school students, I found that young people really want to explore consent in practice, especially grey areas and methods of communication.

Yet teachers are (understandably) wary of opening conversations about grey areas and feel more comfortable delivering education that mostly references the legal aspects of consent.

While a legal framework may feel simpler to teach, it does not give young people techniques or ideas for encouraging good communication and feeling informed and empowered. Consent laws hold within them a number of contradictions in relation to age and capacity to consent to different ways of being intimate or sexual.

While there are occasions when the absence or presence of consent is clear and explicit, there are also many scenarios in which people feel uncertain, ambivalent or preoccupied about status. These are the kinds of scenarios that young people want to explore and that I like to think of as “The what if?” questions.

  • “What if she says yes but then she changes her mind but doesn’t tell you?”
  • “What if you’re worried about hurting their feelings cos you actually do like them, but just don’t want to do x.”
  • “What if you’ve both had a few drinks, like you’re equally drunk?”

As educators, we are not lawyers – we cannot know how a scenario might play out in a court of law. However, we also need to stress that having good, consensual encounters is not about avoiding the courtroom, it is about co-creating a mutually positive experience, and communicating desires and boundaries, however awkward this might feel to begin with.

The questions we need to ask students in response to those “what if?” questions need to take a step back. We need to shift the focus away from the law and towards considering what might make an encounter more ethical, pleasurable and communicative for those involved.

Schools need to rebrand consent as a good and positive thing that can make intimate encounters better, rather than framing consent as something that is needed so you do not get into trouble.

So, how do we balance student needs, interests and rights to explore consent critically and in relation to their own lives – while also being realistic about what one teacher in a class of 32 can do safely and confidently in 50 minutes?

It is a question many educators ask, and one that has fuelled the development of a suite of youth-centred training resources for teaching young people about consent in a holistic, critical and interactive way.

The consent continuum

In collaboration with Brook and Dr Ester McGeeney, we have developed free training and teaching resources to support educators in the task of delivering high-quality, critical and evidence-based consent education.

The resources support educational activities and conversations about consent with young people that shift from abstract definitions and laws to using scenarios and considering more active processes of consent.

We have broken the resource into four short sections, each one directly related to a key finding from contemporary research that has been co-produced with young people. We use a variety of relevant and thought-provoking videos, scenarios and tasks that can be replicated or adapted with secondary school students.

Classroom materials: The Consent Continuum, developed from how young people define and label different scenarios, provides an opportunity to consider how and why we define different actions and encounters

In research and practice, I have found that using the consent continuum and diverse scenarios enables students to think critically about different ways of doing and negotiating consent.

The continuum was developed through academic research and adapted with young people and educators for educational use. It enables conversations that promote positive attitudes towards sexual communication.

It helps students identify how some things that are considered normal may actually be harmful, and that awkward conversations can enable a better experience for everyone.

One teacher we worked with said: “I have learnt the importance of the differences between law and reality regarding instances of rape and sexual assault/abuse. Through learning this it has made me more conscious of how to approach teaching young people about consent and ensuring it is relatable to their everyday experiences of negotiating consent and participating in relationships; sexual and non-sexual.

“I feel I have achieved a sense of confidence exploring with young people the different ways in which consent can be approached and negotiated for e.g. verbal and non-verbal cues of consent and the spaces in which the two may be confused.”

Young people routinely reflect that their RSE focuses too much on the mechanics of “safe sex” and not enough on the complex and emotional side of developing and navigating relationships. Good consent education can provide a platform for many of these conversations.

The aim of the consent continuum and other activities in the training is to support people responsible for delivering RSE to develop confidence and familiarity with the topic of consent.

This is such an important topic which can support the delivery of other RSHE topics such as healthy relationships, pleasure, condom-use and contraception, sexual exploitation as well as other key issues such as gender, rights and safety.

Young people I have worked with in schools, youth clubs and universities have responded positively to consent sessions involving the continuum and welcome the opportunity to rethink consent and explore scenarios.

  • Dr Elsie Whittington is a researcher and lecturer at the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies and specialises in research, teaching and talking about consent with young people. She has collaborated with sexual health and wellbeing charity Brook to develop teaching and training resources to support evidence-based consent education.

Further information & resources

  • Brook Learn: To access the training and teaching modules for delivering RSE, including the consent education materials, visit https://learn.brook.org.uk/
  • BISH: A Teach yourself RSE resource for young people, supporting them to explore RSE topics remotely and safely: www.bishuk.com/parents/teach-yourself-sex-ed/
  • Culture, Sex Relationships: Dr Elsie Whittington recently joined an episode of the Culture, Sex Relationships to discuss consent and awkwardness: https://megjohnandjustin.com/sex/awkwardness/
  • Hancock & MacAree: Sex educator Justin Hancock and illustrator Fuchsia MacAree have created Can we talk about consent? (Francis Lincoln Children’s Books), a book aimed at helping young people to explore all things consent: https://bit.ly/3e5xjiL
  • Sex Education Forum: A charity supporting effective sex education, with online sessions, resources and guidance for statutory curriculum development and delivery. Visit www.sexeducationforum.org.uk or access SEF director Lucy Emmerson’s archive of best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2JLHDiO


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