Young men are keen to talk about consent. So say sex educators, who are helping them move the conversation beyond ‘no means no’
In a small classroom tucked away up a few flights of stone steps, two dozen young men are reflecting on their chat-up lines. “Sometimes I’ve gone in and told a girl she was hot and maybe I shouldn’t have,” admits one. “I might think differently now.”
The desks have been pushed back against the wood-panelled walls and the lads are sitting around in their sportswear, discussing “rugby culture”. In half an hour they’ll be out in the chilly February night, training with Cambridge University’s under-20s team. But right now, they’re crammed into what is becoming an increasingly stuffy classroom to attend a workshop on masculinity.
The session is run by Good Lad Initiative (GLI), an organisation which delivers volunteer-led workshops in schools and universities on everything from male mental health, to LGBTQ+ identity, sex and consent.
No one in the room has actually used the word “consent”, but that’s what they’re talking about. And recognising that innocuous-seeming compliments can make women feel uncomfortable is the first step towards a more nuanced understanding of it.
Facilitator Jolyon Martin, 27, first attended a GLI workshop himself four years ago when he was still a student. “People often do these things for social capital,” he says. “The workshop shows them that actually no one in the room is impressed by that behaviour.”
He’s noticed a move away from a “minimum standards” approach to consent – which focuses simply on what’s legal and what’s not – and towards a more holistic view. He also believes the freshers arriving at university have a better attitude than some of the older students.
“I’ve been in workshops where an older guy has said something and the 18-year-olds have called him out on it,” Martin says.
For Matt Whale, consent wasn’t something he gave much thought to as a teenager. “In my head, saying ‘no’ was in response to a violent act by a stranger, or a random man being creepy,” the 24-year-old admits.
At 18 he moved to London to study and began to hear stories that undermined this view. Friends told him about being sexually assaulted on dates. Others talked of the pressure they felt to appease their partners. “The frequency of this has completely blown my mind,” he says.
These conversations are to empower young men to want more for themselves
Like most people his age, Whale’s school sex ed consisted of basic biology and an assertion that ‘no means no’. But as the Me Too movement and the recent conviction of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein shows, consent is more complicated than that.
Very few young people are taught what it means when someone equivocates, changes their mind or doesn’t say anything at all. In 2018, Childlike reported a 29 per cent increase in teenagers seeking advice on peer-on-peer sexual abuse. The organisation noted that callers lacked understanding about consent and how it applied within relationships. Meanwhile, a 2019 survey of 5,649 university students by sexual health charity Brook found that 56 per cent had encountered unwelcome sexual behaviour.
But while many may appear fearful or defensive about their ignorance, few are apathetic. Contrary to the typecasting, boys and young men are keen to participate in conversations about consent.
For her recent book, Boys and Sex, journalist and author Peggy Orenstein spent two years interviewing young men in the US. She feels optimistic about their willingness to discuss consent. “I saw so much in them that was so interesting and valuable,” she said in an interview with Time magazine. “They were really ready and eager to engage in all of these issues.”
Nathaniel Cole is a London-based writer, speaker and sex educator, who works with organisations such as Sexplain UK and GLI delivering workshops to children aged 8 to 18. He says the key to opening up consent conversations with young men is not by lecturing students, but by listening. “These conversations are not just to tell them what they’ve been doing wrong, but to try to empower them to want more from themselves,” he says.
This is what workshops like GLI’s aim to do. “Boys have been taught that to survive in the harsh world of dating you need to learn some tricks,” explains director of GLI, Dan Guinness. “We want to open up space that people can say these things, then discuss what that would feel like for the other person. It’s about trying to shift the perspective.”
The students attending today’s workshop seem confident and engaged, but you might expect that from Cambridge undergraduates. However, youth worker Glen Wiseman, who delivers sex education in state secondary schools, says teens are just as eager to talk.
“They’re desperate to have these conversations,” he says. “Whenever they’re asked what they’d like to cover next, they always say they want the sexual health or relationship sessions.”
Wiseman is part of Bracknell Forest local authority’s sexual health team in Berkshire. As well as facilitating discussions and offering advice, they give out free condoms, offer pregnancy tests and STI screening, and prescribe contraception.
The team runs 300 sessions a year and in 2019 saw 5,000 teenagers come through their doors. “We’ve moved on from the basic consent stuff,” Wiseman says. “We talk about accessing pleasure and communicating how you want it to be.”
Historically, relationships and sex education (RSE) in British schools has focused on the mechanics of sex and on contraception. The 1999 Teenage Pregnancy Strategy brought government funding into areas like Bracknell Forest, which had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country at the time.
Justin Hancock remembers the initiative well. He has worked with young people for more than 20 years, first as a youth and social worker and then as a dedicated sex educator. Boys’ desire to talk about consent isn’t new, he says; but society’s realisation that those conversations matter is.
“Young men have always been fascinated about consent and wanted to talk about what it is that they’re supposed to be doing,” he says. “They’ve always been very aware that, generally speaking, they will have the most power in a sexual situation, and they want to make sense of it.”
As the 10-year strategy came to an end, for a lot of places the money dried up. Further cuts to local governments caused RSE to drop down the list of priorities. Continued financial support to his area allowed Wiseman and his colleagues to adapt their clinics and workshops in line with shifting attitudes and priorities, but many schools do not have that luxury.
Young men have always been fascinated about consent
From September 2020, RSE will become statutory in all secondary schools in England. The curriculum guidelines mention consent, but how these lessons will be taught depends on the available resources. “Schools either don’t have enough money or they’re not allocating enough money towards RSE,” says Hancock. “They’re not sending their staff on training because they can’t afford to pay for cover staff. And they can’t afford to pay for external workshops.”
Talking the talk
Harvey Weinstein was sentenced in March to 23 years in prison, after being found guilty of a criminal sexual assault in the first degree and third-degree rape. During the trial his defence lawyer, Donna Rotunno, told the New York Times’ The Daily podcast that, if she were a man, she would ask women to sign consent forms before sex.
Both the high-profile trial and Rotunno’s controversial words – which outraged many – have helped to keep the topic of consent firmly in the public sphere. Generation Z boys and young men, growing up with access to a wealth of information and ideas on social media, are switched on to that.
Whale says he’s never had a conversation with a group of male friends about consent, but tells me about an Instagram account he follows which has helped his understanding. Everyone interviewed for this piece agreed the Me Too movement had made a huge impression, raising awareness of consent among teenage boys, but not always in the way you might expect.
“Me Too has also had a negative effect in that boys are starting to question it and ask if it can be true,” explains Cole.
Guinness agrees: “People get defensive. It’s that idea of, ‘You can’t do anything anymore,’ or, ‘You put your arm around someone and you go to jail’.”
The key, Cole says, is to try to meet their challenges with compassion. In his 2019 talk for TedxLondon, he explained that allowing boys to talk about their fears and frustrations was a crucial part of consent education.
According to Cole, society is finally cottoning on to how valuable education around consent can be; and where schools have brought it in, they’ve seen good results. “More talks and workshops are being booked proactively,” he says. “Rather than waiting for boys to go down a certain path, they want to have the conversation now.”
Main image: Tara Moore for Positive News