Three teenagers laughing outside together

What is Consent?

Consent literally means freely agreeing to something, in this context we look at consent as freely and enthusiastically agreeing to engage in sexual activity. 

For legal context, the law in the UK states that consent is when someone agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice. It is important to note that consent can be changed at any time and this includes being withdrawn or revoked. It is vital that consent is given freely, without pressure or manipulation and that it is ongoing, you always have the right to say no and change your mind. 

Consent education is extremely important for young people as it works as a prevention to sexual violence, assault and harassment (SVAH) 

Our Research into Boys Consent Education

We received feedback from our partner schools after the Everyone’s Invited movement and the 2020 Ofsted inspection, that boys were feeling defensive and alienated around these conversations around consent education within schools. 

In order to better understand these attitudes, Life Lessons undertook research with the University of Surrey into boys’ attitudes to consent in a number of secondary school settings. The purpose of this research, conducted between 2022-2023, is to determine what is and is not working about how consent is taught in schools and what we can do to help improve how it is taught.

Aims of the Research

We had three main aims for this research:

  1. To understand boys perspectives on the consent education they have received in school, if and how this aligns with their cultures
  1. To understand teachers’ perspectives on teaching boys about consent including their priorities for, concerns about, and experiences of designing and delivering RSE on consent for boys
  1. To understand how boys engage in RSE in general and consent education. 

Our research found 5 keys findings:

Consent as simple and straightforward

To start with consent seemed simple and straightforward. All the boys were able to share what the law was, knew the legal definition and understood what consent was and what they were “able” and “not able” to do. However, once we unpicked the topic further the boys realised consent was not as straightforward as they first expected.

Boys as initiators, responsible for consent

Boys felt that in hetronormative relationships it was their responsibility to obtain consent from their female partners. They felt that because it was men pursuing women that the responsibility was on the men to obtain consent. In same sex relationships the boys felt like the responsibility was shared between partners. When we did a deeper dive into this and asked if it was fair for boys to have this responsibility they acknowledged that they wanted a more equal footing but felt pressure and anxiety to get consent. 

‘Other’ boys perpetuate SVAH

Boys are aware of sexual violence and sexual harassment and assault. However, they believe that “other” boys are the ones who are perpetrators of sexual assault and that these “other” boys are purposefully violent. This led to a discussion that miscommunications can happen and while many boys wouldn’t go out looking to purposely hurt someone, they may accidently cause someone harm. Many of the boys expressed concern and anxiety around accidentally harming a potential partner.

Sex as characterised by ‘grey areas’ 

When navigating consent we assume things are black and white. However, the boys reflected on many grey areas that make consent a more difficult topic to understand.

This includes consent not always being directly communicated, the fact that yes may not always mean yes due to social pressure, peer pressure or intoxication. The boys also felt a lot of anxiety over the idea that it was a learned skill and they needed to be “seductively” obtaining consent, reading the room and the vibe of the person while not ruining the mood. 

Boys at risk of ‘false accusations’  

Boys have heard a lot online about false accusations; however, their anxiety stems from not the idea that girls would intentionally lie, but that miscommunications can happen and something can go wrong. They have a lot of anxieties about getting something wrong and unintentionally causing harm

Recommendations from the research

From this research we have 5 key recommendations for teaching consent education in the classroom. 

Sustained, holistic approach 

It is vital to have a curriculum that builds overtime so that young people are looking at things that are age appropriate, and certain topics are revisited as they get older. 

Importance of discussion in a safe space to tackle the uncertainty and ambiguity

The boys in the research want a safe space to talk about all these issues and grey areas as well as exploring different concepts such as gender stereotypes in relationships, pressures, consequences, libido and entitlement to sex in a relationship.

Link consent education to values, empathy and respect with pupils 

It is important that young people understand and respect consent, not because they feel like they HAVE to or that it is a checkbox exercise. Rather, we want young people to respect consent because it aligns with their values. Tap into students’ core values and ask them to consider how they would feel if somebody harmed one of their close friends, or another important woman in their lives. 

More direct language, age-appropriate, limitations of analogies

Young people learn a lot about sex and relationships online in a very direct and adult way.  Therefore it is important to talk about consent in a direct way using scenarios that relate to that age group. Such as hooking up at a party, alcohol being involved, expectations around the availability of sex in a relationship. This means we need to move away from using metaphor videos, such as the cup of tea analogy. Instead, we should place emphasis on the need for clear definitions and clear language as well as allowing open discussions around these topics.

Focus on developing skills and emotional literacy 

The boys felt like they were taught consent in a black and white way which doesn’t cover the grey areas. They want to use this time to ask questions and learn new skills. Including how to handle rejection and how to be vulnerable for example.

There is a risk that young people who are not given this safe space to discuss will trust online influencers. These influencers can have alternative narratives that are more accessible to the boys. We need to help boys to know themselves better and to provide alternative narratives.

How Life Lessons can Help you 

Life Lessons partner schools benefit from a whole school approach that supports a healthy school culture. 

Life Lessons for your whole school includes:​​

  • RSHE Spiral curriculum and accompanying fully planned lessons (year 7 -13)
  • Bitesize video library – peer and expert 
  • Weekly ‘In the News’ lessons
  • LifeTalk tool 
  • Teacher CPD library
  • Ongoing support and half termly progress review calls

Become a Life Lessons Partner Today!