Three Things That Need to Be Included in Any Conversation About Consent

October 21st 2016

Tricia Tongco

For better or worse, sexual consent has been a frequent topic of conversation throughout 2016.

In June, the shockingly light sentencing of Brock Turner, a Stanford University student convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious classmate, brought rape culture, white male privilege, and consent into the national forefront.


Earlier this month, consent became a talking point in the presidential election when a video from 2005, in which Donald Trump can be heard boasting about kissing and groping women against their will, was leaked. The video was followed by a series of allegations by multiple women accusing the Republican nominee of touching them inappropriately.

Trump's dismissal of the lewd conversation as "locker room talk" reeks of rape culture, in which consent means nothing to a man if he's aggressive and or enough. With such mixed messages in the media, effectively teaching consent to young people seems more important than ever. ATTN: spoke to experts to come up with three key concepts in teaching the topic.

1. Deconstructing gender norms, namely toxic masculinity, is essential.

According to Jonathan Kalin, the founder of Party with Consent, a movement that facilitates dialog about sexual violence, the conversation about consent is closely tied to a conversation about gender. "When we look at the reality of who is perpetrating sexual assault – [nearly] 99 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by men – there has to be a real conversation about redefining masculinity and deconstructing toxic masculinity," Kalin said in an interview with ATTN:.

During his presentations at college campuses, Kalin will often play clips from movies to point out sexually predatory behavior, which can be invisible to students until it is pointed out and discussed. For example, in the movie "Superbad," Jonah Hill's character convinces his friend (played by Michael Cera) that they could benefit from a drunk girl's lowered inhibitions.

Melanie Beres, a sociologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who has conducted research in sexual violence prevention and understanding consent, also brought up the importance of challenging myths and beliefs centered around ideas of masculinity and femininity, which fuel misconceptions about sex.

"We value masculinity that is aggressive and expect that men want sex. At the same time women are expected to satiate men's sexual desires while expressing little of their own desire. Valuing masculinity that actively desires and seeks out sex contributes to the way that sexual violence is excused. Instances of sexual violence are considered miscommunications, or the men are excused for their behavior because the women "lead them on" in some way," Beres said in an email interview with ATTN:.

2. Sexual violence is not miscommunication.

Beres highlighted the common misconception that consent is "confusing" and that people do not know how to consent to sex.

"This contributes to the problem by excusing coercive behavior as 'miscommunication.' There are also a lot of myths about sex that people buy into that tell them to expect miscommunication — that women say 'yes' when they mean 'no,' or that it's ok to push sex on women because that is what they want," Beres said. Then, "instances of sexual violence are considered miscommunications, or the men are excused for their behavior because the women 'lead them on' in some way."

Keeping this in mind, Beres said educators must reevaluate the goal of consent education.

"If we are trying to prevent sexual violence and we think that teaching people how to consent to sex is going to prevent sexual violence — then that implies we think that not knowing about consent is the cause of sexual violence. It's not.

Sexual violence is not caused by people not knowing how to consent to sex. It's caused by people choosing not to listen.

So, is educating about consent going to encourage those who choose not to listen to start listening? I doubt it. What consent education can do, is to set the bar higher. To challenge beliefs about gender and sex, including the belief that people do not know how to communicate, consent will begin to change the norms around sex and (at least) make sexual violence more visible."

3. The ability to read your partner goes beyond affirmative consent, or "yes means yes," because a coerced "yes" does not equal consent.

As ATTN: has previously written, "Sexual coercion is a tactic that perpetrators often use to violate consent and manipulate someone until they give in, employing pressure, threats, or guilt. In contrast, real consent gives someone the space and the freedom to say 'no.'"

According to Kalin, boys and men have been taught to "hunt" for consent, using tactics like lying about their intentions or getting their desired partner drunk.

Therefore, coercion is just as important to learn and discuss. "It takes the responsibility off the survivor to explain how they know how they were sexually assaulted and puts the onus on the perpetrator by asking them, 'How do you know you were in a consensual setting?'"

According to Beres, people she's interviewed seem to have an innate sense of when somebody wants to have sex. "They talked quite easily about knowing, they talked about empathy, about knowing when their partners are uncomfortable or hesitating and expecting their partners to be active participants in sex. Communicating about sex is the same as communicating about other social interactions. People say 'yes' and 'no' to sex the same way they say 'yes' and 'no' to other social invitations."

However, just because somebody understands when somebody wants to have sex, doesn't mean they have respect for somebody's ability to consent.