Sex education must also be about consent.
The topic of consent is an important part of all sex education for children and young people. Consent is the norm on which any sexual behaviour between people should be based on. This is to prevent someone from exposing themselves and others to violations or assault.
Consent is about ensuring that oneself and one’s partner are willing participants in whatever sexual play or exploration they take part in. None of the participants should be in doubt. This often occurs naturally during sexual acts, because the partners pay attention to each other’s reactions, and act accordingly. It’s like they intimately and beautifully “dance” together, creating pleasure and joy.
Consent is both painfully simple and incredibly complicated
But how do you know what you like and don’t like, as well as your partner’s wants and preferences? In her book “Samtyckesdynamiker” (“The Dynamics of Consent”, our translation) Lena Gunnerson writes about how consent is both painfully simple and incredibly complicated, as it’s all about human interplay and negotiating with one’s inner self. Factors like cultural and social expectations and attitudes, as well as biological processes, all influence this interplay. Sex is not just a physical action, like stroking, kissing and caressing, which is why it is so important to us as humans.
Sex is about our need for closeness and connection, about feeling appreciated as people, and feeling attractive and loved. That is why sex can be both good and amazing, but also associated with hurtful violations and assault.
Children can not fully comprehend consent
In Norway it has been decided that children under the age of 16 are not mature enough to fully comprehend what consenting to sexual acts entails. They should therefore not be asked to participate in such acts by either adults or other children.
However, we are aware that many still participate in sexual acts, and feel they are mature enough to make this decision – rightly so, in many cases, since all teenagers mature at their own tempo. We still have to promote healthy reflection around their own and others’ boundaries though, as well as help them to understand Norwegian laws on the subject.
It is not okay to attempt to persuade someone
Persuading someone into having sex when they do not want to, is not the same thing as receiving consent. Manipulating or pressuring someone into doing something they do not want to is never okay. Gender-based assumptions can also come into play here. Maybe the boy expects the girl to be shy and inexperienced, when she is actually eager? Maybe the girl thinks boys always want to have sex, so if he gives off other signals, she assumes it’s because he’s shy?
Values and attitudes affect boundaries
Young people will throughout their teenage years search for their own identity, and become more concious of – and secure in – who they are, what they like, and what they want. This is a trying process, though many view it as a good and exciting time in their life. The teen years are, in this sense, a time for exploring different aspects of yourself and the world, including sex.
Telling young people they need to figure out for themselves what they like and do not like is all well and good, but it is important to also help them see the connection between their own values and attitudes, and the boundaries they set for themselves. For example, someone who wants to keep sexual relations exclusively between themselves and their partner, won’t find it necessary to try sex in a threesome just to explore.
Consent happens through communication
Consent happens through communication – both with one’s inner self, and between those having sex. Verbal communication is easiest, meaning one asks the other if they want to, the other answers yes or no, and both parties then follow the agreed-upon rules. But we also communicate with our whole body, so interpreting both one’s own and others’ body signals is important as well. A lot of people are good at reading body language, but some are not.
Those who are not require being taught the subject more directly, including the topics of legality and morality, as this helps them to understand where the boundaries lie. It can be as straightforward as saying it is forbidden to touch a girl’s breast. If they are to do that, they need to have asked and received an unmistakeable “yes” first. Sometimes a person’s body language is at odds with what they are verbally communicating, for instance saying yes while crying and looking frightened. In these situations one should also stop.
Cultural instruction manuals may be helpful
In our culture there are sexual “instruction manuals” of sorts. These tell us what is okay to do in what situation and with whom. Children and young people may find these helpful. An example of an “instruction manual” can be: only kissing someone you want to kiss, or not sharing nude photos you received on the phone.
Cultural instruction manuals can create difficult situations
Other “instruction manuals” can cause problems. If someone is under the impression that “this is something everyone does”, they may develop certain expectations for themselves, causing them to participate in a sexual act even though they are uncertain, and the act does not produce any good feelings. Withdrawing from a sexual act with someone considered an important relation – like a partner in a relationship – can feel like putting the entire relation(ship) in jeopardy, or like making one’s partner feel stupid, shameful or worthless.
Cultural instructions can be contradictory
The “instructions for use” or the sexual scripts, child and young encounters can be contradictory and difficult to navigate or reconcile. They may find that their friends’ scripts are very different from what the family culture conveys or what the school teaches.
This again can also be different from what they encounter in their own religion or what they see online. Throughout adolescence, most people will nevertheless learn to maneuver in this landscape and become more confident about which values and norms are important to them in the exercise of their own sexuality. Supporting young people in their self-reflection around these topics is important.
Sometimes there may be more options than first thought
We all have experience with agreeing to things just to avoid negative consequences, and situations regarding sex are no different. But because sexuality is such an intimate and private part of ourselves, the negative consequences may be worse than imagined initially.
This is therefore an important topic when teaching consent. This type of reflection begs the discussion of if, during situations like these, where someone finds themselves wanting to withdraw from the sex, they have more room to act? For example, can they maneuver the sex into something they like and feel okay with?
This is what consent looks like
Educational film (Norwegian) for young people about how to perceive and communicate sexual consent. The overall goal is to prevent sexual violations and abuse.