Why consent must be taught in black and white terms

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Nelly Thomas

Most young people do not get irony, subtlety or grey areas

Most young people do not get irony, subtlety or grey areas Photo: Stocksy

Here we go again – another opinion piece by someone concerned that puritanical communista-feministas want to take the fun out of sex. Cathy Young is worried "anti-rape efforts" are leading to a "dystopian nightmare" where too much sex is criminalised. Her piece begins with a couple of anecdotes about sexual encounters of her own that were coerced – but, she insists, not illegal – and ends with a vision of sexual encounters where person-A literally asks "is that OK?" and person-B replies "yes" (or no) at 10 second intervals. A straw man, that no one – not even the most enthusiastic sexual aficionado– would want to sleep with.

One barely knows where to start. Is it necessary to point out that the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are not reported, let alone prosecuted or convicted? Do the statistics about the epidemic levels of sexual assault need to be repeated? Has Cathy read the Australian research that shows levels of "unwanted sex" are increasing for boys and girls alike? Is she aware a lot of people who call themselves feminists have sex (some quite a lot, #justsaying)? Most importantly, is Cathy aware that the vast majority of consent education programs are aimed at young people?

The last point is crucial. I am the creator of a show called the No Means No Show - a comedy sexual health and ethics show developed with Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA House) and a panel of health experts. Forgive the bragging, but it has played to literally thousands of teenagers for more than a decade and is highly acclaimed in both the health and school sectors. I have learned many things about sex and relationships while doing this show – some would make you laugh, others cry – but one thing I know for sure is that, bless them, most young people do not get irony, subtlety or grey areas. This is especially true when it comes to sex. Sex is complicated, never more so than when you've got little experience and inadequate information. Witty asides and "on the one hand" nuances simply don't work.

I learned this the hard way at the first pilot of the No Means No Show back in 2003. It was full of "adult" jokes that required interpretation and quite a sophisticated sense of humour. I didn't want to patronise the young people and, besides, I was used to writing jokes for adults. That pilot (and subsequent ones) were professionally evaluated and it was clear from the evaluations that several of the jokes went over the teens' heads and, consequently, so did some of the health messages. No Means No Show was re-written and the central messages made more explicit: your body is yours to enjoy as you see fit, sexual coercion is wrong, sexual assault is never your fault, there is support available.

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The key here is that most anti-rape and sexual education ethics campaigns are directed at young people. Common sense – and research – clearly shows that cognitive reasoning is under-developed in young people, especially in young men. Young people are not stupid, but some things need to be spelled out to them; that's not patronising, it's the reality.

Let's take an example. Imagine if sexual health campaigners said "use a condom but, in reality, most people don't when they're in relationships so you make a judgement call". To many teenagers, a "relationship" is someone you've known for a week. Imagine a road toll campaign that said "don't drink and drive but if you've had one beer you'll probably be OK." The "no means no" message is no different. Imagine going into a school and saying to a bunch of teenagers "no means no but sometimes it means yes eventually and you don't need to ask because sex where people talk about consent is unrealistic and boring". Now, you see, we have a problem.

We're dealing with young people who are sexually inexperienced, who may have no one talking to them about consent (in all its complexity), who have almost certainly consumed porn (where no one ever says no) and whose ability to read body language is limited at best. Imploring them to ask for verbal confirmation, to accept the answer and to back off if anyone is unsure, is absolutely crucial.

If a young couple stay together and have lots of fabulous young-person sex, will they ask for verbal consent every single time for every single sexual act? Of course not. But, at the very least, while they're on their P-plates, the message needs to be clear: no means no.