The first time I received any form of substantial consent education was in fresher’s week of university. Yes, you read that correctly, university….
Now I know what you must be thinking: what type of sheltered, conservatively home-schooled education did I receive? How did I manage to get that far in education without ever having a dedicated lesson on consent? What rock was I living under? But my education is about as standard as it comes: state-funded, non-selective, secular, mixed gender. All in all, incredibly normal. In terms of schooling, it was about as representative of a “typical” education as it could have been.
Yet somehow, I and my peers up and down the country, managed to complete school without even ever being shown the infamous ‘cup of tea’ video, without really learning the rules of consent, without properly even being told explicitly that ‘no means no’.
During the compulsory consent workshop in the first few days of arriving in Durham, I had just assumed (rather naïvely as it turns out) that this knowledge was just common sense. How could anyone reach this age and not know that no means no? But looking back, why did I assume that? Because if everyone’s education was as lacking as mine, then is it no wonder our society is in the state it is in.
Now don’t get me wrong, we had some degree of ‘sex education’. But deeming it ‘education’ is very generous. It involved awkward teachers, facing groups of even more awkward pupils, their bright red faces burning with embarrassment as they gave the mortifying, if not more than slightly amusing, lesson involving a condom and a banana. A brief mention of STIs, warnings of how a teenage pregnancy would ruin your life, and that, apparently, was that. Sex education covered. That was it.
Sex education, at least in a bog-standard Scottish high school, amounted to nothing more than a couple of lessons a year, for the first three or four years of secondary school. And then, nothing. This seems to be a common trend. The government’s gov.uk page currently dedicates a whole two (glorified) paragraphs to the specificities of sex education in schools. The word “consent” is not mentioned once. This speaks for itself.
The one-hour a week lessons dedicated to personal development I received, let’s be honest, were never the most captivating or engaging on the best of days. The singular ‘subject’ seemed to cover everything from finding your right career path, to learning how to recycle property, to the more traditional drug-awareness, and yes, sex education. But these few early years of sex education were then swiftly swapped for the more “practical advice” of study skills, university applications, and talks about our futures. Now don’t get me wrong, they are all important life skills, things that should be taught; but taught in addition to, not in substitution of, one of life’s most fundamental, if not the most fundamental, of lessons.
Who devised a curriculum that has enabled this to happen? A curriculum that groups inherent lessons of right and wrong into the same category as exam study techniques? Who deemed them to be equitable in terms of time dedicated to them? And why has nothing been done to change it?
The disturbing events of Sarah Everard’s death and the UN’s 97% statistic, within days of each other, highlight the horrific extent to which our society is failing. We are failing to properly educate that acts of harassment, acts of assault, are not ok.
The traction that this issue has rightly gained on social media, the uncomfortable discussions it has sparked, and the awareness it has raised through the UK and beyond is nothing but positive. But we need to stop this from becoming the latest “social issue trend”. If Instagram is anything to go by, you would think that this everyday reality for women would be one that appears to disappear after a week, maybe two. But as we are all more than aware of, it does not. This daily reality of fear and violence will continue to occur and go unchallenged if something is not done.
Education is the simplest solution to tackling this systemic problem. A bottom-up approach is required during the most formative years of young people’s lives. We need a frank and honest discussion, black and white facts, and a clear idea of the boundaries that are dictated by law. We need this to be taught across schools. Because, evidently, the current system is not working.
It is time for an expertly devised, comprehensive sex education curriculum. One which the government requires schools to teach to a much greater extent than they currently do. One which actually discusses and uses the word ‘consent’.
We need change. Real change. It is time for the government to step up. To take responsibility. To legislate policy. Our lives truly depend on it.
Image: Paweł Czerwiński via Unsplash.