Consent proves more complicated than a yes-or-no issue

Image by: Amelia Rankine

Consent education isn’t something that can be reduced to a catchy slogan or a colourful poster. Its teaching should reflect the same nuance and gravity of real-life sexual encounters.

A recent study found that Canadian university students refuse sex in a broad range of ways, which don’t always include the word ‘no.’ Sometimes, they don’t include words at all.

This is important for every young person to understand in order to engage in healthy relationships with the people around them.

Body language, attitude, and demeanour are all indicators that play a role in conveying consent, or a lack thereof. According to the survey, a partner who shows signs of discomfort or pulls away isn’t consenting, even if they don’t say anything at all.

Every student is familiar with “No Means No” and “Yes Means Yes” campaigns, but those oversimplify consent conversations. While they encourage people to take agency and be forthright with their partners, they don’t account for subtleties in intimate communication. It’s true that saying ‘no’ always means no consent, but it doesn’t mean that saying it is the only way to turn someone’s advances down.

Refusals come in many forms. 37 per cent of university students were found to rebuff advances by making excuses or giving non-verbal cues. Not everyone is confident enough, or feels safe enough, to tell their partner ‘no’ directly—but that isn’t consent.

Similarly, obtaining consent isn’t as simple as a verbal ‘yes’. Words can be coerced or pressured. True consent is contextual and often combines verbal and non-verbal cues. Consent education that centres around two words—yes and no—doesn’t account for the innuendos of human communication in such a vulnerable circumstance.

The education system, particularly at universities, where hookup culture is prevalent, needs to invest in detailed and realistic consent education. Campaigns like “No Means No” alienate students because they’re not relatable—most participants in casual sex don’t communicate in such explicit terms. They also don’t acknowledge the role of alcohol in hookup culture.

Just like underage drinking, hooking up after a night out partying is going to occur, especially in a university community. It makes sense to discourage this risky behaviour, but realistically, it’s also important to educate students on how to responsibly navigate these situations.

Teaching students about the nuances and complexities of consent better equips them to understand what they should be looking for, and how to recognize when someone doesn’t consent. 

That’s why more sensitive teaching is necessary. Consent doesn’t always look or sound exactly the same.

—Journal Editorial Board


Consent, Student life

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