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What Even is Consent? An Investigation Into Educational and Media Presentations of Consent

Our work was focused on understanding why, after years of messaging, consent remains an ambiguous topic, and there are far too many rapes, sexual assaults, and coercive encounters. We believed that messaging received from media and social norms around sex

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Introduction

By Cloe A. Di Flumeri & Jattu Fahnbulleh

Our work was focused on understanding why, after years of messaging, consent remains an ambiguous topic, and there are far too many rapes, sexual assaults, and coercive encounters. We believed that messaging received from media and social norms around sex (including the norms presented in sex ed) directly contradict the messages of “no means no” and “only an enthusiastic yes counts.”

Major Takeaways 

In conclusion, there are easily definable trends within consent education from the past 40 years. These trends cannot be understood as having a time-oriented progression from “traditional” to “progressive.” 

Trends can be understood more accurately by imagining them inhabiting a spectrum. The two polar extremes on this spectrum are the categories comprehensive and abstinence-only. Comprehensive sex-ed curricula tend not to center on abstinence but may integrate abstinence into their lesson plans. The primary difference is the positionality of abstinence as a choice, and most namely not the only choice available to the student. 

Additional to the two primary polar categories, we have found a strong enough presence of victim-blaming for it to be included as a classifier. A third category, mixed messaging, was included to demarcate curricula that utilized a confusing and contradictory blend of teaching strategies. 

The final set of categories is set to classify those characteristics that are less central to the stance of the curricula. Of these, messaging style is most closely tied to the previous classifications in its focus on whether or not the curricula framed consent as something implicitly or explicitly granted. Genders of perpetrator and victim, as well as gender of audience, and sexuality of perpetrator and victim, helped us to better understand who the authors were speaking to and about. 

Reflection on Findings 

From our codification of these characteristics, we have been able to take apart the key pieces of consent education curricula. This has helped us better understand how these curricula are designed, how they function, and how they are written.  

Many curricula, regardless of publishing date, seem to focus heavily on abstinence education. These lesson plans oftentimes integrate film content and classroom activities designed to show examples of young people setting boundaries and “protecting” their abstinence. Jattu notes that this poses troubling implications for victims of sexual assault or harassment. The overwhelming sense is that a failure of abstinence is a personal, moral failure-- even in cases where individuals may not have chosen to act against their abstinence decision.  

Additionally, these dialogues surrounding intimacy are designed with the purpose to create fear in an effort to influence action (or inaction). I wonder what impact the presence of this fear has on the sexual and psychological development of young adults, and assume that it would contribute to sexual shame, guilt, and a general lack of understanding towards sex and sexuality. 

Abstinence cannot be discarded as a method through which individuals can protect their sexual health. But unfortunately, it offers but a shaky apparatus through which teachers can frame consent. In terms of sexual violence, one’s personal decision to be abstinent is unlikely to assist them in setting boundaries. Unless, of course, this abstinence education is paired with lessons to teach students about boundary setting and consent giving or refusal. Some of the abstinence curricula achieve this. Yet, because of their focus on abstinence, we only see the refusal of consent, not the giving of consent. 

The absence of this representation is noteworthy. How can individuals know what consent looks like without examples? A balance between refusal and acceptance is necessary, even in abstinence education, as it must be assumed that the student may someday become sexually active and thus such skills of communication are necessary.  

Acknowledgements

This project was funded by Council for Independent Colleges Humanities in the Public Good Grant, and work was completed by Cloe A. Di Flumeri, Jattu Fahnbulleh, Annalisa Castaldo, and Molly Wolf with administrative support from Nicole Rayfield and Micki Davis.