Teaching consent – is it the answer to rape culture?


Kudos to the Wellington secondary school students who organised Monday’s protest against rape culture. Its so inspiring and invigorating to see and hear so many young women taking a strong public stand against the sexism they are facing. Naming the problem and showing a collective front against it are the preconditions for change. And seeing young men from local high schools join the protest and add their voices to this public refusal of sexism is also very encouraging.

This current protest was sparked by revelations last week of a Facebook conversation between two Wellington College students. In a private group, one boy said, “if you don’t take advantage of a drunk girl, you’re not a true WC boy”.  Another said “fuck women”. This kind of trivialization, if not promotion, of rape cannot be reduced only to individual bad judgement. As young women in Wellington said this kind of behaviour is “quite common”. In the wake of the publicity, the two original boys were said to be devastated, yet others in the same Facebook group showed no insight. Some “jokingly” threatened to run over girls from other Wellington secondary schools planning the protest against rape culture: “bring your cars and run them all over“. It wasn’t the only case of schoolboy sexism last week, with a group of students at St Patricks College suspended after “an incident of sexual harassment” involving inappropriately filming two women teachers.

Rape culture has received a critical rap in the media over the past two weeks, and it’s good to see. Sexual violence is a big and enduring problem, not just in New Zealand. We all know its underlying causes are complex, and that there is no simple prescription for change that will fix things overnight. Much faith at the moment seems to be put into the promise of teaching consent. It has become established as one of the key ‘answers’ offered by commentators in the media – especially in the wake of schoolboy scandals like this.

Young people (all people) need to understand about consent! It is a bottom-line legal requirement for sex with another person. It’s a fairly simple idea: you should only have sex with someone if they agree to it. And this means they must be in a state where they are capable of agreeing – it is not consent if they are passed out, asleep or so affected by alcohol or other drugs that they are unable to either consent or refuse consent.

But what do we mean by teaching consent? Is the principle of consent a high enough bar to aim for? Can teaching about it in schools make enough difference to undo rape culture? And, counter-intuitively, could there be a downside to taking up this message about consent so singularly, and out of context of a wider call for more profound changes to the gendered power relations in our society?

Consent is quite a loose concept. It means giving permission or agreeing to a request or invitation. But its meaning is elastic. Consent can also mean acquiescing or complying – neither of which carry any sense of enthusiasm.

We can, should, and in some places do argue for an expanded affirmative understanding consent – just because a person doesn’t say ‘no’ doesn’t mean they are saying ‘yes’. In this model of consent (adopted in law in some countries, but not New Zealand), only sex that is mutually shaped by both people’s desires, wishes, and interests should be considered consensual.

But consider this: Last year the defence lawyer in the Scott Kuggeleijn rape trial said “consent is the key word. It matters not whether it was given joyfully, reluctantly, exuberantly.” In this case, the complainant had told the defendant “no” dozens of times and tried to pull up her underwear while Kuggeleijn held her arms above her head and allegedly raped her while she had tears coming down her face. Philip Morgan QC claimed it was reasonable for Kuggeleijn to believe she consented, asking her during cross-examination if she said no, but didn’t mean no. He also had the cheek to lecture, “did you not recognise that telling him you were on the pill in those circumstances [Kuggeleijn had asked her] was you telling him you wanted to have sex with him?”. If Morgan’s androcentric distortion of consent still holds sway in 2017 – there was a hung jury in 2016, and in February this year a jury found Kuggeleijn not guilty – then it offers women no protection.

And consider this: According to a friend, the Wellington College boys who were joking about rape “both know about what’s consent and stuff like that.” Knowing about consent doesn’t guarantee it will always be taken seriously.

At the protest on Monday, Wellington secondary school students called for the compulsory teaching of consent and the rights of women. This second part of their demand – for recognising the rights of women – is fundamental to a platform for change. Sexual violence affects people of all genders. But not equally.

Underlying such breaches of consent, and its trivialization, is what Jan Jordan calls a “patriarchal footprint” – the legacy of an explicit cultural belief that men are superior to women. At some level we still act as if it is natural for men’s and boy’s sexual desires and ‘needs’ to set the sexual agenda. When boys joke about ‘taking advantage of’ girls, when men sexually harass women on the street, when boyfriends pressure girlfriends (or younger or more vulnerable boyfriends) to do certain sexual acts they don’t want to do, they are all acting from a more privileged position on the gender hierarchy. This kind of unreflexive masculine entitlement hurts girls and women, as well as transgender people of all genders, and cisgender men deemed ‘too feminine’.

We do need to talk about and teach consent. But this is only a small part of the solution to the enormous problem of rape culture – and it is not uncomplicated. Study after study shows that people go along with sex they don’t want, because they have been pressured. When they feel they have agreed, even reluctantly, they do not call it rape. But this experience can be just as harmful as sexual assault. It can leave people feeling used and disrespected, and sometimes fearful and betrayed. If we just promote the importance of consent without also interrogating what it means and how it is shaped and constrained in uneven ways by gender norms, then we risk encouraging young men to pressure for consent. Consent in these cases of ‘unjust sex’ can become what American philosopher Ann Cahill calls an ‘ethical cover’. It becomes a tick-box, covering-your-back kind of consent that is motivated by the interests of the person seeking consent, without proper regard for the interests of the person they want consent from.

The more controversial – and I think more urgent – task is challenging the sexism that underpins consent’s disregard (and its diminishment). I’m buoyed by seeing and hearing so many young people from Wellington schools making these connections. I hope that we can start attending to that part of their message, rather than putting all our eggs in the fragile basket of consent.

Nicola Gavey