The concept of consent has rightly received increased attention in recent years. Last year the Education Select Committee published “Life Lessons: PSHE and SRE in schools” a report raising frequently the issues around consent, and people’s understanding of what it actually means. It included this quote from research produced for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner:
“young people generally understand what is meant by giving consent to sex, but have a very limited sense of what getting consent might involve. Young people are able to describe what consent means in theory, but real life contexts make a significant difference to their perceptions of what non-consensual sex looks like.”
The thing with consent is that it isn’t really about sex, and persistently linking the two things effectively misses the point. Consent is about an person’s right to ownership and control of their own body and mind. It’s about a person knowing that they have agency, that they are entitled to determine and defend their own personal boundaries. That they get to decide what happens to them, and how. Consent is the act of a person agreeing that they are willing to participate in something.
And perhaps that is the reason why consent education in schools (if it happens at all) is often so tightly linked to sexual contexts – because addressing the meaning of consent fully, in a school environment, is problematic, as it raises the question of how consent is – or isn’t – experienced in school.
Where can consent be found in school? Students (until the age of 14 when they have some very limited and structured options regarding subject choices) have no, or very, very marginal influence over what they do. They can not opt out of class, they can not determine for themselves what they would like to learn about, or how they would like to learn it. They often have very little freedom over how they experience a lesson, where and how they sit during it, or how they might participate. They have no chance to say no. That is an environment without consent.
They can not decide to not attend a lesson with a particular teacher, even if that teacher has mistreated or abused them in some way. From personal experience I can say, having been on the receiving end of abuse from a teacher, despite complaining both in person to the head teacher and a complaint being made in writing to the school, no action was taken to protect me from that teacher, and I was forced to continue with their class despite the fact that doing so was highly stressful.
Not only are students deprived of opportunities to actively consent to their experience in school, there is a system is in place for them to be punished for noncompliance. Opting out is not an option without the threat of shaming/punishment. You can not even choose to disengage within a lesson to which you have not actively consented in the first place, your attention is required and not providing it results in punitive consequences.
Just think for a moment about this: if a child in school says, no thank you, I don’t want to do that, is the response to that request usually a person modelling the definition of consent?
Is it surprising then, considering that children are socialised in a non-consensual and punitive environment for 12, highly influential, formative years of their lives, that while intellectually they may understand the notion of consent, they have little practical awareness of how to apply it to their daily lives? Is it surprising that people of all ages struggle with the concept of consent and personal autonomy, when they have been deprived of it in the very environment in which they believe to have been educated?
If consent matters, why doesn’t it matter in school, and why aren’t we talking about it?