A Survey Looked at How Well People Understand Consent, and the Answers Are Shocking via @teenvogue
May 25, 2016 at 12:30 am
This piece is part of Not Your Fault, a Teen Vogue campaign that aims to educate people about the epidemic of sexual assault. For more on this series, click here.
Consent is the most important part of sex. Consent is what makes sex a positive and enjoyable experience for the people involved — which is how sex should be. Yet, new data from Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest provider of sex education, shows we’re still confused and conflicted about consent, probably because it’s not really taught.
First, let’s get some things straight. Consent means all people in a sexual encounter have in some way affirmed that they are happy and enthusiastic about what’s happening, and are comfortable with what’s happening next.
According to Planned Parenthood’s findings, women tend to have a better grasp on these basics than men. From September to October of last year, Planned Parenthood surveyed 2,012 adults ages 18 to 95 about consent and sexual assault. What they found is that people don’t really agree on what consent is, when it should happen, and what the consequences are when it doesn’t.
The survey found that 27% of women agreed that consent should be given at each step during a sexual encounter, while 19% of men said the same. Women were more likely to disagree that consent for sex one time means all future sex is OK, too. Around 75% of women said one-time sex doesn’t mean consent for the future, and 64% of men agreed.
Women also have a better understanding of sexual assault, and are less likely to buy into the misconceptions around it, the survey shows. Forty-eight percent of women strongly disagreed with the notion that women wearing revealing clothes at a party are “asking for trouble,” compared to 35% of men who said the same. On whether sexual assault accusations are often used by women as a way of getting back at men, only 25% of women strongly disagreed, while only 13% of men did.
When it comes to how consent is given, there’s no real consensus. Getting a condom is a sure sign of consent for 37% of people, as is taking off one’s own clothes for 35% of people. Nodding in agreement means consent for 24% of people and engaging in foreplay is consent for 22% of people. Between 12 and 13% of people strongly disagreed that these behaviors are signs of consent. Those people likely follow the rule that enthusiastic, verbal consent is the only way to go, and we agree.
“If young people get much more education about consent when they’re younger and before they get into sexual situations, that can help to prevent sexual assault. It is clear that in some situations — not all — but in some situations related to sexual assault, one of the contributors is confusion [and] people really not understanding what consent truly is,” Dr. Leslie Kantor, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tells Teen Vogue. “If you look at the results of our survey, you’ll see that there’s a proportion of people who think things like taking out a condom or starting to take your clothes off or having had sex once before —that that constitutes consent. So of course, if people have those kinds of misconceptions, that can lead to a sexual assault situation. We’ve got to make sure people are absolutely clear that the only way to know whether your partner is interested in a particular sexual behavior or a continuous sexual behavior is to ask, to check in with them.”
One reason Planned Parenthood found for women understanding consent better than men is that parents talk to daughters differently than sons — and talk to daughters more about sexual assault. A big reason, though, that there’s little agreement on what constitutes consent is that it’s not taught.
The survey found that most people in the U.S. have little to no education on how to give orhow to negotiate consent. Less than a third of the people who responded to the nationally representative survey said they were taught about anything at all related to consent, sexual assault or healthy relationships in middle or high school. Those who did get some consent education were mostly taught how to say no to sex, but were least likely to be taught how to ask for consent.
“The important thing when it comes to sex education is that young people need to hear about a lot of topics. Good sex education is going to include skills that people can use if they’re trying to remain abstinent, skills to refuse, [skills] to be clear about what they want and don’t want,” Dr. Kantor says. “Good sex education is also going to include skills related to consent, which, again, can be about abstaining from any sexual behavior, but can also be about negotiating what behaviors you want to do, being clear about those, and also being clear about whether your partner is interested in doing those. It’s not an either/or situation.”
According to the survey, 63% of people think too little is done to educate high school students on sexual assault, and 61% of people said the same about colleges. The vast majority of people, 88%, support teaching students how to ask for consent and even more support teaching how to recognize consent in a sexual partner. Ninety-five percent of people supported teaching students how to avoid sexually assaulting someone.
And yet, despite the overwhelming public support, many states ban teachers from advocating sex in any way. Abstinence-only education pretty much cuts the conversation on how to have healthy sex short.
So what now? The ball is in your court, legislators.
Until they take action, we’ve got your back. Check out our set-by-step guide on consentpiece for how to give it, how to get it, and everything in between. And then check out Planned Parenthood’s Consent 101 series below.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).