12 Adult Jurors Can’t Define Consent – How can we expect teenagers to?

Recently in the Bill Cosby Indecent Assault trial the jurors upon deliberating on their decision asked the high court judge for a definition of consent. The judge told the jurors he could not answer the question. “The jury will decide what consent means to them,” he said.

How can we expect teenagers to have a comprehensive understanding of consent if 12 adult jurors and a high court judge couldn’t define it. The issue of consent is challenging partly due to the differences in law depending on country, state, and or jurisdiction.

The NSW Government Justice website defines consent like this:

Consent occurs when a person freely and voluntarily agrees to sexual intercourse. Sexual assault occurs when someone is unable to and/or does not give consent. The law says that a person is unable to give consent when:

  • asleep or unconscious
  • significantly intoxicated or affected by drugs
  • unable to understand what they are consenting to due to their age or intellectual capacity
  • intimidated, coerced or threatened
  • unlawfully detained or held against their will
  • they submit due to the person being in a position of trust.

1. Simplify the terms

When speaking to young people about consent and rape a term to consider using is the word wanted vs unwanted.

The law defines consent as freely and voluntarily engaging within the sexual experience. When someone freely and voluntarily desires to be in a sexual experience without feeling threatened, forced, pressured or coerced we could call this a wanted sexual experience or in other words consensual.

The issue arises though that most teenagers believe that consent is simply a yes, or even just the absence of a no. Most would understand threat and force being used to rape, but not so much pressure or coercion.

Examples:

“I am really turned on so we need to have sex” (PRESSURE).

“We have been dating for three months now, if you don’t have sex with me, i’m going to break up with you” (COERCION).

“I took you out for dinner, bought you flowers and paid for a movie so you should really have sex with me” (COERCION).

“We are officially dating now so we have to have sex” (PRESSURE).

“We haven’t had sex in a week” (PRESSURE).

We can see that this doesn’t seem to be a freely wanted experience but rather an expected or pressured one. If the pressure that teens are placing on others when it comes to sex concerns you, so might the experience of the one who is being pressured.

Examples:

“I really don’t want to break up, so ok yes ill have sex with you” (UNWANTED).

“I didn’t think that that dating would mean I have to have sex, but maybe it does” (UNWANTED).

“I guess sex is what you have to do if you want to be in a relationship” (UNWANTED).

“Sex hurts me and I don’t really like it, but I just figure I have to or else they will leave” (UNWANTED)

“They keep asking me for sex and I’ve said no so many times. Maybe if I give them oral sex they’ll stop asking” (UNWANTED).

2. Discuss consent at the beginning of a relationship

When I speak to teenage boys about consent I tell them a story about the very first time I hugged Katie who is now my wife. I tell them that we had packed up the youth centre we were working in and I walked her to her car. Just before she got in the car I asked her “are you ok if I give you a hug”. Typically the boys laugh because it seems at face value like a very silly thing to ask. What I was doing in this moment though was making sure that consent existed. Does she freely and voluntarily desire to have my arms around her, if not I didn’t want her to feel like she had to do this. When talking about consent, we need to example how to do this when holding someones hand, when giving someone a kiss. A simple question like what are you comfortable with in the physical side of our relationship helps a young person to gauge where consent exists and where is doesn’t. If the response is “i’m cool if you hold my hand, and i’m ok to kiss but I don’t want to go further than that” there is a spoken mutual understanding now of where consent exists and where it doesn’t.

Every young person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. No young person should ever be in an unwanted sexual experience. Our hope is that through conversation and education every young person can have a healthy and broad understanding of what makes a loving, happy, safe, respectful relationship. To find out more click here.

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