We all have responsibility to create a culture of consent
Let’s make sex and intimacy something to be celebrated and not something to be feared
If we all start talking about consent, over the dinner table, at book clubs, in the pub or coffee shop we can begin to decipher what we mean by it and what our own involvement in it might be. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Fifteen years ago, I tried to get people talking about porn as it was surfacing as a key issue in our society .The need to talk about porn continues today.
Sexual consent has emerged as society’s elephant in the room, an issue that became central to the Belfast rape trial which ended this week.
Now, as then, we are focusing on young people as both the source of the problem and the solution. If we are to create a culture of consent, it will involve all of us and we cannot stand by and comment righteously from a distance.
In fairness, the issue of consent was raised by academics in colleges – notably Pádraig Mac Neela in NUIG – and taken up and promoted by student unions around the country, but it will hardly change a culture unless everybody gets involved in the conversation.
The aim of the consent workshops – which have been running in a number of third level institutions – has been to make a conversation about consent normal and real in any sexual encounter and this does not just apply to a first sexual experience or a one-night stand.
If we all start talking about consent, over the dinner table, at book clubs, in the pub or coffee shop, we can begin to decipher what we mean by it and what our own involvement in it might be
And the issue does not stop there: again the colleges are leading the way in looking at how to respond to non-consensual sex disclosure and to the important issue of training for the right people. The first responders to disclosures of sexual assault tend to be friends, parents, colleagues or relatives and very often are not the officials or professionals in the field.
In other words, anyone reading this article has the potential to be that person who hears of a disclosure and this first point of contact can have an enormous impact on subsequent events. Shouldn’t we all know the rudiments of responding and the first steps to take?
A third development in the consent field is bystander training and this is where the whole of society could well do with education and training. When we see something non-consensual happening, do we take out our phones and video it, say it is none of my business or equip ourselves with the capacity to intervene safely for both ourselves and the other person?
We all have responsibility here and if we created a culture of consent, we might make sex and intimacy something to be celebrated and not something to be feared.
To begin this process of learning, we can start with consent and what it is. Planned Parenthood in the US has come up with an acronym that helps: Fries.
F is for “freely given’. All consent should be freely given which means doing something with someone is a decision that should be made without pressure, force, manipulation or while drunk or high.
R is for “reversible”. Anyone can change their mind about what they want to do, at any time – even if you’ve done it before or are in the middle of having sex.
I in for “informed”. Be honest; for example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t, that’s not consent.
E is for “enthusiastic”. If someone isn’t excited, or really into it, that’s not consent.
S is for “specific”. Saying yes to one thing (like going into a bedroom for sex) does not mean they’ve said yes to other things such as oral sex.
It is important that all elements of Fries are expressed through verbal and non-verbal communication.
If we all start talking about consent, over the dinner table, at book clubs, in the pub or coffee shop, we can begin to decipher what we mean by it and what our own involvement in it might be.
Leaving it solely to young people is to deny all our parts in creating a culture where sex is consensual and enjoyable.
As always, women’s groups, such as the National Women’s Council and Rape Crisis Centres, have been vocal and active in the drive for action on consent but we need all our society to participate in and create a whole culture of consent.
This is a call to action now.
Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist and Irish Times columnist