Fifth of teenage boys do not believe consent necessary prior to sexual activity

Research reveals significant gap between perceptions of consent in males and females

Non-verbal cues were a valid form of consent some of the time, according to 59 per cent of males and 61 per cent of females. Photograph: iStock

Non-verbal cues were a valid form of consent some of the time, according to 59 per cent of males and 61 per cent of females. Photograph: iStock

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A fifth of Irish teenage boys do not believe it is always necessary to gain consent before engaging in a sexual activity with someone, new research reveals.

Researchers from the National University of Ireland, Galway surveyed more than 600 transition- and fifth-year students, finding a significant gap between the perceptions of consent held by males and females. Consent was viewed as a necessary precursor to sexual activities by 93 per cent of teenage girls, while 79 per cent boys said the same.

When specifically asked about verbal consent 58 per cent of males and 67 per cent of females said it was necessary for participating in sexual acts.

Non-verbal cues were a valid form of consent some of the time, according to 59 per cent of males and 61 per cent of females.

While the students were very attentive to the presence of a “no”, more indirect comments or reluctant body language were often not viewed as strong signals, the researchers note.

When students were asked about the views of their peers, many believed other teenagers were less supportive of consent than they were themselves. This was particularly true for girls, just 54 per cent of whom suspected other teenagers felt consent was required. The researchers suggested this perception gap reveals an internalised social pressure felt by many to engage in actions they may not actually want to do.

Canvassed attitudes

The survey also canvassed attitudes from the students towards intimacy with a person they had just met. Males were much more likely than their female counterparts to report feeling confident engaging in a sexual activity with someone they had just encountered, with this gap widening as the nature of the act intensified.

Six main barriers to communicating about consent were identified by students, with approximately 47 per cent reporting it would make them uncomfortable and the same number saying they would feel afraid. A lack of knowledge would prevent a fifth of the students from communicating with a partner about consent, while pressure would deter 12 per cent.

Girls were more likely to reference a fear of disappointing their counterpart as a barrier to talking about consent, while boys were more inclined to point to a fear of rejection as an impediment to consent communication.

More than 90 per cent of teenagers overall agreed there was a need to talk about sexual consent even in a relationship, while 98 per cent of students said it was okay to say “no” to unwanted sexual activity.

Challenges

The findings of the report feed into a new Active Consent schools programme which is being launched on Tuesday.

The workshops and elearning materials will be available for use by secondary schools as part of their Relationships and Sexuality Education teachings.

Researcher Dr Pádraig MacNeela said the survey results reveal “strengths and challenges” for young people navigating sexual relationships. It is “very encouraging” that nearly all the participants acknowledged it is okay to say “no” to sexual advances, he said.

While in principle many of the students had clear views on the role of consent, when confronted with real-life scenarios the groups were less sure in their responses, Dr MacNeela noted.

The goal of the Active Consent schools programme is to foster an “assertiveness” around the issue of consent and to encourage teenagers to follow the OMFG principle, which promotes Ongoing Mutual and Freely Given consent, Dr MacNeela said.