PSHE in the Curriculum
Professor Simon Forrest is the Principal of the College of St. Hilda's and Bede in the Department of Sociology. In his early career he taught in secondary and further education before occupying advisory and management positions in health promotion targeting young people.
The focus of this work, on HIV/Aids prevention and sexual health promotion has underpinned his academic career. His Masters degree involved empirical research into the dance and drug cultures of the period, HIV/Aids prevention for young people and gender, sexuality and health.
Throughout his career Simon has contributed to under- and post-graduate teaching as well as training programmes for professionals in health, welfare and education. He also contributes to a variety of national and international expert groups, advisory committees and conferences and chairs the UK’s national network of Behavioural and Social Scientists Teaching in medicine (BeSST).
Boys, Young Men, and Sexual Consent
By Professor Simon Forrest
The problem with consent
What does consent mean? How do I know if my girlfriend is making consent? What happens if you’re under 16? Is consent just for sex?
Why is it that sexual education just goes against consent and men? A boy has to act a certain way too. We never talk about that just like girl good; boy bad.
I don’t want to do some things with my boyfriend now but don’t want him to think I don’t love him. How do I slow things down without losing him?
Just a few minutes searching websites offering advice to young people about sex and relationships will throw up hundreds of questions like these, which are drawn from a ‘suggestion’ box exercise that I ran with 15-year old's in a British secondary school.
They tell us a lot: that young people know that the concept of consent is important; that they are supposed to understand it (but don’t always do so); that we can’t think about consent without thinking about the emotional pressure that people feel and the pressure that people apply in their intimate relationships; and, that teaching and learning about these issues both contributes to, is influenced by and understood within powerful social norms about gender and sexuality.
The data from studies of sexual lifestyles, attitudes and behaviours tell us how these knowledge gaps, values and attitudes play out in in context of young people’s experience. The most recent data from the UK indicate that around 1 in 10 women and 1 in 70 men report ‘non-volitional’ sex since the age of 13 (being made to have sex with someone against your will). Non-volitional sex seems to be much more common among young people with the median age for last non-volitional encounter standing at 18 and 16 years old for women and men respectively. For young women, around 40% of these experiences are associated with a current or former partner. For young men the largest proportions of experiences are with either family members friends or people that they know (60%)
Sort out the boys?
It might seem to follow that if only boys and young men had more knowledge about consent, were more aware of the legal consequences and ethical and moral dimensions of their actions that things would change. There is no doubt that these are important elements of content in any work with boys and young men about consent but a problem and deficit based approach – focusing on what they’re doing wrong and what they don’t know – is not likely to be engaging or effective.
Sort out our approach to boys and young men
Both practice and research suggest that rather than problematize boys and young men it is more constructive and effective to adopt gender-sensitive and positive approaches to engagement in learning about sex and relationships. I think that there are six things that we can do when it comes to developing our practice:
Targeting young men
We can think about if and how we target young men in our practice. Do we offer them opportunities to work in single-sex contexts? Do we make time to prize and value their contributions and needs? Simple strategies such as inviting young men as a group to think about the questions that they would like to put (anonymously) to a female group about consent and negotiation and inviting the female group to reciprocate with questions for the boys can be effective ways of creating space to explore gender differences and experiences of relationships.
Clarity about intended outcomes
Boys and young men respond well to clarity about what they are being asked to do and what the point of that is. It means that we have to sort what the message is we want them to get and how we expect the learning to benefit them. A ‘me’, ‘she/he’ and ‘we’ model might be one way forward: what are benefits of the learning to them, to their partner(s) and to them as a couple. This reflects that boys and young men are in different kinds of relationships (or not at all) and that they may have different concerns as their relationship status shifts. If they are engaged in more causal relationships they respond well to ‘what’s in this for me?’; in some relationships to ‘I’ll do this for her?’; and, in others ‘we’ll do this for us’.
Engaging with young men’s motivations and legitimising engagement
In Flanders the research document underpinning AIDS prevention targeting young people is called ‘Good Lovers’. That opens up the possibility for engaging young men who evidence suggests value being seen as knowledgeable about sexual matters and ‘good’ at sex. By making competency at negotiating intimacy part of the prospectus it sets young men a positive challenge. 'Good Lovers' does not sacrifice principles of gender equity to male sexual desire but challenges oppressive and abusive behaviour by making negotiation and consent giving and getting part of the achieving pleasurable and fulfilling intimacy.
Thinking about masculinities (and their diversity)
It is important to think about the differences between the public and private, and beliefs, concerns and behaviours of boys and young men. In practice this means acknowledging that what young men may say and do in one context, particularly the public realm represented by the male group, does not necessarily represent the totality of their views and positions. It also means being sensitive to how context affects what young men may show interest in.
There is good evidence that young heterosexual men experience pressure to conform to powerful norms about the ways that they should behave in public in order to achieve and maintain their status as ‘proper’ men. A number of dimensions of this public persona have direct implications for the way that young men deal with sex education. For example, young men’s status with their male peers is partly dependent on presenting themselves as on the lookout for sex, sexually competent and knowledgeable. They may also try to demonstrate physical robustness, treat illness and injury lightly and not show pain or distress as this can be construed as evidence of weakness.
The Me the She and the We
A series of studies have shown that young men are very aware of the ways these attitudes, beliefs and behaviour represent a public face to which few adhere in private. For example, most young men acknowledge the stereotype of the predatory male but privately they seek emotionally meaningful relationships with young women. They may feign disinterest in sex education but learn much from it. In public they may find it difficult to admit to ignorance and anxiety but in private contexts where they feel safe and that they can trust their interlocutor they will happily and even enthusiastically express their feelings and concerns.
The key is to acknowledge that young men are well aware of this ‘splitting’ of their identities and that approaches which appeal to only either the public or private dimensions may lack personal relevance. Young men may also find it difficult to engage with messages relevant to their private concerns in public contexts.
The ‘supply side’
Some professionals feel an understandable reluctance to work with young men. They may be boisterous, challenging, and disruptive. They may ‘do’ the public and private in ways that are hard to manage and engage with. Training and support for professionals is critical. There is good evidence that with high quality input, reflective practice and support, professionals can grow in confidence in working with young men.