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New approach fosters clearer understanding of sexual 'consent' in teens

A new approach offers young people improved ways of considering the importance of consent in sex and relationships, according to a new study. Photo by Free-Photos/Pixabay
A new approach offers young people improved ways of considering the importance of consent in sex and relationships, according to a new study. Photo by Free-Photos/Pixabay

Dec. 11 (UPI) -- A new method of sex education focused on real-life experiences helps teens better understand sexual rights and ethics, including the importance of consent, an analysis published Friday by the journal Sex Education found.

Teaching consent using this approach, rather than focusing on the legal definition of the term alone, allows young people to talk more openly and honestly in a way that relates to their own sexual and relationship experiences, according to the study.

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"We discovered that while young people were able to explain the legal definition of consent, they found this awkward and ... it sometimes led to contradictory views and double standards based on gender," study co-author Elsie Whittington said in a press release.

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"So, framing consent simply in this 'black and white' way does not match up with young people's sexual and relationship experiences," said Whittington, a lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University in England.

Developed by British sexual health charity Brook, the approach is built around the concept of a "continuum of sexual violence," which describes how people construct and label different kinds of sexual violation, she said.

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The continuum offers a way to make sense of the relationship between criminal acts -- such as rape -- and everyday forms pressure that are common in heterosexual cultures, according to Whittington.

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It comprises four sections as defined by young people, varying from rape to where consent is explicitly negotiated, she said.

With this as the starting point, the approach to teaching consent uses creative activities, including interactive games and real-world scenario-based discussions.

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The goal is to foster collaboration among young people and get them talking about their feelings surrounding sex and relationships. By getting students to talk about these issues, they can develop a better understanding of the dynamics involved, Whittington said.

For this study, 103 teens and young adults age 13 to 25 participated in the educational program over a two-year period.

Over the course of the project, Whittington asked the participants to describe consent and their views regarding its place in sex and relationships using real-life scenarios.

She found that by having students work together on collaborative activities, including decorating cakes, they were able to have "more relaxed and honest" conversations about these issues.

"[The] scenarios allowed people to explore gendered double standards, societal expectations and the ways in which age can impact people's ability to negotiate consent," Whittington said.

"The device of the continuum offered a way of speaking about and viewing sex, consent and violation that is not absolute -- which mirrored the ways young people spoke about the topic," she said.

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They also appeared to have a better understanding of consent -- beyond the legal definition -- as a "fluid" experience that involves "'subtle' navigation, reading signals, tones, restrained expressions and advances," Whittington wrote.

The findings were deemed significant enough that the program is now being used by Brook in its teacher training.

"While a legal framework may feel simpler to teach, it does not give young people techniques or ideas for encouraging good communication and feeling informed and empowered," Whittington said.

"We found that using continuums and diverse scenarios enabled the young people to think critically about different ways of doing and negotiating consent enabling wider conversations that promote positive sexual ethics," she said.

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