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47% Of People Don’t Think You Can Withdraw Consent If You’re Already Naked

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New research by the FPA has uncovered shocking and terrifying attitudes towards consent in the UK

New research by the Family Planning Association (FPA) has uncovered shocking and terrifying attitudes towards consent in the UK. Almost half of people, 47%, don’t think it’s OK for someone to withdraw consent if they’re already naked, with 39% of young people aged 14-17 agreeing.

As part of Sexual Health Week, the charity conducted a study into relationship and sex education around consent, and found that alongside the worrying statistic above, 45% of young people aged 18-24 learnt about consent from TV and film, alongside 37% aged 14-17. A smaller minority of 9% also said it’s not OK to withdraw consent if someone has been brought dinner or drinks, have already kissed, are in a bedroom or have had sex with the person before.

As a result of the findings, the FPA has concluded that there is a huge disparity between young people’s perceptions of their knowledge of consent and what they actually do in real-life scenario’s. ‘It’s been encouraging to see the cultural shift in society over the past year, with calls for better understanding of and respect for consent,’ says FPA chief executive Natika Halil, ‘but it’s really worrying that people of all ages think that it’s not OK to withdraw consent in a range of situations.

‘It’s always OK to say no to sexual activity that you’re not comfortable with, whatever the situation – and is equally important to listen to and respect your partner if they want to stop.’

Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) is set to become statutory in schools in England from 2020, but in the meantime FPA are producing digital resources for educators and parents to understand the law on consent and how to discuss it with young people.

‘We need to equip young people with both the knowledge and tools to recognise what does and does not constitute consent,’ says Mel Gadd, projects and training coordinator at FPA, ‘how to check for it, and how to confidently have conversations around it. This includes how to say no but, even more importantly, how to listen for an enthusiastic yes.’

Alongside teaching schoolchildren consent, the charity is also calling on the entertainment industry to better represent consensual sex, given that almost half of 18-24-year old learn about consent from TV and films. In fact, the charity tested films on whether a healthy illustration of consent is shown, and in order to pass had to show verbal consent, no coercion, no underage characters or any that are drunk or on drugs plus the characters had to give both verbal and non-verbal cues that they wanted to have sex.

Those that passed the test included Frozen, for when Kristoff asks ‘I could kiss you... I mean I'd like to. May I, may we?’, to which Anna kisses him on the cheek and states ‘we may’. Also, 10 Things I hate about You, for when Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) refuses to kiss Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) because she’s too drunk to give consent. Scott Pilgrim vs The World passed too, for when Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) changes her mind about having sex while in bed kissing Scott (Michael Cera) and he responds ‘Ok, well this is nice. Just this’.

Films that didn’t pass the test? One of the most-beloved rom-coms of all time, The Notebook. According to the charity, ‘in trying to convince Ally to go on a date with him, Noah uses coercive tactics. He is persistent and pressuring when he climbs a ferris wheel at the fairground and threatens to let go if she doesn’t go on a date with him, despite her previous disinterest. This dramatic gesture and inability to take “no” as an answer – minus Ryan Gosling as distraction – is actually harassment and coercion."

A somewhat less surprising film that failed the test is Goldfinger, after a scene described as ‘very uncomfortable’ by the charity whereby James Bond throws Pussy Galore to the floor, pins her down and despite her physically fighting him off, telling him she’s not interesting and trying to avoid his kiss, he fights her until she relents.

Their final example of a failing film is, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, for multiple scenes involving Princess Leia and Han Solo. Not only does he refuse to let her go after she accidently fall into his lap until she asks three times, he also forces a kiss upon her in another scene.

‘Han approaches Leia from behind while she’s working and puts his arms around her, to which she physically shoves him backwards away from her,’ says the FPA. ‘He begins rubbing her hands when she asks him not to, and backs her into a corner with nowhere to escape. He even notices that she’s trembling, but continues and kisses her in the middle of her sentence. Leia sneaks away as soon as the kiss is interrupted. There’s no evidence here that Leia wants or invites any of Han’s advances, but he ignores her verbal and non-verbal.’

For all of these positive and negative representations of consent, there is a young person watching getting their entire education on sex and relationships from them. It’s worrying then, that films can portray consent in such a dangerous way without ever addressing it. In the same way that rape is so often used as a sub-plot in TV and film, never to be mentioned again, as casually as if the characters have had an insignificant conversation (case in point Breaking Bad, does anyone even remember when Walter rapes Skyler in the kitchen? Because it’s seemingly forgotten about within seconds).

We can hope that the cultural shift towards discussing sexual harassment and assault will be replicated in TV and film, but regardless, it shouldn’t be anyone’s only source of education on healthy sexual relationships. And that doesn’t just mean having conversations with our kids around consent, but also with our friends and family members.

If 47% of people think you can’t withdraw consent simply because you’re naked, likelihood is you know someone who feels this way. So, we need not just be educating young people, but educating everyone, because as uncomfortable as it may be to talk to your uncle about consent, it’s nowhere near as uncomfortable as being one of the many inevitable victims of the 47% that don’t understand it.