‘But what if we’re both drunk?’
The first time a teenage boy asked me that, I was stumped. If people can’t consent to sex when they’re drunk, then neither person can be deemed to have consented if they are both under the influence. So, is it sexual assault if they’re both drunk? And if so, of whom?
It’s a great question and one that I have been asked many times since.
In thinking about it, I realised there is a clear and simple answer to the question: the difficulty arose because we’re not properly understanding the issue of consent.
For so long we have focused on the message that ‘No means no!’ and everyone must immediately respect a clear and assertive ‘no’.
But there is a problem with that message. Saying ‘no’ can be, and tragically, often is, a difficult thing for some people to articulate.
When we teach consent education in kindergarten or the lower years of primary school, we ask all the children to adopt their fiercest pose. With hands on hips, their spines stiff and tops of their heads reaching to the ceiling, they thrust out a hand and yell, ‘STOP! Don’t touch me! I don’t like it!’.
When I introduce the concept of consent and assertive communication to twelve year olds, I receive a markedly different response. These more mature students clearly understand that they have the right to say no to being touched, it’s equally evident that they struggle with the practice of saying no. I’m met by a myriad of reasons why these older children might fail to speak out.
We talk about non-sexual touch - hugging, tackling or sitting pressed against a friend - and whether they would verbally communicate feeling discomfort in these situations. Many of the boys feel able to say something. Most of the girls don’t.
Girls are worried about hurting their friends’ feelings, being ostracised from a social group or disappointing someone in a position of power or authority. They put their own needs aside to meet the perceived needs of others.
Children, regardless of gender, express fear of getting into trouble if they say no to an adult, and concern that they will be physically hurt if they say no to an older child or student with a history of bullying.
Why we are perpetuating a culture that places the onus on the vulnerable person to say ‘no’, when really what we should be doing is asking our children to check in with people every time they want to instigate touch?
Studies repeatedly show us that while everyone is at risk of sexual assault, some people are more vulnerable than others, and run a far greater risk of abuse. Over-represented in sexual assault statistics are people with less structural and/or physical power; children, women, LGBTIQ people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people with a disability. In fact, 90 per cent of women with an intellectual disability are sexually assaulted across their lifetimes.
And it’s exactly the people at greatest risk who are least likely to think they can say ‘no’ without repercussions of some kind.
When two people enter into an interaction, one will generally hold greater power. This will be projected onto the other person who then feels less able to communicate non-consent clearly without fear of backlash.
The question that really needs to be addressed here is: why we are perpetuating a culture that places the onus on the vulnerable person to say ‘no’, when really what we should be doing is asking our children to check in with people every time they want to instigate touch? If they don’t hear a clear yes, they should be learning to back up, give the other person space and foster a situation where the person can more clearly articulate their needs. Giving that space may give the person permission to say no, or not yet, or yes to this touch but not to other touch.
If we foster a culture of consent, then children will grow up knowing that every touch they instigate is welcome and wanted. Because they checked first.
Now, when teens ask me, ‘what if we’re both drunk?’ my response is clear: ‘Ask yourself honestly who holds the power in the situation and think of that person as the designated driver. It’s the designated driver’s responsibility to make sure they stay sober enough to drive and that they get everyone home safe and sound.’
Deanne Carson is a guest on this week's Insight, which looks at how people understand and navigate consent. She runs Body Safety Australia, which educates parents and children on protection from sexual abuse.
Watch the full episode of Consent online now: