Welcome to Consent is a new book by adolescent health experts Yumi Stynes and Dr Melissa Kang, and it is timely, given disclosures by Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, the removal of the federal government’s “milkshake” ad, and the Women’s March 4 Justice on March 15. In May, the NSW Attorney General also announced reform of consent laws in NSW, including a model of affirmative consent. This Q&A reveals why tweens and teens of all genders, as well as their parents, should read this comprehensive guide to navigating consent.
Given its depth, Welcome to Consent is clearly not a book that’s been rushed through to take advantage of the zeitgeist. How long did it take you to research and write the book? What was happening that first motivated you to write it?
Melissa (M): The book took almost two years to come together. It involved a lot of research (reading books and research articles, and interviewing experts including young people) and a lot of meetings between the two of us to review and refine the structure of the book and the content. Yumi was a powerhouse in driving this book – she devoted countless hours to research and writing, and making sure the language and key messages were really clear and accessible.
As someone whose career has been devoted to the health and wellbeing of young people, especially those who are more marginalised, healthy relationships are central. I also wrote for Dolly Doctor for over 20 years and questions about emerging interests in romance, dating, curiosity about sex and pleasure were very common. Most of the readers were not yet having sexual experiences with other people, or were having early experiences such as kissing, but were beginning to think about sex. Consent – while not a word explicitly used in readers’ questions – was implicit in their questions and deliberations. These were questions about knowing how to make decisions (that involved intimacy), how to communicate feelings, how to have confidence in themselves and how to give and receive pleasurable experiences.
It was evident to me through this work, and also through my work as a doctor seeing young people and as a researcher looking at sexual health – that many attitudes and understandings about consent and sex were deeply gendered. This was true for me as a young person, but hadn’t changed over the generations, which is a real concern. Despite young people having more access to information about sex, more understanding about diversity and more understanding of the importance of gender equality in society at large, the early and formative aspects of adolescence can have a huge impact on growing up feeling positive about sex and relationships. Consent is fundamental to that because it’s about respect, rights and personal agency.
Welcome to Consent is a wise, warm and witty book – packed with suggestions and reassurance. For a subject like consent, why is this informed, but conversational tone so important for your target audience(s)?
Y: I learnt very early in my career that the most perfectly thought-out arguments are wasted if you’re boring.
People have to be engaged with the message and my job is to be the messenger.
It has always been my job to communicate clearly – whether it be to a punk rock audience on Channel [V] (which is where I got my start), or to kids wanting to know about getting their periods, or talking about consent.
What research did you do to ensure the information included in the book is sound, pertinent and engaging for educators, young people and their parents?
Y: I co-wrote the book with a legendary Associate Professor, Dr Melissa Kang, who has literally decades of experience in this field! She has made it her life’s work to be utterly dedicated to best practices in adolescent health. She’s diligent and thorough and painfully principled.
We were also careful to speak to experts and stakeholders in the field of consent education, rape prevention, domestic violence prevention and researchers into sex ed.
We spoke to lots of young people (like, hundreds!) and never lost sight of who was going to be reading the book. It HAD to make sense to them.
The book has a lot of succinct quotes from younger people describing scenarios they’ve faced and how they’ve responded to them. How important was it to you to include these voices and what did you primarily learn from them?
Y: Consent learning is incredibly powerful when it’s peer-to-peer. Kids hearing about experiences from people their own age has a far greater impact than a couple of adults talking about research and back when they were kids! We found that it is incredibly vivid to hear about what real people have experienced, including real teenagers – and that lived experience helps colour in the nuance and detail when it comes to consent.
The federal government’s “milkshake” ad and “shark” ads, part of the government’s $7.8 million Respect Matters program, were quickly removed from The Good Society website where they premiered. What was wrong with them?
M: In short, they were likely to be confusing for adolescents who are still learning about romantic and sexual attraction and relationships. They were – ironically – also pretty disrespectful of how much adolescents are interested in and able to learn about SEX rather than strange analogies. Adolescents especially can smell a rat – they know when adults are trying to cover up, be fake, avoid something. They deserve better.
Why does our society continue to “sexualise very young girls in the media and beyond” as SMH columnist Jacqueline Maley recently wrote but still find it confronting to encourage girls to be active participants and prioritise their pleasure and wellbeing in their own sex lives? How can we shift this scenario?
M: This is a very short answer to a very big question. The shaming of female sexuality is ancient – it’s the most deeply entrenched of all our prejudices and discriminatory behaviours, policies, laws and social norms. It’s a way of creating and maintaining patriarchal power. So although there is widespread acceptance of many women’s rights, shaming female sexuality allows the power dynamic to continue. We shift the scenario gradually and we don’t give up.
Your book covers so much territory with chapters like “What does no look like?”, “Puberty, bodily autonomy and touch”, “How power dynamics affect consent”, “The right to expect pleasure” and much more. What are three messages about consent that you would most like young people to take away from your book?
M: Our three key messages are:
- Your body belongs to you and nobody else, ever.
- Trust your gut instinct: if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it – take five, walk away, or say no.
- It’s good to practise communication in all sorts of situations – especially those that feel less risky.
What is one useful piece of advice you offer in the book to parents who are trying to help their children navigate consent?
Y: Be better at listening than talking. Let your kids run their mouths. And don’t react with outrage if they disclose something that makes you uncomfortable. For instance, if you outlaw drinking, they’ll never be able to talk to you about what happens when they or their friends are drinking.
Parents also need to show respect for the children’s boundaries, so that they trust those boundaries. So, if a kid says, “Please knock before you come into my room,” that’s a reasonable request, and the parents should be able to deliver on that.
It’s one thing to know the theory and another thing to actually talk about consent in a real situation. What are one or two tips you offer to young people to help prepare for these conversations?
Y: Practise having the conversations in a low-stakes environment – around something that’s not about sex. For example, “Grandpa, I hate that nickname you’ve been calling me and I’d like you to start calling me by my real name.” Or, “You know how I always come to band with you? I don’t want to do that any more.” You start asserting your boundaries in a calm and thoughtful way, and see how people respond. See how YOU respond. Does your heart race? Do you feel sweaty and stressed? And if it’s scary, but works, that’s a win! You’ll be better at it next time, less scared, less nervous, more experienced.
Sexting, online hook-ups and flirting … You rightly note that many teenagers are now thinking about new kinds of intimacies and relationships their parents may never have experienced. What does your book do to address parental fears so they can better help their teenagers to set and communicate their boundaries in these new territories?
Y: Teens are already in this world, whether we like it or not. The best thing we can do is withhold judgement, support them when they need it, and offer best-case-scenario examples for how to conduct themselves in these spaces. We can also keep them informed of their legal rights. Sending nudes is way more common than we’d like to think, and we need to not freak out if we discover this has happened with one of our kids. The worst thing to do for our kids is force them to keep secrets because we can’t handle it.
I really like that you emphasise gut instinct as a barometer for a young person to use to check how safe they feel. How confident are you that this gut instinct is alive and well in Aussie kids and can be used as a test for when they should call out a person’s behaviour towards them or move away from them physically?
M: Emotional awareness and how emotions are felt in the body are the basis of the most ancient meditation practices through to modern-day mindfulness techniques. Linking this to thoughts and actions is the basis of modern counselling therapy techniques which are good for everyday life. All humans are capable of this and teaching it and practising it with our kids is, in my opinion, the greatest gift we can give them from a young age. But adults need to learn it too!
Trusting and acting upon gut instinct won’t provide full immunity to the powerful influences of peers, powerful people or powerful messages in the world around us but is a great start. Young adolescents have the most incredible brain power – it’s an exciting and often mildly terrifying time of massive development – so they are well aware of their feelings and their bodies changing. Helping them pause and reflect, read their gut instinct, analyse their responses and then find words and actions to deal with them was a really fundamental part of the book.
On April 28, Jenny Leong, MP for Newtown, hosted a discussion led by survivors, activists and experts on how to achieve meaningful reforms to keep women safe from sexual violence and harassment, both in the Parliament and in our society. It aimed to set the agenda on the reforms needed in our parliaments, our schools and across the community. As your work is mostly directed at young people – what is one reform would you recommend in schools?
M: A whole-of-school approach to gender equality and respect – an action plan led by principals but co-produced with students and classroom teachers. Teachers need to be able to work in an environment where they are not afraid of backlash and tabloid headlines (this is where we need strong political leadership). Children and adolescents have the right to knowledge – and good consent and sexuality education is based on rights and respect – these are the values that comprehensive sexuality education adheres to. One-off lessons or guest speakers telling students what consent is is NOT the answer.
Privilege, power, patriarchy … these seem to be drivers for the mess we’re in. How hopeful are you that we can make the changes needed at this pivotal moment in Australia’s history to bring greater freedom and safety for women, children, teens and others damaged by our flawed social systems?
M: My hopefulness comes from the fact that the current zeitgeist and appetite for change in Australia is being led by young women. They are putting themselves out there with incredible courage and dignity and demanding change. When young people – especially young women – reach their own tipping point, then there is hope.
Welcome to Consent: How to say no, when to say yes, and everything in between, Yumi Stynes and Dr Melissa Kang, Hardie Grant, $19.99