Consent doesn't just apply to sex. 'No means no' every time

I heart consent
Reni Eddo-Lodge argues that consent applies to every area of our lives

On the pitch, they might not be making headlines.

But off it, Brighton and Hove Albion football club - nicknamed the Seagulls - are doing just that.

In a hugely progressive move, the club has teamed up with Life Centre Rape Crisis service to deliver lessons on sexual consent to the club’s under 16, under 18 and under 21 squads - of both sexes.

The young players will be educated about consent, the law and the process for both the accused and accuser. There will be role play and a chance to share any issues the players have already enocuntered.

Brighton FC’s chief executive said Paul Barber told the Independent: “We’re not parents, or teachers in the conventional sense, but we do have a responsibility for wider education beyond football coaching.

“The one area our young footballers are most vulnerable in is when they are themselves, normal everyday teenagers.”

In the light of recent cases, such as the controversy that surrounded convicted rapist and former Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans, many will consider it to be a vital step forward. Indeed, the initiative has found support from local MP, Caroline Lucas.

At a point when sex and relationships education is still not compulsory in British schools despite campaigning, Brighton FC’s move is great news.

Ched Evans Credit: Getty

Lessons on sex and consent are cropping up across the country, from school classrooms to university lecture halls.

In London’s Heston Community School, for example, simplified classes on consent are being given to 14-year-olds, using examples such as asking permission to look at a friend’s phone.

And, as the consent talk gets louder, I can’t help but think about the wider implications of teaching the importance of consent - and how it affects our everyday lives.

Because, in it’s most simplified form, consent is all about respecting the boundaries and bodily autonomy of others - things that should be granted to all people, regardless of age, status, culture or gender.

There is a culture of coercion when it comes to social consent that undoubtedly seeps into sexual activity, too. To me, it seems hopeless to focus on the latter without confronting the former.

We all have numerous commitments in our everyday lives, but we should be well within our rights to decide what to take up and what to decline without facing such coercion.

Juggling work, home, admin, family, friends, relationships and hobbies sometimes life feels like a delicate game of Jenga in which you have to choose, determine and balance your wobbling priorities.

Life can seem like a juggling act Credit: Alamy

We all know the social signifiers when someone really doesn’t want to do something.

It’s in their body language: a flicker downwards of the eyes, a fleeting grimace, their tone of voice. There’s a sigh before a reluctant ‘ok then’.

Such interactions – whether over a night out or time-consuming favour – all test our concept of consent. And it’s impossible to untangle this coercion culture from sexual activities.

In fact, thinking about consent in isolation – only related to sex - does it a disservice. People are coerced, guilted and even bullied into doing things they don’t want to do and have no obligation to fulfil all the time - by a boss, friend, or partner. One person decides their needs, wants and priorities are more important than the other’s. The other person is nothing more than a prop that can fulfil this need, regardless of if they really want to.

We should be able to recognise our limitations and establish boundaries without other people deeming our decisions malleable.

So often, when you decline something that you’re not obliged to do, you’re faced with an irritated questioning- why don’t you want to do this? What’s more important than this? The asker asks not out of curiosity, but so they can decide if whether whatever else you wish to do is worth you missing their proposal.

I can’t help but suspect that this might be disproportionately gendered, too.

Women are taught to accommodate other people’s needs, to be nurturing and make ourselves smaller so as not to offend. Expectations of our submission mean that we’re sneered at if we’re assertive (terms such as ‘bossy’ and ‘aggressive’ are only thrown at women in a negative way).

We need to listen when women say no - to anything

It’s the old adage of female self-sacrifice. Everyone else’s priorities are more important than our own. People don’t expect us to say no, let alone confidently. If we do, it’s assumed we should pair with it a grovelling apology or excuse.

This kind of boundary pushing invades all areas of life, and it mirrors a disregard for a partner's boundaries when it comes to sexual activity.

How can we push for a respect for each other’s autonomy when it’s just not valued in everyday life?

No should mean no in every context. Consent doesn’t always have to be enthusiastic - we all do things we’d rather not, usually because it’s part of our jobs.

But coming to any kind of decision about something you’d rather not do, by yourself, is quite different from being pressured into the decision or obliged to carry it out.

Trampling over people’s boundaries, despite their discomfort, really does undermine the idea of consent. Agency means establishing your own priorities without someone else determining them for you. Ignoring those boundaries is coercive.

To truly embrace consent, we must learn to value a robust ‘no’ as much as we do an enthusiastic ‘yes’.

Anything else – as, no doubt, Brighton and Hove are teaching their young players - just isn’t the goal.