News

Young People Embrace A "Continuum" Model Of Sexual Consent, Study Finds

A young lesbian couple lays on a blanket together in a park.
New research shows young people embrace a "continuum" model of consent.

Martin Dimitrov/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • Young people want to talk about consent in a way that goes beyond binaries about rape and "active consent," new research finds.
  • They reported being able to talk about and understand consent more when it was represented by a continuum.

Young people want to talk about consent in a nuanced way that accounts for the many gray areas they experience while navigating sex and relationships, new research finds.

Though young people are well aware of the binary, legal definitions of consent, those definitions don't adequately capture the varying experiences they have, according to the research, which was published in the journal Sex Education. Young people involved in the study wanted to talk about the complicated gray areas of consent, but often aren't given space to do so if sex education curriculums focus on the law. 

The findings could help sex educators better craft curriculums that serve young people's needs and give them skills they need to navigate sex and relationships.

"If you are able to hold space and give permission for the more awkward and complicated conversations...so many young people want to go there, and that is some of the best learning opportunities," says Elsie Whittington, PhD, the study author and a lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

What The Youth-Led Research Found

Whittington's research was entirely participant-led. Over the course of two years, she worked with groups of young people ages 13-25 (77% of participants were under 18) to develop interactive activities and discussions at seven sites in southern England. The goal of the project was "to co-produce an account of sexual consent that was congruent with young peoples’ everyday lives," Whittington wrote.

Throughout the research, participants commonly described consent as "a decision about sex that must be freely made," according to the study. But they resisted using legal language. "Although participants were familiar with the concepts they frequently resisted labelling experiences and scenarios variously as ‘rape’, ‘violence’ or ‘coercion’ and, many had difficulty articulating how ‘active’ explicit consent might occur in practice," Whittington wrote.

Elsie Whittington, PhD

"It's really culturally abnormal for us to say outright nos to things. So, why would we suddenly be able to do that in a sexual context, which feels sometimes like a big deal, or where we're not supported to have a language and to communicate what we want and what we don't want?"

— Elsie Whittington, PhD

Some recent sex education campaigns have emphasized the importance of "active, verbal consent," but participants also didn't find that matched their experiences. They found that nonverbal signaling was more common than verbal during sex. "It's really culturally abnormal for us to say outright nos to things," Whittington says. "So, why would we suddenly be able to do that in a sexual context, which feels sometimes like a big deal, or where we're not supported to have a language and to communicate what we want and what we don't want?"

Ultimately, Whittington developed a continuum to capture how the participants spoke about consent. On one end is "rape," to the right of that is "non-consensual," then there's "passive consent," and then on the far right end is "active consent."

The continuum isn't perfect. Whittington notes that "the line between `passive consent’ and ‘non-consensual’ encounters is problematic," for example. But she found that using the continuum in teaching allowed participants to have a more nuanced discussion of consent. "In response to scenario-based activities and discussion, a number of participants said that they ‘understand more on consent if you see different scenarios,'" she wrote, quoting one participant. They were also able to highlight gendered double standards in certain situations.

Shifting Consent Education Away From Binaries

Young people welcome conversations about consent that are nuanced and tackle uncomfortable "gray areas," the research concludes. Whittington says that shows the importance of shifting consent and sex education to include conversations about ethics rather than just the law.

"What we need to be talking more about is how do we have ethical interactions, how do we negotiate, how do we recognize power," she says. "We shouldn't be seeking consent so that we're not breaking the law. We should be seeking or doing consent so that we're all having a good time."

Justin Hancock

"If we're only talking about verbal consent...then it doesn't allow for ongoing consent. Things change, our bodies are always changing, our responses to sex are always changing."

— Justin Hancock

Sex and consent education should be about giving young people tools they need rather than "sending the right message," says Justin Hancock, founder of sex and relationship education website BISH and author of Can We Talk About Consent? Sex educators who focus entirely on messages like "verbal consent" aren't being honest, he says, because that likely doesn't represent how they themselves communicate during sex.

Hancock continues, "If we're only talking about verbal consent, and agreeing to a set of things that we will do or might do or definitely don't want to do, then it doesn't allow for ongoing consent," he says. "Things change, our bodies are always changing, our responses to sex are always changing."

He says Whittington's paper captures an "embodied view of consent" that he uses in his own consent education with young people to help them understand what consent looks and feels like, which is a feeling of autonomy. "If we are just only talking about verbal consent and not talking about what embodied agency feels like, then we're not giving people tools at all," he says.

What This Means For You

Young people want to talk about the "gray areas" of sexual consent, but often they aren't given the resources or space to do so. You can help connect young people in your life to resources like BISH, Scarleteen, and Sex, Etc.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Whittington E. Rethinking consent with continuums: sex, ethics and young people. Sex Educ. Published online 2020: doi:10.1080/14681811.2020.1840343