We often talk about educating young people about consent but what does this mean? Does it simply boil down to teaching young men not to rape? And, if this is the case, it’s a depressingly low bar.
Instead of talking about consent, we should be aiming far higher. We should be encouraging young people to think about “mutuality”. This means challenging the notion that women are always “giving” consent (and men always demanding sexual access), and promoting mutual decision making – where both partners listen and respond to each others’ desires and concerns.
Risk of coercion
The need to promote this mutual process is a key message that is emerging from our research into how young people have sex in England. Our latest BMJ Open paper focuses on anal sex between young men and women and reveals an oppressive social environment where women’s pleasure and desires are neglected, where painful sex for women is seen as normal and where there appears to be a real risk of coercion.
We looked at the expectations, attitudes and experiences of anal intercourse between opposite-sex partners and any implications these might have for health. The findings come from the sixteen18 project, a wider piece of research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on the sex lives of 16 to 18-year-olds, where we interviewed 130 men and women aged 16 to 18 from diverse locations in England, both one-to-one and in groups.
Of course, it’s important to note that not all men coerce their partners (some men said they did not want to have anal sex because they were worried they would hurt their partner); that some young women may wish to have anal sex; and that both partners may find it pleasurable.
But our interviewees described an oppressive environment where some men compete with each other to have anal sex with women, even if they expect women to find it painful. Coercion seems to be seen as normal: women reported they were repeatedly asked for anal sex by their male partners, and men’s and women’s accounts also raise the real possibility of unwanted penetration for young women – who are sometimes put in situations where they are penetrated anally without their explicit consent.
We urgently need more open discussion to challenge the culture and attitudes around anal sex – a subject that is often seen as unmentionable. Our findings suggest we need to act to reduce harms associated with anal sex, particularly to challenge views that normalise coercion. With more open discussion it might be possible to start to highlight the importance of mutuality, as well as providing more information for both men and women about how to recognise and acknowledge coercive behaviours for what they are, and challenge ideas about coercion being “normal” in anal sex.
Not just about porn
Previous research has shown that a significant minority of young people have had anal sex. Our study suggests that even those who aren’t having anal sex may nevertheless be talking about it with friends, building an environment where — at present — harmful expectations are set. While our interviewees mentioned young men wanting to copy what they saw in porn as an explanation for anal sex, the interviews suggest other factors are more important. Other explanations include in some cases a lack of concern about young women’s consent, or the levels of pain they might experience, and competition among young men to have anal sex with women.
Current debates about young people’s sex lives often seem to focus narrowly on the impact of porn. But our study suggests we need to think more widely about the lack of importance society places on women’s rights, desires and concerns. While anal sex might not be the easiest topic to raise, we cannot afford to ignore attitudes that help normalise coercion and negatively affect both women and men. Anal sex is part of some young people’s sexual lives, and we believe our study makes a powerful case for more open discussion and a focus on mutuality more than “consent” alone.