Blurred lines: what is consent?

Saturday 17 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican Everyday Liberties

Consent is now a key concept in discussions about sex and relationships. Yet, apparently, few of us actually know what it is. Some now argue that consent should be ‘active’, ‘affirmative’ or ‘communicated’, while others maintain that the process of consenting is often done implicitly,  without necessarily following a clear pattern.

Some have suggested we are experiencing a ‘crisis in consent’, which in turn is leading to an upsurge in sexual violence. Recent debates around rape and sexual assault on university campuses have focused on the need to teach young men about consent to prevent them from unwittingly committing rape, or even just becoming subject to an allegation of sexual misconduct. Campaigns such as Consent is Sexy aim to persuade young men to sign a pledge that states: ‘I Pledge to Only Practice Consensual Sex. I understand Sexual Consent should always be informed and freely given: Without pressure, entitlement, intimidation or fear.’ In order to guarantee consent is indeed freely given, there is now everything from smartphone apps to downloadable sexual consent forms, which individuals are encouraged to fill out in advance of a sexual encounter. 

The government has also become involved in the consent debate by suggesting consent should be taught to children in primary school as part of learning about ‘healthy’ relationships. The National Union of Students now runs consent workshops across UK campuses to teach students about how to seek consent and confirm a partner is consenting. Advocates of teaching consent say it can make our sex lives more communicative and considerate – and even more fun – but critics object that attempts to ‘educate’ people about consent are intrusive. 

So is consent something that can be taught,  or are we overcomplicating something that should be intuitively obvious? Are we in danger of removing the spontaneity from human interaction? Does the threat of rape and sexual violence justify these kinds of interventions into people’s sex lives, or should we keep the intimate part of our love lives more firmly behind closed doors?

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Luke Gittos
criminal lawyer; director of City of London Appeals Clinic; legal editor at spiked; author, Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans

David Gurnham
associate professor in law, University of Southampton; author, Crime, Desire and Law’s Unconscious

Barbara Hewson
barrister, Middle Temple; writer and commentator

Matthew Scott
barrister, Pump Court Chambers; blogs at, shortlisted for The Comment Awards "Best independent blog" 2015

Cathy Young
contributing editor, Reason magazine; author, Ceasefire! Why women and men must join forces to achieve true equality

Helen Reece
reader in law, LSE

Produced by
Luke Gittos criminal lawyer; director of City of London Appeals Clinic; legal editor at spiked; author, Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans
Recommended readings
Campus rape panic: scaring women away from uni

Why is the government collaborating in this dangerous myth?

Tom Slater, spiked, 9 September 2015

Kangaroo Courts on Campus: A Legal Travesty

Hearing sexual-assault claims in campus courts is a terrible idea.

Luke Gittos, Spiked, 30 July 2015

How can you be sure someone wants to have sex with you?

Apps, workshops and affirmative consent laws are being used to teach students the ‘yes means yes’ rule – that only clear, verbal agreement will do. Is there a crisis in consent?

Nosheen Iqbal, Guardian, 27 July 2015

'Sexual consent contracts’ are now a thing. Would you sign?

'Consent kits', complete with contracts, are being distributed to students at US universities with the intention of ensuring that both parties have agreed to sex.

Olivia Goldhill, Telegraph, 15 July 2015

We must not give in to the rape panic

The public must challenge the idea that rape is everywhere.

Luke Gittos, spiked, 8 June 2015

Do adults really need to be taught about the moment of ‘consent’ in sex?

They should be left in their digs to learn on the job

Brendan O'Neill, Spectator, 27 September 2014

Protect Equal Respect

Provide members with the ‘We-Consent’ mobile app to encourage discussion about affirmative consent between intended sexual partners.

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