Last March, shortly before 2015’s Sexual Violence Awareness month, I published “Consent: not actually that complicated” – now simply known as “Tea Consent” – on my blog. I had no idea, when I clicked the “publish” button, that I had just written something that would travel around the world, be animated, be read and watched tens of millions of times and become the basis for syllabi for consent and awareness courses in countries on every continent. It seems so unlikely that I am pretty sure it still hasn’t quite sunk in, even a year later.
One criticism often levelled at “Tea Consent” is its limitation to reach the people that really need to understand the message – ergo rapists. “What’s the point of this video? Rapists don’t care” goes the argument, and “no silly cartoon about tea is going to actually make an actual rapist actually not rape” or “anyone that understands this already knows rape is wrong”. And you know what? I agree that “Tea Consent” is limited. It is, after all, simply a neat analogy and not intended to be a fool proof legal tool to answer all sexual assault problems ever (although legal professionals have told me it is a very good analogy for the legal guidelines of consent). I don’t think the analogy is limited by its own simplicity, however. I think the analogy is limited by our deeply embedded problem with instilling a true understanding of “consent” within our society; not just around sex, but around everything. True understanding of consent happens when we recognise the importance of putting someone else’s need – and right – to establish their own boundary over our desire to cross that boundary.
We ignore other people’s boundaries all the time, and the foundation for our difficulty in understanding, respecting and acknowledging other people’s boundaries starts in childhood. Every time we say in irritation “oh, give auntie a kiss” to a shy child. Every time we say “smile at the nice man” on the bus (even as we tell them not to talk to strangers). When we hug a child that doesn’t want to be hugged, or allow a child to hug another child who doesn’t want to be hugged. When we laugh at a child dragging another child to play when they don’t want to play. When we tell little girls that a little boy hit, pinch or teased them “because he likes you”.
We continue to ignore people’s boundaries as we grow up. I was quite rightly called on ignoring someone’s wishes recently when I wanted to take a group photograph that someone didn’t want to be in. “Oh, go on” I pleaded, “It will be FUN, come on.” She had said no three times, and it took a friend going “SHE DOESN’T WANT TEA OK” before I realised I was riding roughshod over her needs just because I wanted her in the picture.
The reason we tend to separate out “sex” and “everything else” when it comes to consent is that sex is seen as so much more complicated and emotive than everything else. One of the reasons I chose something as mundane as “tea” (apart from the fact I am a complete tea addict) was the perfect juxtaposition of something so obviously simple with something we massively overcomplicate. But, as a large number of jokers have pointed out, that makes Mrs Doyle from Father Ted a most sinister character indeed. It became apparent that even when it comes to tea we’re not always that fantastic at recognising people’s boundaries. Well, Mrs Doyle isn’t anyway. But really, sex isn’t that much more complicated than anything else – we just make it that way. What we do find hard to grasp is consent itself. “Tea Consent” might be a great way to highlight that we’re not always great at recognising sexual boundaries, but it does indeed have its limits as a tool for prevention – at least in isolation. If partnered up with embedding a better understanding of personal and emotional boundaries in general, it’s much more useful.
Unfortunately for the UK, the government have recently decided for reasons only known to themselves, not to push ahead with education in all schools which would have included lessons about consent and healthy relationships. Prevention of sexual assault is inextricably tied up with embedding this deep level of understanding, and it must start with teaching children about boundaries and bodily autonomy. While there is starting to be some great voluntary work around consent happening around the world in schools and universities, it needs to start much earlier than that. It needs to start with those tiny children learning that they don’t have to kiss auntie if they don’t want to, or play with the child if they don’t want to, or that a boy hitting them means they like tem. Until we are able to start embedding a true understanding of consent and bodily autonomy within our culture right from the point that children learn what “boundary” means, we will need “tea consent” and analogies like it to help people make sense of their experiences.
I have had hundreds of emails from people (not just women) telling me that “Tea Consent” gave them closure over what happened to them. I have heard of people finding strength to leave abusive relationships, courage to report their assault to the police, or a sense of peace and security that knowing what happened to them wasn’t their fault. I read these emails with mixed feelings – I am glad I was able to help these people heal; but I am heartbroken that they had these experiences in the first place. Prevention IS possible, but it will take a will, and a way, and an effort on all our parts.
Note: This blog was originally published on the Huffington Post on 14th April 2016 as part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about the NSVRC and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here. It has been re-published here with the jokes that only people in the UK would get put back in.