Young adults are confusing consenting to a sexual act with relenting to pressure to do something, says child and adolescent psychotherapist, Joanna Fortune.
“Relenting is the grey area of consenting, at least amongst young people who find it hard to define that as non-consensual or assault.
“It feels uncomfortable and wrong and they can often experience the type of anxiety and trauma-based reactions sexual assault victims do,” Ms Fortune told the Irish Examiner.
“When people feel backed into a corner you’re either going to fight your way out of it, or get out as safely as possible. They think: ‘I’m going to have to do something because I agreed to bring him to my house’. But you can say ’no’ and walk away,” she said.
Ms Fortune works with young adults in her practice, Solamh, and gives talks and training on the matter to schools and healthcare professionals. She says that young adults are increasingly resorting to “giving in” to a sexual act as a way of defending themselves.
“I’ve been privy to the kinds of incidences, where a young adult finds themselves in a situation with another person whereby they fear a rape is likely to take place and in order to prevent a penetrative rape they relent to something else, such as oral sex — seeing it as the lesser of the two evils.
“Later, because they feel they relented to the oral sex act, they feel they cannot say it was legally assault, though it was very much relenting rather than consenting,” she says.
“They didn’t as much as consent to the sexual act as relent to it, having felt pressured and worn down by the other person.”
Ms Fortune has been working with young adults for 15 years and says that the confusion around consent is now “huge”.
“It’s more complex than just consent and not consent, we need to ask what does that look like, sound like and feel like. If you feel uncomfortable, that’s not consenting; and if you have to convince someone to do it, with a ‘come on, come on, come on’, that’s not consenting either.
“There’s huge confusion in that age group of what is right and wrong.”
The mix of social media, smartphones, and free online pornography is adding to this confusion over consent for our young adults, both male and female.
“Young people are at the receiving end of a bombardment of data, how to do this and that; porn is being seen at earlier ages, and free online porn can be quite hardcore, with scenes of submission and domination, and one participant is seen crying. For both genders it needs to be clarified, we need to develop a respectful attitude between partners,” says Ms Fortune.
The polarisation of the debate in Ireland is not helping, she finds. We need to come in from the extremes of the debate to differentiate between consenting and relenting, she argues. On the topic of personal dress and victim-blaming the psychotherapist states that clothing itself does not “speak”.
“Clothing is interpreted by both genders as sending a message, but this is not about clothing. Women and men can dress how they want. Clothing doesn’t speak. You can say ‘no’,” said Ms Fortune.
For parents the best way to support young adults is through an open conversation.
For young people she advises, “attuning to their gut feeling: if it feels wrong, walk away”.
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