It’s easy to infer – from the statistics around domestic abuse, the watershed of #metoo and the growing media attention around the abuse of power at every system level – that consent is something older generations in Australia never really got a good handle on. The word ‘consent’ itself has only in recent years held currency in public discourse, or meant anything more than a simple ‘yes or no’.
Polymath and author of Welcome to Your Period Yumi Stynes, and Melissa Kang of ‘Dolly Doctor’ fame hope that kids today can do it better. To help them out, they’ve written a book called Welcome to Consent. With colourful illustrations and cartoons, quotes from kids and adults, and plenty of easily understood advice, the book is a useful, frank, inclusive and accessible guide to figuring out what consent means (sexual and non-sexual), how to practice it IRL and the rollercoaster of puberty, while providing the tools to assert and respect personal boundaries.
Roaring Stories spoke with both authors about the book and its themes.
Consent has always been tricky. What is it about the world we live in now that might make it especially difficult for kids to navigate?
YS: The world has always been tricky for kids to navigate! Where we once used to use religion to help steer our moral compasses, we now have pop culture, parents, friends and school. And none of those influences is particularly fluent in the languages of consent!
Most of us adults were never clearly taught about consent – so we find it hard to teach our own kids.
What was it that brought you together to work on this book as a collaboration?
YS: We met through the podcast ‘Ladies, We Need to Talk’. Melissa was a guest on the first ever episode. After it aired, people said to me in hushed tones, “Did you get to meet Dolly Doctor?!” – anyone from Australia is aware of Dolly Doctor’s legend.
Our publisher (and friend) Marisa Pintado had listened to the podcast and she said, “You guys should write a book together!”
I didn’t want to scare her off so I waited MONTHS for the right moment. We were at the Sydney Opera House preparing to do an event at the All About Women Festival and I casually said to Melissa, “Hey, my publisher thinks we should do a book together.”
MK: I was so chuffed and honoured at the same time! Collaborating on these books with Yumi has really brought all the Dolly Doctor stuff in my brain to life 🙂
Did any of your own thinking around consent shift through conversations that you had with each other?
YS: Definitely. We reflected on our own parenting and the way we were parented A LOT. And we discovered there’s a big difference between knowing IN YOUR GUT the difference between wrong and right and being able to explain it out loud.
What kind of research went into writing this book?
YS: We had hundreds of conversations with every person we knew! We reached out to experts in the fields of consent education, sexual assault, and we spoke to many teenagers, and our thinking around consent really evolved through what we learned.
I also read every book I could find on the topic of consent and healthy relationships.
The more we learned, the more we realised that consent a really tricky topic! And I think the more we talked to teenagers the more we understood that we need to be super-clear and easy to understand. No nonsense. No bullshit.
When you were the age of the book’s intended readers, how familiar were you with the idea of consent?
YS: I don’t think I had even heard the word!
My perception of consent as a youngster was very warped. I thought if you were drunk it meant you deserved whatever happened to you. When boys meant pushed boundaries or nagged for sex – I thought that was standard.
So much of consent (sexual or otherwise) depends upon communication: for one party to articulate their wants clearly, and for the other person to be attentive and respect them. Do you think this principle can have a larger impact on how young people engage with others?
MK: Yes definitely. The principles of consent apply in many situations and are underpinned by respect. Learning emotional awareness and how to communicate your feelings, thoughts and wants is foundational for healthy relationships – including between family members, friends , work colleagues and of course romantic and/or sexual partners.
Some conservative commentators suggest that the left has imposed too many rules around consent, and that it is unrealistic that horny teenagers be expected to follow them. How do you respond to this criticism?
MK: It’s a simplistic, sexist and disrespectful view of adolescents. Children are taught by parents and carers from a young age to recognise, communicate and manage their emotions. Such as handling disappointment (e.g. no we can’t buy that toy/go to the park now/have lollies before dinner) or learning empathy and sharing. Feeling horny is exciting and can be a wonderful thing – it’s not about shaming it but rather understanding it and learning to manage those feelings just as we need to manage other feelings. If we teach a child or teenager that it’s not ok to destroy the precious property of a sibling or to hit their sibling if there’s an argument over a toy, for example, that is teaching children how to handle emotions and respectful behaviour. It’s no different with feeling horny. And anyway, there’s a simple solution for handling your horniness – masturbation.
As a pretty insecure young woman myself, I found it really hard to say ‘no’, even when I didn’t want it. How do we give kids the confidence to be assertive, and how do we teach everyone that ‘no’ isn’t automatically the wrong answer?
MK: It’s a long game – and needs to not just be about girls changing their thinking and behaviour. Boys and men need to learn that they do not have an automatic right to girls’ bodies, and how to recognise their own feelings and communicate fully. Women are socialised from a very young age to be accommodating, to put their needs lower than others. When it comes to consent and intimacy in adolescence, everyone is learning / discovering new experiences – so learning ‘the golden rules of consent’ is foundational. Then it’s about practising – which can be done in ‘low stakes’ environments, by talking with trusted peers, parents and adults.
Questions by Kate Prendergast
Welcome to Consent by Yumi Stynes and Dr Melissa Kang was published in May 2021 by Hardie Grant.