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Does “yes” also mean “no”?: The unwritten rules of consent in youths’ lives

Despite the new, heightened attention on the topic, issues of sexual violence are still yet to be adequately addressed in North American curriculum, particularly in parts of Canada. Indeed, Ontario’s recent provincial government caused a flurry of confusion when they reverted their curriculum to the 1998 version, which removed newer updates that included discussions of consent, gender and sexuality, and social media and sexting, to name a few (Hauen, 2018).

The government insists that this decision was because not enough research and consultation on these “new” topics had been previously conducted (Lenti, 2019), while  researchers in sexual education strongly disagree (Lenti, 2019). In the midst of all this debate between policy makers and researchers, the voices of key stakeholders have been left out -- namely; the youth. How do youth experience and navigate consent in their relationships? What do they think about their sexual health curriculum, and does it accurately reflect their lived experiences? Anastasia Powell’s book, Sex, Power, and Consent: Youth Culture and the Unwritten Rules, explores these very questions through a compelling and trans-national study of Australian, American, and British youth. And what she finds, reveals a lot about how, and why, sexual health curriculum is failing Western youth.

Image of diverse young girls holding signs about sex-education at a rally for inclusive sex education in Ontario [Image of young girls at sex-education rally in Ontario from: ]

Particularly telling is what youth have to say about how they say communicate sexual interest to their partners.The West’s laws largely operate on “no means no” model of sexual consent, yet Powell’s interviews with youth reveal that that is not at all how they communicate; rather, there are certain unspoken, social norms and rules amongst youth. For example, many girls expressed that when they don’t want to have sex, they expect their partners to read their body language like slowing down kissing or moving away. Some also expressed that they come up with excuses like “I’m tired” or “I’m on my period” because they do not want to offend their partner. These examples are important because they are implicitly coded “no’s”, which could leave room for miscommunication and misunderstandings, if both partners are not on the same page in the Book of Unwritten Rules. Further, these examples show how youth operate largely beyond “no means no” model of communication. Sexual communication is nuanced, filled with body language and social cues.

So what happens when these non-verbal modes of communication are not taught? Powell’s interviews also reveal that a substantial number of young girls had experienced a time when they felt their consent was violated, either verbally or nonverbally, and felt regret, shame and responsibility for it. And she is not the only one to find this -- Amy Hasinoff’s findings on sexting and “revenge porn” amongst youth reveals a similar pattern (Hasinoff, 2015).  Unfortunately, these findings are also substantiated by multiple statistical studies that find that young girls aged 16-19 are four times more likely to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault (Brennan & Taylor-Butts, 2008; Conroy & Cotter. 2017). Clearly, we are letting our youth down. Not only by choosing not to teach them about consent, but even in our non-youth-centred approach when we do. As educators, parents, guardians, and role-models, we need to do better by our youth by including them and centering them in curriculum and policy creation.



Brennan, S. & Taylor-Butts, A. (2008). Sexual assault in Canada, 2004 and 2007. Canadian

            Centre for Justice Statistics Profile Series. No. 19. (Catalogue no. 85F0033M). Retrieved


Conroy, S. & Cotter, A. (2017). Self-reported sexual assault in Canada, 2014. Canadian

            Centre for Justice Statistics. (Catalogue no. 85-002-X). Retrieved


Hasinoff, A. A. (2015). Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent.

            Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Hauen, J. (2018, September 4). The differences between Ontario’s interim sex-ed curriculum and

            2015′s. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from:

Lenti, E. (2019, February 6). The Undoing of Ontario Sex Ed. The Walrus. Retrieved from:


Powell, A. (2010). Sex, power and consent: Youth culture and the unwritten rules. Cambridge:

            Cambridge University Press.



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