Teaching sexual consent: how young is too young?

08 March 2018

Sexual consent is firmly on the agenda with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. But is introducing the concept to children as young as two or three a necessity, or a violation of their innocence? Journalist Helen Bird explores the issues.

Following the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal in October last year, the hashtag #MeToo spread virally on social media in a remarkable display of public solidarity. It worked to highlight the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, particularly in the workplace. The movement sparked a cascade of allegations and revelations – made primarily by women against men – spanning Hollywood to the UK parliament and far beyond.

What has followed since is a public outcry as to how and why such serious misconduct not only is happening in 2018 – 100 years after women won the right to vote – but still appears deeply ingrained in many professions and industries. But no more, asserts the Time’s Up movement – an initiative launched by more than 300 Hollywood actresses, writers and directors to help fight sexual harassment in the film industry and other workplaces. ‘The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality. It’s time to do something about it,’ states its website. 

Of course sexual assault and harassment aren’t solely adult issues, and some believe the correct messages should start in childhood. One mother recently made headlines after calling for the story Sleeping Beauty – in which the prince kisses a sleeping princess – to be removed from her son’s primary school curriculum for its ‘inappropriate’ content. ‘While we are still seeing narratives like this in school, we are never going to change ingrained attitudes to sexual behaviour,’ the mother tweeted. But some reactions to her post were less than supportive.


Protection or puritanism?

The Scottish Government is addressing this issue, and at the end of last year published its plans to look at how personal and social education (PSE) – and within it consent – is taught to pre-school children. The report, Equally safe: a delivery plan for Scotland’s strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls, is part of a wider strategy to prevent violence against women and girls (Scottish Government, 2017). Among the report’s priority actions is the intention to ‘investigate how consent is taught within early years’, as well as in primary and secondary schools – a notion that’s been met with alarm.

Asked for the rationale behind the strategy, a Scottish Government spokesperson explains: ‘The Equally safe plan sets out a far-reaching agenda that aims to eradicate violence against women and girls. This includes measures that are designed to help both boys and girls learn about the importance of consent and healthy relationships, and how to access support services should they need to. In his response to the Education and Skills Committee report on PSE in July 2017, the deputy first minister set out the scope of the PSE review. This included gathering information on how the issue of sexual consent is taught, which the committee highlighted as not being adequately covered in schools.’

Dr Stuart Waiton, senior lecturer in sociology at Abertay University, is among those who vehemently oppose the plans in relation to under-fives. ‘What we are witnessing in the suggestion that even two-year-olds get consent classes is not a reaction to anything new about children but would more accurately be seen as a panic about personal relationships – a panic that has been assisted by a brand of feminism that projects the idea that all women and girls are “vulnerable” and all intimate relationships are potentially dangerous,’ he says. ‘It would not be too far off the mark to see this new ideology as a form of puritanism.’

However, the government spokesperson insisted that early years and primary schools would not teach consent ‘in a sexual context’ and instead use ‘age-appropriate methods around what constitutes a healthy relationship between individuals’, including ‘communication, trust, mutual respect and asking permission’. A combination of childcare professionals, teachers and school nurses ‘will be responsible for teaching consent’ alongside parents, they added.


Too much, too young?

Perhaps the first question should be whether it is even possible – let alone necessary – for children to understand the concept of consent in the early years. Not in a sexual context, according to consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron, whose work covers emotional, social, behavioural and mental health at all ages.

‘When it comes to sexual consent, we can start those discussions from about Years 5 and 6 of primary school [nine to 11 years old],’ says Emma. ‘I’d be very uncomfortable doing it before then because I don’t think children have the emotional or knowledge maturity to understand. And I think the general word on the block from psychologists would be that even the conversation about inappropriate, uncomfortable touching doesn’t start in the under-fives. I think it starts in the over-fives, and then in a very gentle way. Otherwise, all you’re going to do is potentially raise the anxiety for children.’

However, Melanie Pilcher, quality and standards manager at the Pre-school Learning Alliance, believes introducing the idea of consent in the early years makes sense. ‘Early years is the perfect time for children to start learning about positive relationships, and consent falls under that,’ she explains. ‘But, because most two-year-olds would struggle to grasp the specific concept of consent, practitioners should focus on ensuring that children learn right from wrong, mix and share with other children, value others’ views and challenge negative attitudes and stereotypes.’

In the early years foundation stage framework – which sets standards for learning, development and care from birth to five years old – Melanie explains that consent falls under the early learning goal of personal, social and emotional development. ‘It focuses on children’s self-confidence and awareness, managing feelings and behaviour, and making relationships. These are the three prime areas that build children’s capacity to form relationships and thrive,’ she says.

The NSPCC is more direct in its approach. Its Talk PANTS campaign comprises five rules: 

  • Privates are private
  • Always remember your body belongs to you
  • No means no
  • Talk about secrets that upset you
  • Speak up, someone can help.

Initially aimed at encouraging parents and carers of five- to 11-year-olds to have simple conversations with their children that can help keep them safe from sexual abuse, the materials were so warmly received that the NSPCC decided they should also be speaking to three- to five-year-olds. The materials are designed to help parents, carers and professionals start simple conversations at appropriate opportunities, without mentioning abuse or even sex. 

‘Feedback from parents has shown how useful Talk PANTS can be when having conversations with children at a younger age,’ says an NSPCC spokesperson. ‘The resources are designed to be used from the age of three in early years and childcare settings with the support of parents.’ 

But despite the target age being lowered to three, the charity suggests four is the optimum age for teaching the PANTS rules: ‘We know from thousands of parents that four is an age where children tend to be receptive to the messages,’ the spokesperson explains. ‘Research told us that parents of four-year-olds were just as likely to talk to their children as parents of five-year-olds, and because many children start school aged four, the summer before was [considered] a good “prompt” to have the conversation.’ 

Others too believe parents and carers should be instilling consent, as more of a general concept, but from an even younger age. Cathy Williams, a mother and baby massage expert, teaches parents to ‘always ask consent of babies’ before massaging them by identifying various physical cues, while SNP MP Alison Thewliss recently told the House of Commons: ‘If you’re tickling a child and they say stop, you stop. That’s teaching consent to very young children.’ But Dr Waiton says this represents ‘another example of the professionalisation of parenting’ and ‘something that can undermine parental confidence or ability to trust their own judgement’.

Sex education: across the UK

A look across the four nations appears to highlight a general lack of structure and failure to bring guidance up to date with the threats and challenges of the modern world, whatever age the messages start...

Sex and relationships education (SRE) is not compulsory, but new guidance was introduced in 2014. The responsibility for how the guidelines are implemented falls on schools and local authorities, and parents have the right to withdraw their children from sex education lessons. How consent is being taught is part of a wider review.

In March 2017, the government announced plans to introduce compulsory SRE in all secondary schools and bring relationships education into primary schools from 2019. 

While relationship and sexuality education (RSE) is already compulsory, the education system is heavily tied to religion and lessons must fall in line with the ethos of the school. Each school must have a written policy on how it will sensitively and age-appropriately deliver RSE. 

In December 2017, a report by the SRE Expert Panel found ‘significant gaps’ between young people’s experiences and what they are taught in school and found SRE was ‘often too biological, too negative’, with a lack of focus on rights, equality, emotions and relationships (Welsh Government, 2017).

What education?

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are currently no plans to review PSE in pre-schools, as there are in Scotland.

Elsewhere in the UK, however, calls have long been made to overhaul sex and relationships education (SRE) in primary and secondary schools and bring it up to date with the modern, digital world in which sexting and online pornography provide additional threats and challenges to children. This comes as Roary Pownall, Ofsted national lead for personal, social, health and economic education, claimed: ‘The availability of technology is shaping boys’ attitudes to women, and boys’ expectations of what women can and should do.’ And yet of the four UK nations, only Northern Ireland currently has statutory relationship and sexuality education – though its delivery remains at the discretion of schools. 

In England, although the Department for Education (DfE) last year announced plans to make SRE compulsory in all schools from 2019, the guidance around delivering it has not been updated for 18 years. A long-overdue consultation on how to update the guidance closed in February, with the results to be published ‘in due course’ at the time of going to press. A DfE spokesperson said: ‘The updated guidance will support schools in delivering the new subjects of relationships education at primary and relationships and sex education at secondary.’ (See box, left, for Sex education across the UK.)

Formal curriculums and age suggestions aside, there’s the view that cultural differences may be having an impact on how we talk about sex with children. Could the age-old notion of British prudishness be acting as a barrier? In a blog for the New Statesman, human and women’s rights activist Jinan Younis writes: ‘Rather than attempting to ban pornography, we need to focus on teaching children what consent means in the digital age – and we need to start young. 

‘It’s time to stop being prudish and worrying about protecting our children’s “innocence” and start looking at their experiences.’ She goes on to say that ‘our lack of sex education means we can’t protect them’ (Younis, 2017).

Emma has also seen evidence of distinct cultural differences in the way sex education is delivered. ‘I recently spoke at a conference with the BBC and other broadcasters around Europe about the education of our youngsters when it comes to abuse, how we portray it in the media and how such topics should be approached,’ she explains. ‘In Norway and Sweden they show little models on TV for very young children, even of the sexual act. But culturally, the BBC representatives were horrified about this. [The reaction was:] “That may be fine in Scandinavia but that would not be acceptable in our media outlets.”’


More than consent

Could it be that by focusing too much on sexual consent, the wider issues at play are being neglected? ‘In some of the discussions surrounding consent, the impression is given that consent is the ultimate litmus test to determine whether or not sexual activity involving children and young people is legitimate or not, but there is far more to it than that,’ says Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust. He has already spoken out against the Scottish Government’s proposed investigations in pre-school settings. ‘The giving and receiving of consent does not necessarily make an action right, or even legal,’ he continues. ‘As the government’s definition of child sexual exploitation acknowledges, a child or young person “may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual”.’ 

‘There are so many discussions to be had,’ agrees Emma. ‘I think getting hooked on the consent issue is almost reducing women’s sexual experiences down to “sex or no sex”, which I feel very uncomfortable with.

In the case of the mother calling for a ban on Sleeping Beauty, Emma believes she had ‘a fair point. She [the princess] did not consent to that kiss.’

She adds: ‘I don’t think we can get away with these themes anymore; I think they’re outdated, much like the Formula 1 grid girls and page 3 of The Sun. There are a lot of messages that can be changed.’

In the early years, the correct approach is surely to listen to and respect children’s wishes, Melanie Pilcher asserts. ‘It’s not about asking permission but reinforcing the idea that a child has the right to say “no”, whether they are communicating verbally or non-verbally.’

Emma believes that asking children whether we can cuddle them or hold their hand isn’t actually about teaching consent. ‘What it teaches is that we listen to our children – even our very young children – and that they have a voice that can be heard,’ she says. ‘They get to decide, they are agents in their life – and that’s a very important thing.’

The NSPCC concedes that the age for starting such conversations as those covered by its Talk PANTS resources should remain at the discretion of the parent or carer. ‘This is a judgement call rather than us giving a prescriptive age,’ says the charity’s spokesperson. ‘Some children will be able to take the messages in when they’re three, while others will need to be older. How and when is your [the parent/carer’s] choice — after all, you know them better than anyone.’

Perhaps some of the differing views on teaching the concept of sexual consent to pre-school children in fact share some similar ideas – at least in ensuring children know they have a voice. And in that perhaps it would be helpful to understand that consent is not the only element of healthy sexual behaviour.


For more information on the NSPCC Talk PANTS resources for three-to five-year-olds, see bit.ly/Talk_PANTS_3_to_5

Find out more about sex education: see sexeducationforum.org.uk (a member organisation working to achieve quality sex and relationships education), pshe-association.org.uk (the national body for personal, social, health and economic education), and sexpression.org.uk (an independent charity led by university students that empowers young people to make decisions about sex and relationships).


British Humanist Association. (2017) Healthy, happy, safe? An investigation into how PSHE and SRE are inspected in English schools. See: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017-01-25-FINAL-Healthy-Happy-Safe.pdf (accessed 11 February 2018).

Office for National Statistics. (2017) User requested data: proportion of adults who experienced sexual assault during childhood (before the age of 16) by type of sexual assault and age, year ending March 2016 CSEW. See: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/adhocs/006941proportionofadultswhoexperiencedsexualassaultduringchildhoodbeforetheageof16bytypeofsexualassaultandageyearendingmarch2016csew (accessed 11 February 2018).

Scottish Government. (2017) Equally safe: a delivery plan for Scotland’s strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls. See: http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0052/00528064.pdf (accessed 11 February 2018).

Sex Education Forum. (2014) Parents support sex and relationships education at primary school. See: http://www.sexeducationforum.org.uk/policy-campaigns/parents-want-sre.aspx (accessed 11 February 2018).

Tanton C, Jones KG, Macdowall W, et al. (2015) Patterns and trends in sources of information about sex among young people in Britain: evidence from three National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. BMJ Open, 5:e007834. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-007834. See: http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/5/3/e007834 (accessed 11 February 2018).

Welsh Government. (2017) The future of the sex and relationships education curriculum in Wales: recommendations of the sex and relationships education expert panel. See: http://gov.wales/docs/dcells/publications/180104-future-of-the-sex-and-relationships-education-curriculum-in-wales-en.pdf (accessed 25 February 2018).

Younis J. (2017) We need compulsory sex education in primary schools to tackle child-on-child abuse. New Statesman [online]. See: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/education/2017/10/we-need-compulsory-sex-education-primary-schools-tackle-child-child-abuse (accessed 11 February 2018).

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