Healthy relationships: Gender, power and consent
Most people’s lives are primarily defined by the relationships they have - personal and occupational, social, formal and informal, close and intimate or acquaintances. Relationships can be between people from different countries, different cultures, the opposite sex or the same sex. They can be can be long-term and last a lifetime, or they can be short-term.
What is a healthy relationship?
Healthy relationships are often referred to as being ‘respectful relationships’ or ‘ethical relationships’ or even a ‘good relationship’. No matter what type of relationship it is - family, friends, work mates, sporting partners, neighbours, fellow students, teachers, acquaintances, boyfriends, girlfriends - a respectful relationship typically exhibits characteristics of:
Respect - mutual feelings of regard; sense of feeling affirmed and safe
Communication - really listening, hearing and being heard; understanding; being able to say no
Trust – feeling trust and being trusted
Equality – freely making your own choices
Professional or formal relationships are often guided by codes of conduct but in the personal and social realm there is a wide variety of approaches to relationships. Generally, the closer or more intimate the relationship, the more crucial the ‘healthy relationship’ characteristics become.
The best way for a person to know and understand what close and intimate relationships are ‘right’ for them is to firstly know themselves and the limits and boundaries for each type of relationship in their life.
Knowing yourself and what you want gives the best start for the development of a healthy and respectful relationship because it also helps thinking and communicating. Clarity about values, culture, beliefs, other important relationships, experiences, spirituality, thoughts and feelings are part of a person coming to ‘know’ himself or herself. Knowing what is important, what they feel strongly about, what dreams and aspirations they have and what makes them unique all help.
Similarly, knowing their physical, emotional, spiritual or sexual limits and boundaries they wish not to cross, will help a person make the best decisions, as well as help keep them safer.
Obviously, everyone is not the same. What might be important to one person and what their ‘limits’ are may be quite different to someone else. Educating about knowledge of self and respect for self as well as respecting that others may be different from you is a powerful support for young people in learning about healthy relationships.
Good communication is possibly the most important element of a relationship and only happens when it is genuinely a two-way process – talking and listening for both. Good communication can be difficult but is worth persisting with to keep relationships healthy and positive.
Adapted from: Respectful Relationships fact sheet, Sexual Assault Resource Centre
Gender and relationships
It is difficult to generalise about gender, sexuality and the implications for safe behaviours and positive sexuality, however, successful school programs acknowledge and take account of this area.
Understanding particular gender expectations on relationships, sexuality and safe sex, for example, includes challenging beliefs that males cannot control their sexual urges and consequently can’t be expected to take responsibility for contraception. It also includes addressing the strong and inequitable attitude that females should take primary responsibility in suggesting the use of condoms for instance.
Research shows that gender issues for young men often includes a reluctance to communicate about personal feelings. It also suggests that not taking responsibility for contraception and other safe sex practices limits their possibilities of developing equal, respectful and supportive relationships. Challenging young men’s perceptions of masculinity and traditional femininity is a critical stage in their general education, but particularly important in relationship and sexual health education.
Power, gender, cultural and social attitudes
It is helpful for teachers to have an understanding of gender and power in relationships, and how cultural and social beliefs about gender are established and communicated.
Power - Differences in ‘power’ are a fundamental aspect of gender relationships and central to a young person’s sexual behaviour. An example of ‘gender power’ in operation can be found in the analysis of the inconsistent use of condoms by young sexually active people. Examining power and inequality in relationships is an essential part of sexual health education and will also help advocate and promote the use of condoms to prevent pregnancy, STIs and BBVs.
Attitudes - Discriminatory attitudes need to be discussed. For example, the typically negative attitudes and put-downs aimed at young women who make a choice to be sexually active. Providing an opportunity for young males to discuss the knowledge and skills needed to become full and equal partners in their relationships is also useful. Assertiveness is not just a skill to assist young women to say "no" to unwanted sexual advances, it might also mean that that she can say “yes, I want, I feel, I know this about myself”.
Gender, cultural and social beliefs - Adolescents experience gender, as well as peer group motivations for having sexual intercourse, which incidentally may also affect whether a condom is used. Young males are more likely to see intercourse as a way of establishing maturity and achieving social status but young women commonly see intercourse as a way of expressing their love or to achieve greater intimacy. Consequently, young males may end up having sex with someone who is a relative stranger, have a number of sexual partners and may be unable to separate sex from love.
Cultural norms of romantic love are also important determinants of how men and women communicate and behave in intimate relationships. Young women place a greater level of trust in relationships because of their cultural and gender view that sex is about romance and love. The risk is they misplace their trust and operate through ‘rose-coloured’ glasses and end up in an unhappy or potentially exploitive relationship. Given young men’s cultural and perhaps stereotypical attitude to sexual relationships, relying on trust is considered an unsafe strategy.
Consent and sex
Consensual sex is when both parties are of legal age, agree to engage in sexual intercourse by choice, and have the freedom and capacity to make that choice. This means agreeing to sexual relations without fear, coercion, force or intimidation. Giving consent is active, not passive. It means freely choosing to say “yes” and also being free to change your mind at any time.
In Western Australia, the legal age for males and females to consent to sexual activity is 16 years. Having sex with someone under 16 years of age is a crime.
It is also a crime to have a sexual relationship with someone under 18 years where there is a relationship of authority; for example, a teacher with a student or an employer with an employee.
Regardless of age, if someone has been unable to give consent to sexual relations and they have taken place, it is a crime. People unable to give consent are those who are:
- have a psychological or decision-making disability that impacts on their ability to understand what they are consenting to.
Some such scenarios are:
“I’ve been going out with this guy for a few months. He wanted me to have sex with him, but I wasn’t ready. He started to shout and get really angry. I gave into him because I was so scared.”
“I was at a party and had too much to drink. I fell asleep on a spare bed. I woke up with someone I didn’t know having sex with me.”
Neither of these people consented!
Adapted from: Consent, Sexual Assault Resource Centre