Talking Consent authors Pete and Thalia Wallis discuss how their book can facilitate difficult but necessary conversations with young people.
Can you briefly outline your background?
Thalia Wallis is a relational psychotherapist. She also has over ten years’ experience supporting distressed, vulnerable, and traumatized young people in various settings – including education and criminal justice (with both those who have been harmed by crime, those who have caused the harm, and parents/carers who have been impacted by their children’s experiences).
Pete Wallis is a senior practitioner working in youth justice. He is also a founding member of the charity SAFE!, support for young people affected by crime.Additionally, Pete has written and co-written several books on restorative justice and related topics.
Thalia is Pete’s daughter and was invited to co-author their first graphic novel together: What Does Consent Really Mean? Aimed at teenagers, this first novel explores myths and taboos surrounding consent from the perspective of a group of teenage friends discussing their experiences and opinions. Talking Consent further elaborates on the themes explored in What Does Consent Really Mean and is aimed at assisting schools, professionals and parents/ carers in having more open, healthy and necessary conversations with young people about porn, sex, relationships, social media, power & control, communication and other topics related to consent.
What was the initial inspiration behind Talking Consent?
We all know that young people are naturally curious about sex and relationships. Both the authors of ‘Talking Consent’ have extensive experience working in schools, and the book came about as a kind of ‘call to action’ to provide a resource that covered the topics young people asked the most about, and knew the least about.
We also know that the best way to manage increases in sexual violence is through prevention. However, many adults don’t find it easy to talk to children about sex, consent and porn. Our inspiration in creating this resource is to bridge this gap, so that young people have safe, appropriate adults that they can speak to about consent, and adults feel more equipped and empowered to initiate, respond or engage in these discussions.
Therefore, we wanted to take action – and invite others to join us – to ensure that young people are exposed to healthy and educational conversations as a way of balancing the impact the worlds of porn and social media can have on young people’s view of sex and relationships. One of the big protective factors for later issues associated with porn exposure is adults talking to children about porn, sex and consent. The bottom line is: exposure to explicit adult material, when combined with good relationships and sex education, is far less damaging than exposure to explicit material alone. As one of our young people put it “learning about sex from porn is like learning how to fly a plane on Youtube.”
With Covid-19, a lot of parents are home schooling (many for the first time). How can parents benefit from and use Talking Consent in a home school environment?
Many young people inform us they wouldn’t feel able to speak to adults about these topics because they’re “so out of touch” and “wouldn’t get it.” The influence of social media and the increasing percentage of the relational world being online, especially during Covid-19, has likely exaggerated this generation gap. Talking Consent aims to provide resources, tips and techniques to bridge it.
Further, we aim to empower adults, giving them the confidence to overcome their anxiety and embarrassment and broach difficult topics. Talking Consent is about opening up conversations – and what better opportunity to get curious and try and understand young people their world than through home education.
A long time ago, before Covid-19 had a name, author Thalia Wallis was a home-schooled kid herself. Through conversations and role modelling, she learnt a huge amount about consent from her parents, including how to read body language, how to listen to and interpret her own physical sensations and use this information to make choices. She was also taught that positive relationships and sexual experiences are based on trust, communication, respect, exploration and enjoyment for everyone involved. Talking Consent builds on all these themes and provides exercises and activities for adults to try with their children, to instil and reinforce the messages that
- We are in control of our own bodies.
- Everyone can make decisions that feel right to us (and others).
- We have a right to change our minds
The principles of respect and communication can be rooted in young people whether we are discussing sex or not, and we encourage parents and carers to get curious and experiment with different ways of approaching these topics with their children!
Sex ed can be an awkward subject to tackle. Do you have any advice for parents and teachers struggling to get over that awkwardness?
We know that adults don’t find it easy to talk to children about relationships, sex, consent and porn, and some actively avoid these topics because they are concerned about exposing children to this world too early. In reality 94% of young people have seen explicit material online by the age of 14, and as many as 1 in 10 visitors to porn sites is under the age of 10.
Our advice to adults who feel embarrassed, awkward or disempowered in having these conversations is:
Get curious – you don’t have to broach this subject in a formal ‘let’s sit down and talk about the birds and the bees’ way – you can use fun, interactive exercises to explore these topics together. For example, many of our workshops begin with statements to debate, such as ‘the age of consent should be changed’, ‘if you love someone you should have sex with them’ and ‘it’s ok to change your mind’ – they help open up difficult conversations and send young people the message that ‘it’s ok to talk about these things here’.
Listen – try and respectfully challenge and confront harmful attitudes and beliefs in a non-shaming, non-judgmental way. The more you understand where young people are coming from, the more they will trust you, and the easier having these conversations will be.
It’s OK to not know – the conversation about consent is rapidly changing and the important things is opening up the discussion. Not knowing can be an opportunity for you and the young people you’re supporting to explore the answers together.
It’s OK to acknowledge that it’s awkward and embarrassing. This role models authenticity and courage to young people and can empower them to try out having difficult conversations with you, as well as with each other – result!
Use ‘teachable moments’ – you can comment on things you see and hear (e.g. tv, radio, social media, music lyrics, etc) and start a conversation about it with young people. The more you attempt to open up conversations related to consent the more normalised and less awkward they will end up being.
Remember that the risk of not having these conversations is greater than the risk of having them – no matter how much you want to dig a hole and sink into it. Young people are exposed to this world already, and the more balance and influence we can bring to their attitudes and opinions, the healthier they are likely to be.
What were some of your favourite workshops to design? What do you ultimately hope young people will take away from that workshop?
I love the first workshop ‘What Does Consent Really Mean’ – I’ve delivered it time and time again to groups of young people who grapple with the concepts and case studies enthusiastically, and get loads out of it. It really opens up some juicy conversations and enables young people to hear each other’s views on a difficult topic, often for the first time.
Having said that, some of my favourite workshops are the ones exploring Personal Space, Communication, Resilience, Self-Esteem and Body Image. I think they help young people build the skills and self-awareness needed to have positive, respectful relationships, such as understanding boundaries, feeling important, confident and valued, and knowing that’s it’s ok to assert themselves and ask for what they need. I think these sorts of conversations and skills are the building blocks that young people need to put the rest of the concepts into practice.
And of course the workshop exploring positive sexuality is great – we want young people to develop an understanding of positive sexual behaviour, both with themselves and with others, so that when they develop intimate relationships they are not only respectful and safe, but also playful, loving and fulfilling.
Are there any additional resources you recommend for parents or teachers?
Take a look at these websites which have useful resources:
- The charity SAFE! has developed a series of videos created by teenagers for teenagers. They explore issues such as sexting, online gambling and online abuse. www.safestories.org
- NCA-CEOP offers an education programme called Thinkuknow. Resources explore the risks children and young people face online, including a film that addresses sexting issues called ‘First to a Million’; www.thinkuknow.co.uk www.thinkuknow.co.uk/professionals/resources/first-to-a-millio
- The Sex Education Forum has produced an e-magazine on teaching about pornography. www.sexeducationforum.org.uk/resources/sex-educational-supplement.aspx
- Farrer & Co have created a peer-on-peer abuse toolkit in collaboration with Dr. Carlene Firmin which offers practical guidance for schools on how to prevent, identify early and respond appropriately to peer-on-peer abuse. www.farrer.co.uk/news-and-insights/peer-on-peer-abuse-toolkit
- Media Smart has developed a set of teachers’ notes and a lesson plan on body image. It introduces the connection between the media and young people’s perceptions of body image. https://mediasmart.uk.com
- Australian parenting site Raisingchildren.net.au has some interesting ideas on media and its influences. www.raisingchildren.net.au
- The Council for Disabled Children has produced a booklet for parents of children and young people with disabilities in relation to sex education.https://councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/import/
 Sellgren, K. (2016) ‘Pornography “desensitising young people”.’ BBC News. Accessed on 4/2/2020 at www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36527681
 Fight the New Drug (2018) ‘One in 10 visitors to hardcore porn sites is under 10 years old, study shows.’ Accessed on 4/2/2020 at https://fightthenewdrug.org/data-says-one-in-10-visitors-to-porn-sites-are-under-10-years-old