by Jess Howard

You would think that consent is a straightforward issue. If someone does not want to have sex with you, or is not able to tell you they want to have sex with you, then don’t have sex with them. Period. But, sadly, this is not always the case, and there is often a haze and grey area around the issue. So, to clear up any confusion, a number of artists have taken to drawing step by step analogies about the issue, in attempts to make it as clear as possible. But my question is: are we reducing a dangerous issue to nothing more than a doodle?

Yes, 2015 was the year of the sexual consent cartoon. From artist Alli Kirkham came the illustrated consent cartoon strip. Frustrated with the number of instances of confusion and victim blaming, Kirkham used her illustration to compare sexual consent to any other form of consent, from tattoos to preparing breakfast. In addition to this, the internet was also flooded with a viral video last year, in which the issue was compared to a cup of tea. Featuring animated stick figures, the simple message of both illustrations was explicitly clear: no means no – and no one is under any obligation to engage in any activity if they do not want to.

( © Alli Kirkham )

( © Alli Kirkham )

In the twenty-first century western world, our primary method of communication is via the internet. Facebook, Twitter, Skype – we are constantly looking to communicate with each other or share information via smart phone, computer or a tablet.  This is one of the reasons why these illustrations are so effective: images and videos can easily be shared online, allowing information to be immediately passed around. Quite often, the simple act of sharing a video can make people more inclined to view it. If we see it appear on a Facebook news feed or tweet, we may watch it just to see what everyone else is talking about, but this is also where these images can become problematic. I myself learned about the video from being told by a friend to watch it because it was funny, not because it was highlighting a serious issue. If people are watching them just to laugh, are we reducing consent to a funny Internet joke?

It is possible to suggest that to incite laughter is to trivialise. If we turn something into a joke we immediately lose the power of the message behind the words or illustrations. What’s more, if someone has been affected first hand by an issue raised in one of these images, how are they likely to feel knowing that something that has influenced their life so significantly has been reduced to an analogy as simple as drinking tea? And finally, are they really going to work? When it comes down to it, how many people are likely to remember the comparisons between having sex and drinking tea when they are about to engage in sexual activity?


However, on the other hand, simply being repeatedly exposed to the information, in any way, shape or form, could allow it to become ingrained in our memories. As a child I vividly remember a road safety advert featuring two singing hedgehogs. It’s years since I have seen the advert itself, but the message about road safety is still clear in my mind, and has become second nature to me.

Whilst, clearly, there is much more to be done to clarify the issue of consent, and I understand the idea behind the simplicity of both illustrations, I feel the crude nature of some of the content does not clarify what a serious role consent plays in engaging in sexual activity. Though highlighting the simplicity of the issue may make it easier for people to understand, and the medium making it easier to spread around and thus reach more people, I don’t personally know how I feel about turning the issue of consent into something as basic as a crude cartoon video.

are we reducing a dangerous issue to nothing more than a doodle?

To me, the messages sent by the two components of the illustrations just don’t sit comfortably. I would argue that a simple way of making the video more suitable would to have made it in a more artistically skilled and less crude manner, giving such a sensitive topic, and those that have been affected by the issue of consent, far more respect.

Featured image © Emmeline May; Blue Seat Studios

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