COMMENT: Consent and respect should be cornerstone of relationships

Kirsten Han
A screenshot of the pages from the Focus on the Family booklets (Agatha Tan's Facebook)

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.

It is alarming that the curriculum of the Focus on the Family (FotF) relationship workshop was vetted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), and made it through. Both the Ministry of Education (MOE) and MSF now say that they will review feedback, but how did such a curriculum get approved in the first place?

In reaching out to young adults, FotF decided to perpetuate clumsy stereotypes, portraying women as emotional and hungry for love while men “need respect” and “feel neither the ability nor the responsibility to stop the sexual progression” with their partner. It is also suggested to participants that women don’t always mean what they say – perhaps “no means yes”?

This could not be any more different from the workshop I was recently involved in. Run by AWARE, it focused on consent in social settings, as well as equal relationships. We worked with young adults around the same age as the Hwa Chong Institution students who had sat through FotF’s workshop.

We emphasised the importance of consent from all parties when engaging in any activity, not just sex. We talked about how it was important to listen to each other, and to respect a person’s decision – no means no, and only yes means yes. We also looked at equal relationships, and how such relationships can be built upon mutual trust and respect (certainly not telling women that men “don’t want a girlfriend that questions their opinions and argues with their decisions all the time”!)

These are important messages that people – not just students or young adults – need to hear. We need to reaffirm the existence of equal relationships, as well as respect for each other’s choices. We need to remove the lazy excuses that get deployed in rape culture, excuses of the “oh, she said no but I knew she didn’t mean it!” variety.

If, as a defender of the FotF workshop puts it, the gender stereotypes “apply to a majority of the people that were attending the workshop”, then that is something we should examine and work towards eliminating, rather than regurgitating the same old harmful gender roles. 

Placing consent and respect in the centre of our discourse on sexuality and relationships can help us tackle these problems, rather than perpetuating them.