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Are Tea and Consent Simple?
The first time I watched the Tea Consent video in 2017, I was struck by its brilliant simplicity. The three-minute, animated video compares initiating sex to offering someone a cup of tea. The video uses gentle humour to highlight the absurdity of expecting someone to have sex just because they agree to go on a date, for example, or of assuming that it’s okay to have sex with someone who’s unconscious. At the end of the video, the dryly sarcastic narrator asks, “If you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea [...], then how hard is it to understand it when it comes to sex?”
Since it was released by Blue Seat Studios in 2015, the video has had over 150 million views across multiple platforms. It has become ubiquitous in North American high school and post-secondary classes and workshops. And with good reason: the animated short identifies some of the salient components of affirmative consent, the paradigm that now informs most North American post-secondary sexual violence policies and prevention programming. According to this model, consent must be affirmative, enthusiastic, communicated verbally, and continuous; consent cannot be given by someone who is asleep or unconscious.
At just under three minutes, the short, accessible video is a versatile teaching tool, fitting easily into various delivery methods and resonating with diverse audiences. The tea analogy educates viewers about sexual violence in a coded way, making it easier to engage with potentially explicit or distressing content. As a sexual violence prevention educator, I have used the Tea Consent video in numerous post-secondary workshops because it is concise and engaging.
However, the ubiquity of the Tea Consent video has recently started to concern me. By announcing that consent is “simple as tea,” the video glosses over the complexities of power, privilege, and socialization that constitute sexual conduct. In the effort to make consent accessible, the video may inhibit urgent conversations about a nuanced issue and, if engaged with uncritically, perpetuates some of the social scripts that we, as educators, are working so hard to disrupt.
For example, by positing a singular initiator of sex, the video reproduces the active-passive binary that structures traditional norms around sexual engagement (which are usually gendered male-female but also hinge upon other social locators such as race, religion, or class). In this view, one person is posited as the active initiator and the other as the relatively passive gatekeeper whose role is to accept or decline the offer. Theorists such as Rebecca Kukla have proposed alternate approaches to sexual engagement which recognize that ethical sexual relationships are more reciprocal and dialogical.
One of the most problematic aspects of the video though is the omission of power dynamics. One of the standard components of affirmative consent (and indeed of legal definitions of sexual assault in Canada) is that consent cannot be obtained when a person occupies a position of power, trust, or authority over another. (This clause is also included in SFU’s Sexual Violence and Misconduct Prevention, Education and Support Policy.) This component is crucial because it recognizes that people in formal positions of power may exercise their influence to pressure or coerce others into compliance. And individuals who hold less power in a relationship may not feel able to decline or resist sexual advances. The narratives of the women victimized by the former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar or by Harvey Weinstein are only some of many examples of this kind of abuse of power and trust.
But the discussion of power and privilege must go beyond formal positions of power or authority. To get at the root of sexual violence, we must address the social factors that normalize sexual victimization, both at the interpersonal and systemic levels. An intersectional perspective is needed to see how power plays out at the interpersonal level, according to people’s various social identities. Writers such as Gemma Hartley have illuminated how women are socially conditioned to prioritize the needs and emotions of others over their own. The result of this is that young women, especially, often comply with activities that they don’t really want to do, out of a desire to protect other people’s feelings or to keep the peace. Vulnerable populations, such as immigrants or refugees, may remain in abusive or coercive relationships because they depend upon the individuals for material survival. Systemic racism and intergenerational trauma make Indigenous women three times more likely to experience sexual assault than non-Indigenous women. The Tea Consent video attributes sexual violence to an individual failure of understanding, instead of contextualizing it within social scripts that empower some and disempower others.
My final criticism of the Tea Consent video is the lack of intercultural awareness. By claiming that the serving of tea is “simple”, the video disregards the often elaborate social practices around the preparation, offering, and consumption of tea in various cultures—and the power dynamics that often underpin them. The sex-tea analogy is apt, if we view both sex and tea as social rituals embedded in larger cultural narratives of class, power, and gender. A more expansive, intercultural perspective would also create space for people of diverse backgrounds to engage with the concept of affirmative consent in a way that is personally meaningful.
Admittedly, I am being somewhat unfair in my criticism of the Tea Consent video. My concern is not so much with the video itself, but with how it is often used by educators. Instead of relying upon it as a short-hand to teach the basics of affirmative consent, we should engage critically with the Tea Consent video to open up much-needed discussions about the complexities of sex and power. Because neither sex nor tea is really that simple.
The SVSPO holds an annual Consent Matters campaign at SFU & FIC that takes place in mid-September and mid-May each year. This campaign aims to raise awareness about sexual violence by educating the SFU & FIC community on the definition of consent, why consent matters, how to practice consent and boundaries, sexual violence supports and resources available. To learn more about Consent Matters, click here. Several workshops on consent and sexual violence education are also available to request for your team, group, or class here.
About the author: Belinda Karsen is the Educational Specialist with the Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office.