Harry Styles shows how sexy, normal and attractive consent can be. It gives me hope

How delightful – and if I’m honest, unexpected – that a man in a position of such power took the time to make sure everyone around him was having as much fun as he was

Lizzy Dening
Wednesday 20 May 2020 07:16 BST
Harry Styles performs Juice with Lizzo

Harry Styles has been called many things by fans over the years (many unprintable), but his new nickname sets him apart: the "Consent King". The moniker came as a result of an Instagram Live session, featuring Ephrata, a model from his Watermelon Sugar video shoot, who has described Styles’ respectful attitude. She said: "The people were telling him to touch my hair and play with it and he was like, 'Wait, wait, wait, pause — can I even touch your hair? Is that even okay?' And I was like ‘Yeah, that’s so nice. That was really sweet.'"

Respect begets respect, and the model repeated his gesture when asked to kiss him in another scene: "I felt like I had to ask, too. I was like 'Are you sure?' and he was like 'Yes, go ahead!'" She went on to label him the "Consent King", and described the comfortable, relaxed atmosphere of the day.

How delightful – and if I’m honest, unexpected – that a man in a position of such power took the time to make sure everyone around him was having as much fun as he was. Sexual rights campaigners have long been told by a certain type of person that asking for consent “spoils the moment”, is “unsexy” or “awkward”. Watching Styles and other beautiful people cavorting in swimwear across a sunny beach, this argument loses traction somewhat.

It’s the second time in the past month that healthy consent has had a high profile airing, with Normal People being lauded as an example of how simple it can be. The scene in question involves central characters Marianne and Connell having sex for the first time, and shows the pair checking in with each other repeatedly (“Is that Ok?” “Does it hurt?”) No one watching the steamy series could possibly argue that these gentle prompts undermined the characters’ lust.

There is, according to author and editor Jaclyn Friedman, who writes about sexual violence, a growing sense of relief for young people in the idea of “yes means yes” consent. Also known as “affirmative consent”, it means that a freely-given “yes” is legally all that counts – silence cannot be regarded as implicit consent – and it’s become a mandatory standard across numerous US college campuses. In a 2015 article for The Washington Post, Friedman explains that such a simple rule makes both young women and men feel much more relaxed about sex.

Interviewing survivors of sexual violence for my website Survivor Stories has demonstrated to me the need for deliberately seeking consent. Many of the survivors I’ve spoken to have initially blamed themselves on some level, as they remained frozen, unable to speak, and they did not give their consent by any stretch of the imagination. The need for both parties to legally ask for verbal consent might or might not prevent sexual violence from taking place, but would at least help survivors clearly classify what happened to them as “rape” much earlier, and perhaps enable them to seek help.

Both Harry Styles and Normal People are great examples of how easy it can be. Asking for consent for any act, whether sexual or, like Styles, in a professional context, doesn’t mean asking for written confirmation and getting a lawyer to read it over – it can be playful, gentle, even sexy (a simple “Do you like that?” will go a long way.) There’s really no excuse anymore.

In the wake of #Metoo it’s easy to feel disappointed and angry at the actions of innumerable men in power. It can seem that almost anyone you’ve admired has been using their power to subjugate others. While it’s perhaps never healthy to idolise celebrities, who are, of course, human and fallible, seeing Harry Styles openly caring about a woman’s consent in such a casual and charming manner gives me hope that the next generation of men has the potential to be better.

I have long considered Styles to be the thinking woman’s One Direction crush; now his stance on consent has me convinced.

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