This well known resource is actually not effective for teaching consent. Here’s why.
Victorian schools have been teaching consent to varying degrees for a while now, but in 2021 the testimonies provided as part of the #TeachUsConsent movement highlighted that we still have a very long way. When it comes to teaching young people how to safely and respectfully navigate sexual consent, the testimonies show how much more work we need to be doing.
Off the back of the #TeachUsConsent movement, mandatory consent education was rolled out across Australia, which is a great development. However, the landscape of consent is constantly evolving, with expectations and laws around consent rapidly changing. In many of our discussions with recent high school graduates, we set out to get a snapshot of the consent education that young people received in their health and sex education classes. And we were blown away by the number of students who were still being taught consent via an almost decade-old resource, the Tea Consent video.
What is the Tea Consent video?
For those of you who haven’t come across this yet, the Tea Consent video came out in 2015, and the slightly different versions of it available have amassed over 20 million views combined.
The video uses the metaphor of making someone a cup of tea to try to explain sexual consent. And it’s not all bad. For example, the tea consent video gives an example of what enthusiastic consent looks like:
You say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they go “oh my god, I would LOVE a cup of tea! Thank you!” then you know they want a cup of tea.
The video also makes the point that no one should ever force anyone to drink tea, which is supposed to be a metaphor for the fact that no one should force another person to engage in any kind of sexual activity. Tea Consent talks about people having the right to change their mind and say no after you’ve already made them a cup of tea, which is supposed to suggest that people have the right to withdraw consent at any time. It mentions that you should never try to make anyone who is unconscious drink tea, touching on the fact that people can’t consent if they are not awake and aware. And it extends the tea metaphor to explain that you can’t assume someone is up for a certain sexual activity just because you’ve done that with them in the past.
They don’t want you to come around unexpectedly to their place and make them tea and force them to drink it going “BUT YOU WANTED TEA LAST WEEK!"
Eleonora remembers watching the Tea Consent video around the time it first came out and thinking that it was a great explanation of consent and boundaries. However, watching it again 8 years on, that view no longer stands, and the video really hasn’t aged well. There are several issues with the Tea Consent video that make it an inappropriate resource to teach consent in today’s context.
What’s wrong with the Tea Consent video?
Times have changed since 2015. While the Tea Consent video had its merits at the time, it is almost a decade old. We are now living in a post #MeToo world, where discussions and even laws around consent have evolved drastically worldwide as well as within Australia. We would be doing our young people a disservice as teachers to not update our understanding of consent along with our teaching resources. So what actually are the issues with the Tea Consent video?
The tea video reinforces a message of “no means yes”
One of the issues with outdated resources is that often even when they’re trying to send one message, they might inadvertently send another message altogether after time passes and perspectives change. Take example the following quote from the Tea Consent video:
If you say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they're like “um I’m not really sure…” then you can make them a cup of tea or not, but be aware that they might not drink it
If someone says they’re not sure, the advice shouldn’t be that you “can make them a cup of tea or not”, regardless of whether or not you’re aware that they might not drink it. To make this clearer, let’s remember for a moment that this is just a metaphor. I’m going to rewrite the advice above, but drop the metaphor and apply it to a situation relating to a sexual interaction or relationship. Let’s go with kissing for this one:
If you say “can I kiss you”, and your partner replies “um, I’m not really sure”, then you can kiss them or not, but be aware that they might not kiss you back”.
How does that sit with you? How does it feel when we drop the metaphor, and tell a young person that if they receive a non committal response from a partner, they can just have a go and see what happens?
And what is this young person supposed to do, in this scenario? Just start kissing their friend or partner without being kissed back, in the hopes that they might eventually start to reciprocate? How would that feel for the other person involved? Would they feel safe to say no, when someone is already latched on to their lips without them having said yes in the first place?
Victoria now has affirmative consent laws, which state that a person has not consented if they have not said or done anything to indicate their consent. By this definition of consent, statements such as “um, I’m not really sure”, “maybe later” and even “oh, I’d love to but not right now” do not constitute consent. So to make your partner a cup of tea, or kiss them, or engage in any kind of sexual activity when their response has not clearly indicated a yes, is not ok. If I were to tweak the line in the original Consent Tea video for a 2023 audience, it would go as follows:
If you say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they're like “um I’m not really sure…” then you should definitely not make them a cup of tea. Also, don’t ask them again. If they decide they want tea, just trust that they’ll let you know themselves.
‘Tea consent’ portrays a withdrawal of consent something to be bothered by
Another message that the Tea Consent video inadvertently sends is that when you ask someone whether they want something, you have the right to expect them to say yes - and to follow through no matter what. For example, the video describes a situation in which Person A offers Person B some tea, and Person B initially says yes. However once the tea arrives, Person B changes their mind and doesn’t want the tea at all. The video’s response to this is:
Sure, that’s kind of annoying as you've gone to all the effort of making the tea, but they remain under no obligation to drink the tea.
Should we really be teaching young people that when someone tells them they don’t want something, that’s annoying? Is it annoying for someone to stop you doing something that they really don’t want?
Not many young people realise the value in being told no. But if you stop and think about it, it’s really quite clear. Teenagers don’t want to make their friends or partner uncomfortable, or upset them, or lead them to doing something that they really don’t want to do. And they definitely can’t read people’s minds. Young people need to learn that when their partner tells them no, they are helping them to keep them feeling safe and comfortable. And that’s certainly not something to be annoyed about.
And to be fair to the Tea Consent video, there is a line that states:
…don’t get annoyed at them for not wanting tea
However, what use is this minor acknowledgement without proper explanation? Without the proper tools for what they should actually be doing when they hear a no, in order to make their partner feel safe and encourage further clear communication in the future?
The Tea Consent video leaves room for misinterpretation of the laws around consent
Quite a big proportion of the video, about a quarter in fact, focuses on:
…if they are unconscious, don’t make them tea.
Which to be fair, is great. Dropping the metaphor again, it’s very true that no one should be doing anything sexual with anyone who is unconscious. Victoria’s affirmative consent laws do make it very clear that a person has not consented if they are asleep or unconscious. So while it is undeniably vital to be teaching young people not to be “making tea” for anyone who is unconscious, this is only part of the picture.
A vital aspect left out is the fact that being unconscious is not the only situation in which a person can’t legally consent. Conscious or not, a person also can’t consent if they’re too intoxicated.
Take just one look at the testimonials provided by young people for the #TeachUsConsent movement. There are far too many instances of people having been sexually assaulted while drunk at parties during their high school years.
By purely focusing on not drinking tea (or engaging in sexual activity) with anyone who is unconscious, the Tea Consent video leaves room for young people to misunderstand the laws around consent. It allows space for Joel to assume that even though his friend Lee was incredibly drunk when he engaged in oral sex with her, Lee was definitely conscious and therefore must have been consenting.
However this is not the case. Victoria’s affirmative consent laws make it clear that a person is not consenting if they are too intoxicated to give consent, or too intoxicated to withdraw their consent. The resources we use to teach consent need to make this clear.
The video oversimplifies sexual consent
The Tea Consent video wraps up with the following message:
If you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea, and you are able to understand when people don’t want tea, then how hard is it to understand it when it comes to sex?
Which is great. As far as the metaphor goes, if you can understand that you shouldn’t force tea on someone who doesn’t want it, hopefully you can also appreciate that you shouldn’t force sex on someone who doesn’t want it.
However this is a huge oversimplification of sexual consent. It reduces consent to the outdated message of ‘no means no’.
While forcing someone to have sex with you is definitely non-consensual, and also a sexual crime, sexual assault can look like many different things. In other words, just because someone wasn’t “forced” doesn’t mean that consent was present.
According to Victorian law, unless someone says or does something to indicate their consent, consent is not present. Young people need to be in families and at schools where adults are normalising communication skills that teach them to ask for consent in day to day life. This will pave the way for them to find their voice and ask for consent in sexual situations, too. We also need to be teaching young people about the nuances of consent such as checking for congruence.
By using the tea metaphor for consent, sex is likely to be conflated with a single act
On the note of moving away from lessons that oversimplify consent, the same can be said for our definition of what constitutes sex. When Eleonora was at school, sex education only discussed one specific type of sex - penetrative, penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. You may already realise that this definition of sex is problematic because who aren’t in a relationship that involves that particular configuration of genitals (ie, LGBTIQA+ people). But this isn’t the only problem.
Teaching one specific act as being the definition of sex is problematic for all young people - not just those who are LGBTIQA+.
Think back to when you were at school. If your experience was anything like mine, your friends would have been having sexual experiences, but restricting them to “anything but” - meaning anything but PIV. What happens when we put PIV sex on a pedestal like this? Are other sexual acts given the consideration, care and respect that they deserve?
Think again about the testimonies provided for the #TeachUsConsent movement. How many instances are there where PIV sex is not involved, but sexual assault has occurred. We need to be teaching young people to check for consent for any kind of sexual act, not just PIV sex, in order to truly equip them to be able to practise consent in their intimate relationships.
The tea consent video provides no tools or advice on how to actually practise consent
Let’s go back to the final message of the Tea Consent video, which asks people if they can understand consent when it comes to drinking tea, then “how hard is it to understand it when it comes to sex?”.
But do you really think that the reason for the high rate of sexual assault in young people is due to the fact that they have absolutely no idea that they shouldn’t be forcing someone do to something against their will?
The reality of the matter is that it’s one thing for young people to understand that consent should be present for all sexual activity, and another for them to actually have the tools and communication skills to make sure that consent is present. The Tea Consent video, while it provides a metaphor for why consent is important, does nothing to actually teach young people how to practise consent.
In our sexuality education classes, we need to teach young people how to word their questions to make sure that their partner feels safe saying no. We need to teach them how to ask for direction and seek feedback. We need to be teaching sex as involving all types of sexual activity, rather than just defining it as PIV. We need to work on modelling ways to check for consent in day to day life, so that it feels more comfortable and natural when it comes to checking for consent in sexual situations.
We, as teachers and parents, need to be providing a far more comprehensive consent education in order for young people to not just understand consent, but confidently practise it, too.
Is it bad to still show the Tea Consent video in your classes?
It’s not necessarily a bad thing for you to continue to use the Tea Consent video in your classes, so long as you critique it. Center multiple lessons around it. Have students break down the issues with the messages it sends. Ask them to re-imagine the video for a modern audience, creating a new script and more up to date message
If you do choose to continue showing the Tea Consent video, you should also be sure to explicitly discuss how the metaphor relates to sex. While using metaphors as a teaching tool is great, teachers need to take into consideration that many students may have difficulty understanding how a metaphor relates to real life. For various reasons including learning difficulties, students who speak English as an additional language, or students who are neurodivergent, metaphors are likely to be lost on some students. Lastly, make sure that the Tea Consent video is not the entirety of the consent education that your students are receiving.
What resources can you use to effectively teach consent in your classes?
Classroom Posters: Let’s Talk About X provides free downloadable posters for you to use in your classrooms, to help you remind students of messages about consent every day - not just during a few lessons.
Short videos: Have your students submit a question about consent for our YouTube channel. You can also set them a task to explain the answer to any of the existing questions we have answered in our videos.
Keep your knowledge fresh: Subscribe to our blog so that you can stay up to date with the latest discussions and tips relating to consent (as well as LGBTIQA+ inclusion). We also send out free resources as we develop them.
Upskill yourself: Ask your head of faculty to invest in training to help support you and other staff. All our training is designed by teachers who understand the time constraints and realities of the job - so all the skills we teach you will be actionable and take little to no preparation time to put into effect.
Our lesson plan for how to use the Tea Consent video effectively. This one's coming soon, so join our mailing list now to be notified as soon as it's available.
A new tea metaphor: Using a cup of tea to teach communication and pleasure
When Mel first saw the popular ‘tea video’ many years after its inception, he was actually shocked by how limited it was. His response:
“I thought it was going to be about pleasure - like, you can’t just make someone a cup of tea without asking how they like it. Otherwise they won’t enjoy it.”
The metaphor of making a cup of tea, if supported by explicit connections to sex, is actually really useful for highlighting the importance of communication, direction and feedback around what people do and don’t like.
Think about it, when you make someone a cup of tea for the first time, the first thing most of us do is ask how they like their tea. You might tell them the options on offer, such as green, black or peppermint for instance and ask what they prefer. You might ask if they want milk, or sugar, and if yes, check how much you should add.
This is exactly what people should be doing during any form of sex. Just like you might give someone options for tea, you might tell someone the different things you’re up for at the present time. The questions: How do you like…? Do you want…? How much should I…? Would you prefer…? Can all be used in the bedroom to communicate to help each other communicate what feels good.
If you did just make them a cup of tea, taking a guess at what they’d like, basing this off how you like it yourself, or what you’ve seen most others like, chances are it wouldn’t be entirely to their tastes. Sure, they might say it’s good, or fine, but would that be the truth, or are they just too uncomfortable to say otherwise?
This is exactly what can happen if people make assumptions when it comes to sex. You can’t just assume someone will like something because you do, or because others you’ve had sex with liked it. You also can’t assume someone will tell you if they don’t like it, especially if you haven’t clearly invited feedback and direction from the outset.
The brusque “You like that?” you may have seen in porn assumes compliance. It doesn’t create space for an honest answer - it’s a leading question that pushes the other person into saying yes, it’s good, even if it’s not. This is exactly what might happen if you plonked a cup of tea down in front of someone and asked “You like that?” while watching them take a sip. Basically, it would make it really hard to say no.
These are all elements of consent we can use the metaphor of a cup of tea to draw attention to, helping young people learn the importance of communication around pleasure and getting them thinking about how they might have these conversations.
Want to use the tea metaphor in a way that's actually helpful? Free lesson plan coming soon - join our mailing list to be notified as soon as it's available!