Teaching Consent

Every month, our four different advisories focus on a specific theme, with each advisory choosing to interpret that theme in their own way. When we came up with the themes, we tried to match them to the time of year. January’s theme, for example, was “Reflection & Goals.” We saw it as a time to look back on what we’d accomplished throughout 2017 and to set new, achievable goals for 2018.

Today marks the start of a new month, and because this month includes Valentine’s Day, our theme for the month is “Healthy Relationships.” In the advisory I lead, we got a head start on the theme by discussing what it means to be a good friend and a good romantic partner. For tomorrow’s advisory though, we’ll start exploring what it means to ask for and to give consent.

This is a difficult topic, and not just because I’m leading a mixed advisory of boys and girls who range in age from 11 years old to 18 years old. One of the issues with consent involves the attempt to put a positive spin on the old “No means no” adage, reframing it as “Yes mean yes” (also known as “affirmative consent”).

In 2014, California became the first state in the nation to pass the “Yes Means Yes” law, which regulates sexual activity on college campuses. The law requires “‘an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision’ by each party to engage in sexual activity.” This law makes investigating sexual assault cases a little more cut and dry; investigators are not allowed to consider silence, lack of resistance, or drunkenness as a green light for sexual activity — the only green light is a unambiguous “Yes.” Since 2014, three other states have added affirmative consent laws to their books and 22 more have proposed some version of it (Vermont is not one of them, by the way).

While the law sounds great in theory, it neglects to consider instances where partners say, “Yes” out of fear for their safety or, as evidenced by many of the stories surrounding Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults, fear for their careers or reputations.

Another issue with affirmative consent is that it can be interpreted less as an attempt to ensure that both partners are willing participants as it is a way to “cover your butt” against a rape claim. This has been taken to such an extreme that developers have made apps for your phones to record both partners’ consent for the historical record.

These apps reduce consent to a legalistic process, but, as Jacelyn Friedman, author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape, said, “[consent] is not legalistic. It’s actually just about treating your partner as an equal human being.”

With that being said, affirmative consent is still the best method we have, and so it’s now my job to teach it (and its issues) to my students. Thankfully, there are plenty of resources on the Internet to help me with this.

The curriculum I’ll be following comes from the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance, but I’ll also use ideas supplied by the magazine, Everyday Feminism, which breaks the process for teaching consent into “five simple steps”:

  1. Teach students how to ask for consent.
  2. Let them know that consent can be given or taken away at anytime.
  3. Discuss the importance of “no.”
  4. Help them understand the difference between a non-response and enthusiastic consent.
  5. Follow your own rules for consent (i.e., kids learn from watching adults, so practice what you preach).

I’m sharing this with you because, with such an important topic, it’s crucial that our students have the lessons of consent supported in all facets of their lives. If there’s anything the #MeToo movement has revealed about our society, it’s that not enough people (primarily men) understand how the notion of equality functions in the sexual sphere.

Hopefully, through my advisory’s discussions over the next few weeks, we can start changing that.

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