Teaching Consent in Your Classroom

Before we begin, we would like to thank you. Thank you choosing a career in education; your hard work today will change the world tomorrow. Thank you for coming to our website, and doing online research to strengthen your sex education curriculum; many school districts’ programs are lacking and we appreciate that you have taken this extra time to better serve your students. And finally, thank you for being a constant resource to your students; they will appreciate what you teach them for years and years to come.

What is consent?

The topic of consent is heavily discussed in the media due to its controversial nature. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) defines consent as “an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity.” In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that made California the first state in the nation to have an even clearer definition of consent: NPR explained that “the law goes further than the common ‘no means no’ standard which has been blamed for bringing ambiguity into investigations of sexual assault cases.”2 Instead, the new law requires an “affirmative consent,” meaning that a lack of resistance or protest does not mean consent. Both parties must affirmatively and voluntarily engage-- seeking a loud, clear “yes” is a great way to be sure.

There is a gray area, however, which is what makes consent such a difficult subject to teach. Consent can be communicated in many ways: it can be a loud and clear statement, such as “Yes, I want to” or it can be another affirmative statement, like “I am open to trying,” or “I want to try.”1 Although physical cues can sometimes signify whether a person is comfortable with intimacy, we encourage you to communicate to your students that this is the least reliable way to acquire someone’s consent. Physical and other nonverbal cues can be miscommunicated and lead to false assumptions of consent.

Why is it important to teach consent in my classroom?

It is critical that educators teach consent in their classrooms as early as elementary school. As an educator, you have the ability to empower young people to learn that they have control of their own body. Learning consent, or even just being aware of the concept of consent, could help a young child to find the courage to speak up about molestation, or validate a teenage girl's’ rape plea to her peers.

On the other end, teaching consent can also help to prevent sexual assault. For decades, society has victim-blamed survivors of sexual assault. “She had one too many drinks.” “What was she wearing, though?” “Well she lead him on.” “He was flirting with that guy all night! How could it be rape?” Campus fliers and pamphlets urge young women to protect themselves from sexual assault in every possible way: cover your drink, never walk alone, avoid unlit areas, wear conservative clothing, don’t get drunk, etc. At SexInfo, we speak for many survivors when we say it is time to start teaching rapists not to assault, rather than teach women how not to be raped.

By teaching your students what consent is, you might prevent a young man from misinterpreting his partner’s silence, or prevent someone from initiating sex with someone who is unable to consent. Educators  may not be able to prevent all sexual assault, but they surely should try.

What is the best way to teach my students about consent?

Early Childhood

In early childhood, before any sex education is formally covered, it is still possible to teach the rules of consent. By teaching your young students that they are in control of their own bodies, you will set them up for a life of healthy autonomy. One lesson that many parents choose to teach involves tickling. Ask your students whether their parents or guardians likes to tickle them. Many of your students will raise their hands. Ask them if their parents or guardians stop when asked to stop, and see their response.

You can then move on to explain that as soon as someone says “stop” or “no,” the tickling should stop. Make sure they understand that “no” and “stop” are words that should be honored. Explain that this concept of “consent” is a rule that they are allowed to use with anyone in any circumstance, whether the other person is tickling, pulling on hair, tapping, grabbing, etc. Show them how the rule can be broadened and used in all different situations.

One way you can incorporate these concepts into the classroom is to encourage your young students to say yes or no in their everyday choices. Also, be sure to teach them to ask for permission before touching or hugging any classmates.

Elementary and Middle School

As your students get older, they will begin to explore their own sexualities and hear rumors around their groups of friends. When formal sex education begins (typically between 5th and 6th grade in American School Districts,) it is an appropriate time to expand your lesson on consent. Explain the ways in which consent is related to sex during the initial “birds and the bees” lesson. Your students will likely be embarassed, and may not focus on this part of the lesson, but it is critical to bring up consent nonetheless.  Depending on what state or country you are teaching in, the age of consent will differ. Teach your students that under the law, until they reach the age of consent, whatever intimacy someone tries to share with them is illegal.

Because many of your elementary students will still be very removed from any sexual activity or romantic relationships, you can continue to build the concept of consent into every-day elementary school life. Encourage them to watch their friends’ facial expressions during play to be sure that everyone is enjoying it.3 We also recommend that you teach your students that their actions and behaviors affect others-- this can set them up for a lifetime of empathy.

Teens and Young Adults

At this age, teens are beginning to experiment with “touch games” such as “but slapping, boys hitting one another in the genitals, and punching each other’s nipples to cause pain.”3 For this reason, it is critical to teach this age group that there is both good touch and bad touch. When you see “bad touch” on the playground or in the classroom-- stop it from continuing.

    It is also important to speak honestly with your students about partying. They could already be exposed, to be using drugs and alcohol, and they will need to be informed about consent issues surrounding inebriation. Ask them a few of the following questions3:

    1. How can you tell if someone has had too much to drink?
    2. How does your behavior change when you have had too much to drink?
    3. How will you know if it is ok to kiss someone or touch someone if they have had a lot to drink?3

    Offer your students a few ways to ask their partner(s) for consent. Be real with them-- if you are teaching a high school sex education course, your students are likely participating in sexual exploration with friends and relational partners. They might not know how easy it can be to ask for consent! 

    Examples could include:

    • “I’d really like to ____ with you. Would you like to?”
    • “Do you like it when I do this?”
    • “Is it OK if I take off your shirt/bra/top/boxers/pants?”
    • “Before we go any further, do you want to do this?”

    Most of all, repetition is key: one consent lesson will not stick in the minds of your students. Stress the concept of consent with every new sex topic during your lessons, as it is relevant and necessary for any sexual advance. 

    References

    1. "What Consent Looks Like." RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
    2. "California Enacts 'Yes Means Yes' Law, Defining Sexual Consent." NPR. NPR, 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
    3. "Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21." Everyday Feminism. N.p., 29 Mar. 2013. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.

    Last updated 18 February 2016.

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