Editor’s Note: Assistant Editor Sarah Sparks covers education research. This analysis is part of a special report exploring pressing trends in education. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.
In education, we try to play the long game. We lay the foundations for college math in middle school and job skills in kindergarten. But when it comes to teaching kids about consent, we do way too little, way too late. And evidence suggests that what we are doing doesn’t give students the skills they need to navigate adulthood.
The last few years have been a wake-up call about the need to start laying that foundation for consent early. I have two little boys, one in 1st grade and another not yet in kindergarten, and, in spite of their young age, I continue to have uncomfortable conversations with them about high-profile sexual harassment cases and the #MeToo movement, which inundate the news every other week. But research suggests it is more effective for schools and families to teach consent as part of a broader set of positive skills for adulthood, rather than just examples of what not to do in social interactions.
“What our research uncovers is, we are failing epically in preparing young people for romantic relationships, and it may be the most important thing they do in their lives,” said Richard Weissbourd, a child psychologist at Harvard University who studies sex education.
Knowing how to teach consent education isn’t easy. Scroll down for five practical guidelines from Monica Rivera.
Very few states require districts to address consent at all. In districts that do talk with students about consent, the subject most often is not integrated into the steady development of social-emotional skills, but broached first in the context of what experts call “disaster planning"—avoiding sexual predators for younger students and avoiding pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and date rape among older students.
Perhaps that fear focus makes sense. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused or assaulted by age 18. Perhaps even more chilling, nearly a quarter of those arrested for sex crimes—including forcible rapes, sodomies, assaults with objects, and forced fondling—were under 18, and the most common age was 14 years old.
But in a survey of more than 3,000 high school students and young adults nationwide, the overwhelming majority reported they had never been taught how to avoid sexually harassing others or to cope with being groped, catcalled, or bullied in sexual ways. Sixty-five percent said they wished they had received guidance on emotional aspects of relationships in their sex education classes, from “how to have a mature relationship” to “how to deal with breakups.” Ironically, a separate study found that online advice on how to “sext” included more information on consent than similar articles on sex education.
Instead, researchers and educators offer an alternative: Teach consent as a life skill—not just a sex skill—beginning in early childhood, and begin discussing consent and communication in the context of relationships by 5th or 6th grades, before kids start seriously thinking about sex. (Think that’s too young? In yet another study, the CDC found 8 in 10 teenagers didn’t get sex education until after they’d already had sex.)
Educators and parents often balk at discussing strategies for and examples of consent because “they incorrectly believe that if you teach consent, students will become more sexually active,” said Mike Domitrz, founder of the Date Safe Project, a Milwaukee-based sexual-assault prevention program that focuses on consent education and bystander interventions. “It’s a myth. Students of both genders are pretty consistent that a lot of the sexual activity that is going on is occurring under pressure.”
Studies suggest young women are more likely to judge consent on verbal communication and young men relied more on nonverbal cues, though both groups said nonverbal signals are often misinterpreted. And teenagers can be particularly bad at making decisions about risky behavior, including sexual situations, while under social pressure. Brain studies have found adolescents are more likely to take risks and less likely to think about negative consequences when they are in emotionally arousing, or “hot,” situations, and that bad decisionmaking tends to get even worse when they feel they are being judged by their friends.
Making understanding and negotiating consent a life skill gives children and adolescents ways to understand and respect both their own desires and those of other people. And it can help educators frame instruction about consent without sinking into the morass of long-running arguments and anxiety over gender roles, cultural values, and teen sexuality.
“It’s about giving kids the concept of body competency and body sovereignty,” said Monica Rivera, an educator and researcher on sexual violence at Colorado State University. “We need to teach kids that other people’s bodies do not exist to serve them, and vice versa. You don’t have to get caught in a gendered conversation to talk about understanding and enforcing your own boundaries or respecting others’.”
I can’t speak for other parents, but far more than I want my boys to go to college and get a good job, I want them to grow up to be caring and respectful adults in relationships with others who care about and respect them. In that context, understanding consent means having the skills, courage, and respect to communicate with another person about the things that are important to each of them. And that’s a message schools and parents alike can reinforce.
A Practical Framework for Teaching Consent
By Monica Rivera
Like math or science, developmentally appropriate consent education should be included at each stage of K-12. While each age range presents specific nuances for how the message is delivered, the following concepts can provide a general framework for implementing body autonomy in your classrooms regardless of grade.
• Disentangle consent from the topic of sex. Teaching students to respect physical boundaries comes before (and should extend beyond) sex. Similar to teaching about sharing, taking turns, or respecting property, helping young people understand physical boundaries is an important life skill. When we relegate the topic of consent to sex ed. curricula, we miss the opportunity to infuse body sovereignty into the cultural foundation of our classrooms.
• Allow students to be the experts about their bodily sensations. While there may be concerns about a handful of students using bathroom passes or headaches as excuses to leave the classroom, the reality is that most kids are telling the truth when they talk about their bodies. Responses like “you don’t really have to go” or “you don’t have a headache” undermine body autonomy. This can make students question whether they will be believed if they disclose an incident of violence.
Additionally, when educators question a student’s need for a nurse or the bathroom, it contributes to body shaming for kids with disabilities and/or menstruating students who may legitimately have increased bathroom needs. Instead, affirm that they are the experts on their own bodies, and work to find other ways to address the handful of students who seem to use health as an excuse.
• Teach body literacy. Best practices in the prevention of childhood sexual abuse recommend using anatomically correct terminology for all body parts and minimizing stigma of bodily functions like menstruation. Interrupting any teasing about bodies or bodily functions promotes healthy body literacy which increases self-confidence and agency in the event that boundaries are violated. Example: “We don’t laugh about other people’s bodies. Everyone’s body is different and belongs to them.”
• Narrate non-verbal cues and model what consent looks like. When reading books or witnessing interactions in the classroom, you can assist students in learning to read body cues by narrating what you interpret: “Look at Cory’s face. It doesn’t look like he wants that.” This is useful for kids who struggle to read body cues. It also promotes the expectation that consent is more than the absence of a “no.” Additionally, offer students choices before touching, and model this with colleagues. Example: “Nice job. Would you like a high five or a hug?”
• Pay attention to power and identity dynamics. Encroachments on body autonomy manifest in a number of ways. Power differences between teachers and students influence whether kids feel comfortable asserting boundaries. Identity dynamics increase the likelihood that some kids will experience additional unwanted touching. For example, it is not uncommon for students to pat wheelchair users on the head, to touch the hair of students of color, to ask transgender students intrusive questions about their bodies, or to pull hijabs worn by Muslim students. Pay attention to the ways that certain students experience heightened boundary encroachments and assist them in intervening. Example: “I heard Dalia say stop three times. Please listen to her words.”
Monica Rivera works at Colorado State University where she is the director of the Women and Gender Advocacy Center and teaches courses about interpersonal violence.
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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as Consent: Lessons Beyond #MeToo