Teaching consent

Sexual health educators have been teaching about consensual and non-consensual sexual activity for decades.  Despite gains made by the women’s movement since the late 1960s, sexism is far from eradicated.  Rape culture, although under scrutiny and challenge, is still the norm.  Sexual harassment and assault are as common as dirt.  How can we make a fundamental change in our society through education?

If all genders are not on board with the concept that consensual sexual activity is enjoyable and fulfilling, we will not make any headway.  If boys and men in particular are not included as allies in this struggle, classroom education will remain no more than an exercise.

I created a lesson plan about sexual assault at least 20 years ago which continues to be used by former colleagues.  It is a two part activity.  In the first part, the facilitator reads a series of statements and asks students to agree, disagree or indicate that they are not sure; in the second part, students work in small groups and read through two scenarios, one told from a girl’s point of view where it is clear there was no consent; and the other from the boy’s.  Then they answer questions on the board which are later discussed by the whole group.

One of the statements in the first part, “It is OK to say no at any time” (during sexual activity) provoked a grade 8 boy to insist that once you had initiated sexual activity, you couldn’t stop.  I asked the class why someone might want to stop (fear, pain, flashback, changed their mind etc.), but this kid wasn’t budging.  So I said, “Suppose you’re on top of her and you can see that she is in pain”.  He said, “Turn her face away”.

That is an unusual response from a 12 year old, but indicative of the far end of the consent spectrum; viz., a total lack of empathy and clear exercise of power.

After each group reads their story, I read them both out loud, where it becomes clear that what happened was not consensual.  I remind them that there are medical issues that need to be explored (Emergency Contraception, Sexually Transmitted Infection testing) psychological/emotional issues (the need for counselling since most people blame themselves after an assault) and legal issues.  Because the stories are written in a way that demonstrate a miscommunication based on the popular cultural ideas we explored earlier, exacerbated by alcohol, I suggest that if the police came to this boy’s door and said they were investigating a sexual assault, he would probably say, “Who got raped?”  We end the class by brainstorming how it could have been prevented.

Gray zone

Girls and women are still seen as gatekeepers in heterosexual relationships.  In spite of the current support for affirmative, ongoing consent, it continues to be difficult for a girl/woman to live this new norm.  Societal ambivalence rules: is it really OK for women to want sexual activity and say yes to it?

I remember teaching that to say no, it is important that tone and body language be congruent; i.e., to say no in a way that is clear and unequivocal.  But no to what?  No means no to a particular sexual activity at a particular moment in time.

People are complicated and so are their desires – they can change during the course of any sexual encounter.

In a more sophisticated discussion with older students, this can be illustrated with a continuum: from enthusiastic mutual consent to playful seduction; to giving in; to coercion; and to forced sexual contact.

People may move back and forth along the continuum from mutual consent to playful seduction during a single or multiple encounters.  One may not initially want to engage in a particular sexual activity, but could become interested.  There is a difference between talking someone into it and turning them on.

There is also a difference between hearing no and ignoring it.  We are familiar with the power dynamic and the culture that facilitates this crime.

For boys/men, saying no to sexual activity with girls/women may be difficult for other reasons.  Society tells them never to refuse what is handed to them on a silver platter.  Women who sexually assault men are more likely to use shame and coercion than force for obvious reasons.

Same gender assault involves many of these same dynamics.

Politics and pedagogy

We want affirmative, ongoing consent to become the norm.

We detest rape culture and want it eradicated.  We are appalled when images and videos of assaults are posted as entertainment.  Good pedagogy includes teaching empathy for survivors in order to eliminate this ghoulish feasting on others’ misery.

While it is useful to explore the underlying ideas that lead to assumptions, miscommunication and/or predation – a simple unpacking may be preferable to political rhetoric.

In their fervour to drive home the harmful outcomes of rape culture, some educators are using materials that are more likely to alienate the boys and young men in the classroom than to enlist them as allies.  We want them to accept the premise that there is an advantage to mutuality in relationships.  I read recently that consent culture is a resistance movement to rape culture.  It is a lot to ask for young men to see themselves as freedom fighters against rape culture and sexual assault.

I think Wiseguyz is on the right track in the way they address young men directly.  There are also some excellent public campaigns like the one from Norway “Dear Daddy” and New Zealand’s “Who are You?” that bring home these messages in a simple, clear and direct manner that appeal to the positives.

Because good lessons on consent and sexual assault are so hard to come by, well thought out print materials can play a role.  I would love to see a good pamphlet which includes the language of consent and refusal as a guide for young people to take home.

There is work to be done.