In almost every facet of our education, we prepare ourselves for every aspect of the lives that lay stretched ahead of us. We play the long game. We lay the foundations for college math in middle school and learn to write application essays as early as fifth grade. We explore the complexity of our selves, discover our values and delve into the impacts of our choices. All of this is done in the hopes of shaping us into successful, happy, well rounded, and principled people. And yet, we’re missing out on one very important part of the equation: education about consent.
In an op-ed by the New York Times, Peggy Orenstein painted the scene of San Francisco health teacher Shafia Zaloom asking her students to describe what came to mind when they thought of the word ‘bear’. Some offered up depictions of polar bears, gummy bears, grizzly bears, and so on. The point Ms. Zaloom was making was this: in an intimate situation, you can’t make assumptions. Consent is, really and truly, down to its core a grey area that contains a multitude of complexities. Did they say yes freely and without coercion? Did they hesitate or verbalize unease? Did they not vocalize the actual word ‘no’ but show their reluctance in other ways? Was there any pressure put on them? Were they sober enough to give consent?
All of this is done in the hopes of shaping us into successful, happy, well rounded, and principled people. And yet, we’re missing out on one very important part of the equation: education about consent.
These questions are not to imply that consent is intricate enough to justify acts of sexual abuse, but rather to demonstrate the importance of discussion about its nuances. In the era of #MeToo, we’ve watched as an abundance of men have been accused of sexual misconduct, only to claim that the interaction was ‘100 percent consensual’ and justify that, if it wasn’t, they ‘aren’t mind readers’.
And yet despite this disturbingly popular refrain, mens’ ability to understand sexual refusal has been shown to be remarkably sophisticated and attended to the most intricate subtleties from a young age, regardless of whether the word “no” is actually uttered, calling into question these common defenses of “couldn’t tell” and “I’m not a mind reader”. The issue, then, is not as much helping young people interpret consent and hesitation, but rather convincing them to question their own conduct, something that humans have a tendency to justify to the fullest extent in order to defend themselves. In fact, one of the traits rapists have been found to consistently share is that they don’t believe they are the problem.
When Nicole Bedera, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, interviewed male college students in 2015, each could verbalize at the very least a simplistic definition of the concept, and the majority voiced support for the “yes means yes” standard. However, when asked to describe their own most recent encounters, even men who had so recently touted the virtues of “yes means yes” consent admitted they hadn’t practiced it, and upon this realization often expanded the definition of consent in order to justify their actions rather than question their conduct. In their desperation to mollify any concerns with their own actions, the boys’ ideas of “yes” suddenly became so malleable that for some they morphed to encompass the behavior that met the legal criteria for assault.
The issue, then, is not as much helping young people interpret consent and hesitation, but rather convincing them to question their own conduct, something that humans have a tendency to justify to the fullest extent in order to defend themselves.
The fact of the matter is, we need to expand our perspective on what situations of sexual assault and those involved look, sound, and act like. Although it often feels easier to paint every single perpetrator as a ‘monster’, the unfortunate truth is that a ‘really good guy’ can do a really bad thing. An 11th grade student told me that “a lot of guys don’t want to acknowledge that they’ve hurt someone, because they don’t want to look at themselves as a terrible person. It’s easier to make excuses most of the time.” Acknowledging that a bad choice doesn’t automatically make you a bad person is important in allowing individuals the safety, space, and courage to seriously critique their behavior and see the areas they’re found wanting in these situations.
On the flip side, consent education is extraordinarily important in giving teenage girls the opportunity to question and reflect on their sexual encounters, as well as to untangle the assumptions that being sexually abused in any way means you’re ‘asking for it’, or is something that you deserve. One fellow tenth grader told me that “it was months after my experience with sexual assault that I realized what had happened to me. For a long time I blamed myself for not fighting back physically, and it was only after I learned more about consent that I was able to acknowledge to myself that saying ‘no’ in the first place had been enough.” In teaching students how not to violate rather than how not to be violated, the narrative that places responsibility on the shoulders of the woman is shifted.
It is true that in the time of Harvey Weinstein and Time’s Up, education and action surrounding consent and sexual assault is making great strides, particularly in the spheres of collegiate and workplace misconduct. However, efforts to teach consent and prevent sexual assault later on are often too little, too late. According to NSVRC statistics, one out of four girls is sexually assaulted before she turns eighteen. It is appalling that-despite the clear presence of assault among youth-we continue to deem the subject as ‘too early to talk about’, ‘uncomfortable’, or ‘unnecessary’.
Waiting until after the damage has been done is an indubitably futile approach to solving these issues, making the implementation of these ideas in high school especially crucial. As we consider how to teach youth the skills they need to step into their roles as future leaders of the world, we can’t forget what a profound ripple effect these lessons have on our global community. Through consent education, we can give young people the space and power to develop empathetic, informed, and reflective attitudes, and allow them the confidence and voice to speak up and make a change.