Instagram has proven to be a refreshing way for me to see the work of health and sexuality service providers and I am inspired by some of the creative images and resources that they share. If you are on Instagram you should check out accounts such as @resiliencechi, @icahgram, @nobodywantstoseeyourdick, @ourmusicmybody and @betweenfriendschi. This weeks guest blog post comes from Levi Todd who is a relationship educator and poet from Chicago who works for Between Friends. I recently reached out to them to ask if they would share how they teach consent.
In my college dorm, I remember a week where a new campus statute required signs about consent to be posted in each shared bathroom in dorm buildings. These posters repped our school colors and reminded bathroom users about the necessity of asking for (sober, consistent, and enthusiastic) consent from partners. In our bathroom, I remember for a month or so the poster would be torn down weekly by someone on our floor only to be replaced by an RA on rounds again. The begrudging attitude towards consent from this student was not unique–in my freshman orientation, health class, and sociology class that included presentations on consent, the room would be filled with eye rolls and negative comments after class (mostly from men) about how irritating and toxic “liberal” campuses were becoming.
My alma mater is one of many aiming to build a better dialogue about consent with college students. While the intention is admirable, they can’t control college students’ attitudes towards receiving this information, and the pervasive data on sexual assault on college campuses demonstrates the content might not be landing as we want it to. I do think it’s necessary for college campuses to promote messages of consent–but if it’s the first and/or only time people are being exposed to these ideas, it becomes easy for people to dismiss them.
Between Friends is a domestic violence agency in Chicago that provides a variety of services, one of which is a prevention and education team that I work with. We offer a program called REACH (Relationship Education: A Choice for Hope) that visits middle schools and high schools for eight weeks to talk about healthy relationships with friends, family, adults, and dating peers. During this program, we talk about consent in a variety of ways as it applies to different situations. With our high schoolers, we speak directly about the necessity of consent with sexual partners, and we introduce the idea to 7th and 8th graders about physical intimacy generally. But where I personally think our conversations our most effective is with 6th graders.
While we emphasize in programs with students of all ages that relationships don’t just have to be romantic and include friends, family, teachers, etc., our 6th grade curriculum especially focuses on friends as many of them have yet to start dating. On our fourth week with visiting their classroom, we talk about boundaries. We play a game where we ask them to move across the room to demonstrate if they’d be comfortable/uncomfortable/unsure if their friends gave them a hug in the hallway, or teased them while “just joking”, or posted a photo of a hangout on social media. Afterward we point out that we all had different responses and ask: what do you do if you like to hug but your friend doesn’t, for example? We talk about asking if things are okay with other people before we do them, like checking to see if people like photos of themselves before we share them on Instagram, or asking if people are high-fivers or huggers before we greet them.
Have students stand up, and designate one side of the room as “Comfortable”, the other side as “Uncomfortable”, and the middle as “Unsure”.
Read off various statements, such as “A classmate sees you in the hallway and gives you a hug.” or “You see a photo of your friends hanging out on Snapchat without you,” and have the students move to each side for their reactions.
If you have time, you can ask a volunteer from each side briefly explain why they reacted the way they did. We typically read about 15 statements–and sometimes if we have extra time, I’ll let the students volunteer their own statements.
I think this really gives you insight on what they’re thinking of in regards to boundaries or comfort levels. For example, one student said “A grownup refers to you as the wrong gender,” and the students’ reactions were illuminating. This activity can take anywhere from 20-40 minutes.
I think it’s especially important to introduce ideas of consent with young people, as they are often assumed to have less autonomy than adults. In our comfortable/uncomfortable/unsure game, a majority of students move to “uncomfortable” when we ask their reaction to distant relatives pinching cheeks or kiss smothering at family reunions. We often make decisions for youth, or tell them that we know what’s best for them. By teaching our 6th graders that they’re allowed to have boundaries in all relationships, that they’re allowed to tell others what they are, and that we encourage them to ask about other people’s boundaries in casual ways, we’re teaching them at a young age that they have ownership over their own bodies and no one else’s.
My fear is that conversations about consent seem to be focused on college campuses–which is not to say they shouldn’t be happening at all. But given that the majority of Americans don’t go to college, and that many students may be coming from abstinence-only education schools, we need to find ways to frame conversations about consent in broader ways and to students of all ages. I think the best way to teach consent is to model it. We can ask our children if they want to give Grandma a hug. We can talk to Kindergartners about asking to borrow toys before grabbing them. We can ask if it’s okay to celebrate a student’s high test score in front of the class. In this way, when students are exposed later down the line to asking for consent about physical intimacy, it’s already a no-brainer for them.
Levi’s final paragraph resonates with me. As the father of two young children I am intent on having consent related conversations with my family. When one child is annoying the other and is asked to stop by their sibling I am insistent on voices being heard and wishes being respected. As Levi suggests, I hope that eventually that all consent conversations become a no-brainer.
You might also like to read Teaching Consent, a #slowchathealth blog post that shared some great resources for the classroom educator.
What are your thoughts regarding this blog post? How do you teach consent? Do you have any great resources that you wish to share? Let’s keep this important conversation going online using the hashtag #slowchathealth.
You can find my professional instagram account at @carmelhealth.