It can be difficult starting conversations with your students about sexual harassment, consent, staying safe and making value informed decisions. Recently I read Shafia Zaloom‘s wonderful book “Sex, Teens & Everything in Between” and was blown away not only by how accessible it was, but more specifically the engaging, and teen-friendly way in which she shared her message, specifically her use of real-life scenarios.
I am delighted that Shafia has contributed this week’s guest blog post that shares how she introduces conversations about consent before taking them deeper, and then deeper still. If you are struggling to incorporate consent discussions in your classroom, you will LOVE this post. If, like me, you are looking to improve your consent discussions, you will be inspired to push your teaching to a new level.
I am often asked, “Can you really teach consent?” Absolutely, yes. But what does that mean, exactly?
I teach a six-week course that follows the life-span of a romantic relationship. In week one, we focus on Sexuality and Self and determine what it means to take another person and their feelings into consideration. Then, in week two, Attraction and Authentic Connection, we discuss attraction, how to initiate a relationship, and establish authentic connection. We follow with Relationship Building and Sexual Exploration, Ethical Choice and Growth, Adversity and Conflict and then our relationship ends with Dignity and Resilience.
Consent is a major part of the curriculum. First, the definition: Consent is an agreement, it means to be of the same mind, opinion, or feeling. The Latin roots of the word: “con” means “with” and “sent” means “feel.” Feel together. And, I always mention that, “Consent is a vibe. It’s an approach or orientation. It starts way before anyone’s genitals start interacting. Consent is what makes sexual activity legal. It is essential – it protects the fundamentals of human dignity. A consensual question must allow for “yes” and “no.”’
Consent in everyday life
We all practice consent every day. If I hit you and I have your permission, we could be boxing. If I don’t, it could be assault. If I take your bike and ride it to the corner store and I have your permission, I could be borrowing it. If I don’t, it could be stealing.
And then there are French fries.
I’ll ask a classroom full of teens, “How many of you like French fries?” Hands shoot up and there is a buzz. “Don’t you love that moment?” I continue. “You’re in the cafeteria, you buy a plate of fries. They smell so good, your ketchup is on the side, and then you sit down at a table of your friends…and suddenly hands dart in and start grabbing fries. How many of you are actually OK with that? Raise your hands.”
In a class of a hundred students, maybe one or two raise their hands. “How many of you are not OK with that?” Everyone else’s hand goes up.
“This is an issue of consent, even if it’s a lot different than a sexual encounter. Those are your fries, and people are just grabbing without asking. It may not even cross some people’s minds that they should ask. People get impulsive with French fries—they’re really good. What’s going on with that dynamic?”
One student will typically say something like, “For the most part, I’d be OK with sharing my fries, but there’s something uncool about not asking. It’s a bummer, like geez, they’re my fries, at least you could ask first instead of just helping yourself.”
From there, I encourage students to think about what they’re saying and the broader implications, and I ask, “What’s so important about asking?”
“Because I paid for them and they’re mine!”
“So they belong to you?”
“Manners show you care about people.”
“Because it really means they respect your decisions. Like if you said no, they wouldn’t do it, but if they don’t ask, then they don’t even care about what you want.”
“Yeah, friends should care and respect you.”
I encourage them to think about their role: “How many of you actually say something when it happens?” A smattering of hands. “What do you say?”
“Hey, what’s up with that?”
If it bothers the rest of you, what gets in the way of speaking up?
“It pisses me off, but I let it go because it’s French fries.”
“Yeah, I don’t want to be jumped all over like it’s no big deal.”
“Or judged because I should be cool with sharing them.”
“How is this about consent?”
“Consent means you need permission. Giving someone the chance to say how they feel and what they want. Ask if you want a French fry!”
“Yes! That’s called agency. Your right, ability, and power to choose for yourself. OK, now how does this apply to sexual consent?”
“Respecting people’s right to give an answer. To be in charge of what’s mine or yours if you’re hooking up.”
“Exactly. People get to choose how they touch and get touched because—what?—their bodies…”
“Belong to them!”
We follow with “What sexual consent is” “What sexual consent is NOT” “When sexual consent cannot be given” and “The benefits of sexual consent.” Consent is educating others on how to treat you, and listening for how others want to be treated. Pretty straight forward sex information.
Now for the education. How do we apply consent to the dynamics and complexities of human relationships? What does that actually look, sound, and feel like in context? First, a word about context and its importance. An example to illustrate: If you are at home and hanging out with people you are close to and they tickle you, it could be playful and fun. If you are on the street and some random person tickles you, it would be a different experience. Violating, scary, it would immediately put you on the defensive. The actions are the same (tickling) but the different context makes it a different embodied experience. With most human interactions there is internal and external context. Internal: how your thinking and feeling. External: what’s going on in your environment/physical space.
Sexual media literacy
As sex educators, we never want to create an environment in our classrooms where students feel they need experiential context to share in meaningful ways. So our “shared” sexual experience is through media. In my classes, we look at clips from popular TV and movies. We consider relevant scenes and then discuss them. The following questions guide our inquiry and build our media literacy and critical thinking skills.
● Are there any social power dynamics?
● How was consent given or not given? Was it with words only or was there accompanying body language?
● Did you see or hear any coercion?
● Was it consensual overall? In moments?
● If you took the sound away would it still be consensual?
● How could it be better played?
● Does gender matter? What if we changed that up?
To focus in on what’s more directly relevant, we then move on to real-life scenarios.
Scenarios as teaching tools
In my classes, I introduce real life scenarios and we talk about them together. I have hundreds of scenarios that I’ve collected over the years, and I have found them to be a wonderful teaching tool. I encourage other teachers to ask students for scenarios that are specific to the culture of their schools and communities, and to use these scenarios to help students think about possible situations, and practice consent. It’s important to be inclusive of different genders and sexualities, and to create intersections with different identities and always ask, “Does gender matter?”
Kai is at a small party at a friend’s house. There is drinking. Some of the teenagers, including Jordan, who Kai has a crush on, are smoking weed as well. Last week, Kai’s friend, Maria, told Jordan that Kai is interested in something “more than friends” and the feeling seems to be mutual.
Kai and Jordan talk, laugh, and hang out. Pretty soon the rest of their friends move on to the kitchen to find something to eat. Kai and Jordan are alone in the TV room and Jordan makes a move. They kiss and make out for a while. It feels great for both of them. Jordan’s hands start to explore Kai’s body and then fumbles with the button on Kai’s jeans. Kai starts to feel a little awkward, and moves so that Jordan can’t undo the jeans. Jordan moves Kai’s body back to how it was and whispers, “Don’t worry, we’ll take it easy.”
After reading the scenario, we consider questions, for instance:
Is there is a social power dynamic such as a significant age difference or social hierarchy or different intentions?
If Kai or Jordan is older than the other (a Senior vs. a Sophomore), or one is a part of a more socially powerful group at school, or one is the captain of a sports team and the other a younger player, these factors would be significant to note. People may feel obligated or pressured into agreeing to sexual activity if there is a social power dynamic.
To make it inclusive, this particular scenario is gender neutral; however, gender may matter in any given relationship dynamic. For instance, traditional notions of masculinity and femininity may influence decision making. Girls may be socialized to prioritize male pleasure and satisfaction over their own. Boys may feel like they have to “man up” and acquire as much sexual experience as possible to be accepted within their social circle. If you assign genders to the characters in any given scenario, it’s interesting to discuss if and how this changes the dynamic.
What values are at stake?
Respect. Kai feels awkward and isn’t ready for Jordan to undo Kai’s jeans, so Kai gets into a position so that Jordan can’t. We know that Jordan picks up on this body language because Jordan moves Kai back and responds with something that addresses Kai’s discomfort. Jordan is not treating Kai with respect or responding to the clear signal that Kai does not want to go further in that moment.
Consent. Kai is clearly hesitant about what is happening, and not consenting. Jordan understands this because because he reassures Kai,yet dismisses Kai’s body language. To act consensually, Jordan would not persist. Instead of making a statement about what Jordan thinks and feels should happen, Jordan should ask Kai what Kai wants and check in by saying, “you okay?” “this still good?” Both partners desires and limitations should be honored.
Are there other values that should be discussed?
What are the costs and benefits of the situation?
There hasn’t been any communication between Jordan and Kai about their intentions, so we don’t really know the costs and benefits. Kai likes likes Jordan. Many teens would see the opportunity to hookup, given the romantic and sexual interest, a benefit. Many think that this sexual encounter could lead to more, maybe even a relationship.
It’s possible that Jordan sees the encounter as an opportunity to hook up (explore each other sexually with no expectations of a defined relationship) and for sexual gratification only. Ideally, to be healthy, the sexual activity means the same thing to both people, and both people have similar expectations. If not, the cost could be disappointment, one person feeling used, someone’s values of respect and consent being violated, and/or not feeling that they were treated with dignity.
Are there any other benefits or risks for either partner?
What are the options and consequences?
● To continue at the risk of values being compromised and/or violated.
● For Kai to say “This doesn’t feel right, let’s stop” or “No. I’m good. Let’s find everyone else.”
● For Jordan to realize that consent is compromised and to pause and ask Kai, “What do you want to do?” or “This okay?” or “Do you want to just stay with what we’re doing?”
At this point I talk to my students about the importance of sexual communication and refusal skills, and that we all deserve to be respected and treated with dignity when with a partner. It is important to explore what that actually looks, sounds, and feels like in concrete ways.
What might get in the way of making a good decision? What it would take to overcome those obstacles?
Kai is romantically and sexually interested in Jordan, which can feel powerful when given the opportunity to “connect” in some way. Kai may justify questionable behavior because of these strong feelings of attraction. Kai might also be hoping that Jordan’s interest indicates more than just sexual desire, and fear that turning Jordan down could quell that interest. There may be other social dynamics that influence how Kai responds, such as the desire to gain sexual experience to talk about with friends and to feel included, and the assumption that someone’s sexual attention validates one as desirable or “hot.” There are also substances involved. Incapacitation can render someone unable to give consent. Substances may alter someone’s judgement and ability to advocate for their true wants and limitations.
How to maximize a REALISTIC and positive outcome?
When we discuss scenarios in my classes, most students know what should happen and jump to that conclusion with ease. However, their “easy” solution is not what usually ends up happening in a real life situation. I respond with a comment like, “Yes, that would be ideal and is certainly something we need to aspire to, but that isn’t what always happens in real life. “Then I ask, “What can we realistically expect these characters to do given the realities of teen world and the dynamics taking place?”
My goal is not that my students figure out the “right” answer. The goal is to get them thinking about their values and how to treat others–and make sure they themselves are treated– with care and respect. There isn’t one “right” answer, and different outcomes will be positive or negative right for different people. This is an exploration, not a question with a single answer, because context can change in an instant as well. The goal is to help young people figure out how to think about these situations and act with integrity and respect for themselves and their partner.
● Kai could say, “Let’s just kiss for a while – stay like this.”
● Kai could muster up the courage to use the refusal skills addressed above.
● Kai could pull away and express wanting to find their friends, or not feeling comfortable with the possibility of other’s walking in, or express not feeling well or sick, if Kai is female-bodied, Kai could say she has her period, or make some other excuse to get out of the situation.
● There are also bystanders (anyone within proximity that isn’t a part of the dynamic) around. Kai may have a friend who knows substances are involved and what Kai and Jordan are up to. They could check in and provide Kai with the option to get out of the situation
Students who engage in this level of consent study will, over time, learn what consent is, and when it can and cannot be given. They’ll understand how to identify both consent and its absence, to articulate it’s value, and to describe what it looks, sounds, and feels like within a sexual context. Still, I find that even students who know better will tell me about non-consensual interactions they’ve been involved in. What is it that gets in the way of informed and educated students putting this knowledge and way of thinking into practice?
I’ve wracked my brain and concluded that it’s an inability to connect. I’m now convinced that consent education must include conversations about gender norms and other factors that keep people from being honest with each other about desires and boundaries. As teachers, parents, relatives, and mentors, we need to encourage the young people we care about to develop emotional literacy and empathy. We also need to foster and encourage healthy vulnerability, and emphasize that it is not a weakness but a strength that is built patiently over time, one that reflects courage, not cowardice. We also need to help young people understand that sexual exploration is not a performance to be judged or competition to be won, but a felt experience to be embraced and savored – an expression of care and dignity for another that is satisfying and pleasurable for both people. And that makes all the difference between teaching consent and cultivating the capacity and courage to practice it.
If you need more Shafia Zaloom in your life you REALLY need to check out her book – ‘Sex, Teens & Everything in Between’.
You can also hear Shafia, and her wonderful students, talk about their experiences in the classroom in this City Vision podcast episode.
We have featured slowchathealth blog posts on the topic of consent before and you might like to read the following:
Teaching Consent by Andy Milne
Consent by Kim Comatas
Between Friends by Levi Todd