Disclaimer: We acknowledge that there are many different words that individuals use to describe themselves after experiencing sexual assault. In this article, we use the term ‘survivor’ for the sake of consistency. We acknowledge that there are many different ways of processing sexual violence, and we believe each individual person should choose the language that they are most comfortable with.
Before we begin, all of us at SexInfo Online would like to thank you for your initiative in becoming well-educated on the topic of consent. By choosing a career in education, your words and hard work will directly impact the world through the minds you shape. Thank you for coming to our website and for exploring additional research to strengthen your sex education curriculum. By supplying young minds with accurate, empirically-based, and judgement-free information about sex, you are taking effective steps to prepare them for a safe and fulfilling sexual life in the future. Overall, thank you for being a constant resource that your students can learn from; many of them will appreciate and actually retain a great deal of the information you teach them for years and years to come.
What Is Consent?
The topic of consent is heavily discussed in the media and throughout society due to its controversial nature. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) defines consent as “an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity.”1 In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed the SB 967 bill into law that made California the first state in the United States to have a clear definition of consent. National Public Radio (NPR) explained that this California law addresses the issue of consent more thoroughly than the previously accepted “no means no” norm, which has actually led to quite a bit of controversy and ambiguity in many sexual assault cases.2 Instead, the new law requires an “affirmative consent,” meaning that a lack of resistance or protest does not mean consent has been given; rather, both parties must affirmatively and voluntarily agree to engage in the sexual act, so seeking a loud and clear “yes” is a great way to be sure consent is given.
However, there is a gray area that makes consent quite a difficult subject to teach. Consent can be communicated in many ways. It can be given with a loud and clear statement, such as, “Yes, I want to have sex with you” or it can be another affirmative statement similar to “I am open to having sex with you.”1 Although physical cues and body language can sometimes signify whether a person is comfortable with intimacy, we encourage you to communicate with your students about why physical cues are the least reliable way to acquire someone’s consent. Physical and other nonverbal cues can be miscommunicated, which may lead to false assumptions of consent. We encourage you to incorporate ways for your students to practice providing and identifying clear, enthusiastic, and verbal consent statements in the classroom.
Why Is It Important to Teach Consent in the Classroom?
Educators should teach consent in their classrooms as early as elementary school. As an educator, you have the ability to empower young people by teaching them that they have control over their own body. Many children are raised without ever being taught the concept of bodily autonomy, or the right that everyone has to single-handedly decide what happens with their body. Children should be taught that they are the only person allowed to look at and touch their bodies, unless they give permission to another person. When another person touches their body without first receiving permission or consent from that person, a crime is being committed. Learning to give and receive consent, or even just being aware about the concept of consent, can help children and young adults better understand their bodily rights while also giving them the courage to speak up if those rights are ever violated. Teaching consent in the classroom could help students identify and have the courage to come forward about issues such as molestation and sexual assault.
Additionally, teaching consent can also help prevent sexual assaults. For too long, society has tended to place blame on survivors, rather than perpetrators, of the sexual assault with accusatory questions such as the following:
- “What was she/he wearing?”
- “Did he/she lead him/her on?”
- “Were they drinking? What did they expect was going to happen?”
- “How could it be rape if they were flirting all night and went home together?”
Questions like these imply that survivors are responsible for sexual assault occurrences and unjustly lighten the blame placed upon the perpetrators.
Campus fliers and pamphlets often urge young people to protect themselves from sexual assault in every possible way by encouraging them to cover their drink, never walk alone, avoid unlit areas, wear conservative clothing, avoid getting drunk, etc. At SexInfo, we believe it is time to start teaching individuals not to assault, rather than teaching people to avoid being raped. Sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault; the blame for the crime should be placed entirely on the perpetrator. However, proper consent and sex education courses in the past have not been implemented as effectively as they could be in the future, so we support cautious behaviors like constantly monitoring one’s drink or walking home with a group of trusted acquaintances.
By teaching your students the correct definition of consent, these young people can learn the lesson that no one else has a right to their body just as thoroughly as the lesson that they do not have a right to anyone else’s body either. By teaching consent, youth can better understand that they do not have a right to a sexual partner’s body, and vice versa. Through your teachings, situations in which a young person misinterprets their partner’s silence, or instances where an individual initiates sex with someone who is unable to provide consent could be prevented. Educators may not be able to prevent all sexual assault, but they surely have the ability to be a great influence on their students’ decisions, especially in cases as meaningful as consent.
What Is the Best Way to Teach Students About Consent?
Educators have to take special consideration of their students’ age group when determining curriculum and teaching methods. Students’ maturity and comprehension levels will increase with age; thus, varying aspects of consent should be taught at different ages.
Early Childhood (Ages 0-5)
During early childhood, before any sex education is formally covered in the classroom, it is still possible to teach the rules of consent to young students. By teaching your students that they are in control of their own bodies, you can prepare them for a life of healthy autonomy. One lesson that many educators can use in order to teach consent involves tickling. Ask your students whether their parents or guardians like to tickle them; many of your students will affirmatively raise their hands. Continue to ask them if their parents or guardians immediately stop tickling them when asked to stop, and observe their responses; those students who respond that their tickler stops right away may already be learning about bodily autonomy and consent at home.
Following this initial observation, you can then move on to clearly explain that as soon as the person being tickled says “stop” or “no,” the tickling should always stop. Make sure your students understand that “no” and “stop” are words that should be honored unceasingly. Explain that this concept of consent is a right everyone has and can exercise in any circumstance, whether another person is tickling, pulling on hair, tapping, grabbing, etc. Teach your students how this rule of consent can be broadened and used in all different situations.
One specific way you can incorporate these concepts into the classroom environment is by encouraging your young students to clearly say “yes” or “no” in their everyday choices. For instance, teaching students to ask for permission before touching or hugging any classmates integrates the rule of consent into simple, everyday considerations. Another way to incorporate consent into the classroom environment is to teach students’ that they must ask for permission from their classmate to play with that classmate’s toy or to share some of that classmate’s lunch. Teach students that they must ask for permission from their classmate each time they wish to do these things as a way of emphasizing that consent can be revoked at any moment, including during the activity; just because their classmate shared a toy or gave them a hug once before does not mean they are obligated to share or hug again at subsequent times.
For more information about childhood sexuality, visit this article.
Elementary and Middle School (Ages 5-13)
Since many of your elementary students will likely still be distanced from sexual activity or romantic relationships, you can typically continue to incorporate the concept of consent into everyday elementary school life. Encourage them to watch their friends’ facial expressions during play to be sure that everyone is enjoying it.3 We also recommend teaching your students that their actions and behaviors affect others, which can prepare them for a lifetime of empathy. However, avoid making assumptions; be aware that some elementary students may actually be engaging in sexual activity or romantic relationships at a young age. You may need to make adjustments to your lesson plan if observations of your students’ behaviors lead you to believe more specific education is necessary.
As your students get older, they will begin to explore their own sexualities and often obtain (usually inaccurate) information about sex from their groups of friends. When formal sex education begins (typically between fifth and sixth grade in school districts within the United States), it is an appropriate time to expand your lesson on consent. Explain the ways in which consent is related to sex during any initial “birds and the bees” lessons. Your students (and maybe even you) will likely experience embarrassment, discomfort, or awkwardness at some point during the conversation, which may distract from the overall lesson, but it is critical to bring up the topic of consent nonetheless. Depending on what state or country you are teaching in, the age of consent will differ. Teach your students that, until they reach the age of consent determined by law, any sexual intimacy others try to share with them is illegal, regardless of any verbal consent granted by the minor.4
Teens and Young Adults (Ages 13-18)
As students enter their teenage years, they are likely to experiment with “touch games” such as “butt-slapping, [young males] hitting one another in the genitals, and punching each other’s nipples to cause pain.”3 Teen females will often have the straps of their bras painfully “snapped” by both male and female classmates. Educators should teach this age group that there is both “good touch” and “bad touch.” When you see “bad touch” on school grounds or in the classroom, stop it from continuing.
Those teaching a high school sex education course should be aware that students may be participating in sexual exploration with friends and relational partners. When appropriate, ask your students if any of them feel comfortable sharing their personal experiences with the class. While listening, you may notice that your students are effectively practicing safe sex; however, you may also notice some risky or illegal behavior occurring in your students’ stories. Focus on limiting your responses to information supported by academic research only, rather than providing responses that could appear judgmental or biased. It may only be necessary to clarify consent rules. Even if only a few students decide to share their experiences, others can benefit from hearing the pros and cons of their peers’ encounters as well.
What Does a Dialogue About Consent Look Like?
Teaching teenagers how to give and receive consent is essentially a lesson about how to effectively communicate, so it is important to provide teens with the proper tools needed to construct a productive dialogue about consent with others. Offer your students a few ways to ask their partner(s) for consent. Be honest with them while always remaining appropriate. A dialogue about affirmative consent can look like the following:
- “I’d really like to ____ with you. Would you like to?”
- “Do you like it when I do this?”
- “Is it OK if I take off your shirt/bra/top/boxers/pants?”
- “Before we go any further, do you want to do this?”
Overall, affrimative consent dialogues revolve around effectively communicating the type and degree of sexual activity partners are willing to engage in with clear and verbal phrases, such as the ones above. Most of all, repetition is key; one consent lesson alone will not stick in the minds of your students. Stress the concept of consent with every new sex topic during your lessons, as it is relevant and necessary for any sexual encounter.
It is equally as important to teach teens what affirmative consent does not look like. The following is a list of behaviors that fundamentally violate one’s right to give consent:
- Refusing to stop or respect the word “no”
- Using fear or intimidation to pressure someone into sexual activity
- Assuming consent was given because a person is flirting, kissing, or is dressed a certain way
- Interacting sexually either with or as someone under the legal age of consent (as defined by state law)
- Being incapacitated by or under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Assuming consent from a former partner remains because the person previously consented to sexually interact with them in the past
- Assuming permission to engage in a sexual act was granted because the person has engaged in sexual acts with other people before
Students should be taught to recognize the above behaviors in themselves and others, and should understand that each behavior mentioned is a punishable offense by law.2
It is particularly important to speak honestly with your students about partying with alcohol and drugs. They could already be exposed to drug and alcohol use, and may need to be informed about consent issues surrounding inebriation. Consider asking your students the following questions:
- How can you tell if someone has had too much to drink?
- How does your behavior change when you have had too much to drink?
- Can you provide consent if you are under the influence of alcohol, even if you are not “drunk?”
- How will you know if it is acceptable to kiss someone or touch someone if they have had a lot to drink?3
Questions about how drug and alcohol use affect consent, like those listed above, can help your students think critically about how they should behave sexually around peers under the influence of substances and how those substances affect their own ability to give consent.
As an educator, it is your duty to educate students and provide them with factual, useful, and comprehensive information about sex. Consent should be integrated repeatedly through sexual education curriculum over students’ many years of primary schooling. From teaching young children bodily autonomy to giving teenagers tools helpful in constructing a dialogue about consent with their romantic and sexual partners, consent should remain a central theme throughout all sexual education curricula. Through efforts of educators, sexual consent can become more central to sexual culture and incidents of sexual assault could be lessened in the future.
For a simple, yet creative explanation about the concept of consent, refer to this video by the Thames Valley Police Department:
1.“What Consent Looks Like.” RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
2. “California Enacts ‘Yes Means Yes’ Law, Defining Sexual Consent.” NPR. NPR, 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
3. “Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21.” Everyday Feminism. N.p., 29 Mar. 2013. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
4. Clarke, Peter. “Age of Consent by State.” The LegalMatch. N.p., 14 Jan. 2017. Web. 01 June 2017.
Last updated: 18 May 2017.