How to Teach Consent Across the Curriculum
Studying the concept of consent outside the confines of health classes may leave students better equipped to apply what they learn.
In 2018, when I first wrote about consent education and the role that schools play in preventing sexual misconduct, my focus was on getting consent education into the schools. Unfortunately, the need for deterring gender-based interpersonal violence is still very much the reality across the country. While a few states have begun creating mandates for consent education at some point in a student’s high school years, most states have either ignored the issue entirely or disregarded the enforcement of these standards. Students, staff, and communities continue to feel the impact of not having consent infused into their school culture.
But there’s good news as well. There’s been increased societal outcry, including the #MeToo movement, and parents are getting on board with educators about preventing and addressing sexual misconduct. The tide is starting to turn.
I was asked to write a book to expand the ideas I had touched on in my article and offer additional resources for families and teachers who want to play an active role in making consent a cultural norm. A significant part of this undertaking involves moving away from thinking of consent only in the context of health education. Of course, consent has to be central to health classes, particularly the sex education components, but if we want to move it from a subject to a paradigm, we need to expand its reach and the spaces we explore. This is especially helpful when facing the argument that youth aren’t ready to talk about consent because they shouldn’t be having sex in the first place, or if communities have objections to sex education overall.
In Creating Cultures of Consent, I outline ideas for making consent a cross-curricular topic moving beyond the bounds of a single subject to a discussion that’s explored throughout all subject areas.
Incorporating Consent Into Middle and High School Classes
English and language arts: Few modalities lend themselves more to exploring complex concepts than writing. Whether doing a research paper, an exploratory or persuasive essay that allows students to dive into the information that’s available through research, lived experiences, narratives, or personal perspectives, the options abound. In ELA, students can explore the nuances of consent and complementary topics, which provide a foundation for transformative learning.
Science: In anatomy and physiology courses, understanding how our mind and body respond to trauma—e.g., hormonal and cognitive changes—is crucial. In chemistry classes, having students do a deep dive through the body’s reaction to fear—fight/flight/freeze—offers a new dimension for understanding the experiences of survivors and shifts ideas about victim blaming and shame.
History: We can’t understand our present until we have addressed our past, and consent is no different. When teaching about any historical period, addressing how individual autonomy and bodily autonomy were confirmed or denied to other communities is a great starting point. As students reach the end of high school, discussing how interpersonal violence and the denial of the right to consent have been used to control and deny personhood through systems of structural inequality gives a holistic context to the issues such as domestic violence, systemic racism, and transphobia that students see playing out in our world.
Civics: How do legal systems impact consent culture, and do survivor voices shift the way we respond to violence? Giving students the opportunity to learn about topics ranging from Title IX’s evolution to how survivors who have testified against Supreme Court candidates influence who we believe, and how they impact legal changes, helps establish how long problems have existed and what they will lead to next. Civics creates a wide pathway for understanding the real-world implications of social awareness around consent topics.
Mathematics: How many people does gender-based violence really impact? How many report their trauma, and what about false reporting? Helping students understand the statistics and how we come up with the numbers we find in research gives credence to the other consent classes. So much of the misinformation around consent and interpersonal violence comes from some examples being minimized—“that was a rare occurrence”—and others being blown out of proportion, such as with false reporting. By exploring the research behind these issues, students see how common the problems are and how rarely perpetrators face justice.
Gym/PE: Few high school and college classes have been as connected to interpersonal violence, both collegiately and outside of team dynamics, as athletics. Too often the talks that do get offered to student athletes about consent center on avoiding “false allegations.” Many student athletes are given platforms that offer a sense of entitlement to act out violently, but equally as many have their concerns silenced and face victimization, at least initially, as with the case of Larry Nassar and the U.S. gymnastics team. Teaching consent through frank discussion of these issues and modeling consensual contact in a sports context brings consent education to physical education.
Consent and its conceptual cousins—bodily autonomy, communication, bystander intervention, personal agency, etc.—should never be siloed. These topics are complex because human beings are complex, so the more opportunities students have to discuss each through the lens of multiple perspectives, the better equipped students are to make them actionable. Hearing from different teachers also reiterates how important consent is to a student’s community.
Teachers are daily role models when it comes to values education. When students see the adults they spend their week with affirming the value of consent culture and combating common myths and misconceptions, it can have a lifelong impact. Instead of putting all of the emotional labor on health teachers, we can all take a part in carrying the load of shifting cultural norms.