As a consultant and researcher on sexuality and misconduct, I know that preventing sexual misconduct starts with education that shifts the paradigms and norms we have about sex, relationships, and bodily autonomy.
Adulthood is not the best time to start these conversations—by then, our culture and media have already sent millions of messages in the wrong direction. And making sex and sexuality the enemy is the least effective approach. Research shows that the more we talk about sex and agency in the late childhood and teen years, the less likely it is that abusive dynamics will arise—and, if they do, the more likely that self-efficacy and personal advocacy will be present.
As educators, it’s our goal and responsibility to nurture the whole student. Excluding consent and sexual agency from our educational objectives has long-lasting, tragic implications—ones we see, for example, in the scandal that has hit Chicago Public Schools.
Based on my experience as a teacher, trainer, and sex education expert, here are my top three guidelines for creating cultures of consent in our schools.
Discuss Consent in All Its Forms
Consent is not as simple as a cup of tea (as an infamous video would have it). We’ve all grown up in a culture that promotes assault and harassment—through movies, music, and advertisements, we’re fed a steady stream of stories about unhealthy relationships that are presented as romantic, seductive, or humorous. Interpersonal communication continues to follow scripts that promote dishonesty and toxic gender roles—with boys being depicted as sexually insatiable and never victimized, and girls as either “good” and sexually pure, or “at-risk” and hypersexualized.
All of these depictions feed into the concept we call rape culture: the beliefs, myths, and social scripting that promote and maintain sexual violence.
Consent is far more than “no means no,” and even “yes means yes” does not cover all the dynamics involved in authentic, affirmative, and enthusiastic consent. Consider the concepts of token resistance (TR) and token compliance (TC). TR is the expectation of a no when the individual really wants to say yes—e.g., “good girls” are supposed to not like sex, and their no supposedly masks their genuine desires. TC is the flip side: a person saying yes under pressure when they’d rather say no. To educate on consent, we must address these points honestly.
School districts and educators can bridge the gap in subject matter competency around the affirmative consent paradigm by bringing in sex education experts. Sexuality and consent are topics that many educators hesitate to bring up because of a lack of resources and understanding of how to address these deeply complex topics appropriately with children, tweens, and teens, and a sex education expert can help.
Having these conversations in health classes where sex and relationships are already discussed is too limiting to create the shift in cultural values that we need to heal the structural inequalities that lead to sexual misconduct and abuse. We need to train all teachers and administrators on sexual misconduct, consent, dating violence, and reporting and response obligations under Title IX. We then need to infuse these conversations across the curriculum so that students receive these messages consistently throughout their school years.
Explain Sexual Agency and Subjectivity
Sexual agency is the ability to assert sexual needs, desires, and boundaries effectively. Sexual subjectivity is an individual’s ability to reflect on their sexual needs, identity, and rights to pleasure. Together, these concepts form the foundation for creating cultures of consent.
All communal transformation begins with empowering the individual. We can help students unlearn messages about sexual shame, victim-blaming, and slut-shaming, and teach them about body image, sexual empowerment, and their right to sexual pleasure and autonomy. Doing so can shift the current paradigm. Not including sexual pleasure in the conversations we have in sex education classes, for example, feeds into the cultural norms that lead to sexual abuse.
Promote Healthy Relationships for Everyone
Part of creating a consent culture is exploring what defines a healthy relationship. Any time two or more people are interacting—whether in friendship, flirting and dating, or long-term and marital relationships—both empathy and consent must be present.
Conversations that assume that everyone is cisgender or heterosexual are not the answer, and neither are ones that paint every victim of assault as female (they aren’t) and every perpetrator as male (women and girls commit abuse and assault too).
We must break away from these stereotypes and decolonize these discussions. Every culture, ethnicity, and religion has a unique perspective on and expectation for courtship, love, and sex. Ensuring that consent is culturally humble and inclusive is key to guaranteeing its applicability in every community.
We must look critically at whether our depictions of sexuality are centered on straight, white, or cisgendered narratives. If the curriculum or facilitators are focusing on a limited cultural perspective, we should consult with consent educators from other cultures and communities to ensure that messages are inclusive and not resting on a framework of Western moral superiority.
When do we begin this work? As soon as our children can understand language. The seeds of consent are planted in the way we show our children how to share, how to ask before touching or taking, and that every person has the inalienable right to their body.
Our children need to know their right to assert their ability to say no and to require an authentic yes from even those in positions of power. This cannot begin soon enough, because consent is about so much more than sex—it is about the human rights that we are gifted at birth. Schools are in a uniquely important position to do this challenging, grassroots work.