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Whenever there is a news report about teaching kids about consent, we hear the same responses. The Daily Mail shouts about primary school kids being taught about rape and abuse. Someone will complain that #notallmen are rapists, and how dare we suggest otherwise. A male student will object to being invited to a consent workshop. The weird thing is, that teaching kids about consent isn’t actually about sex, and it isn’t at all radical. It isn’t even part of an anti-man conspiracy.
Consent isn’t about sex. It isn’t about rape. The definition of the word is ‘permission for something to happen, or an agreement about something’. The verb consent means ‘give permission for something to happen’. We can give consent in any aspect of our lives, from consenting to hospital treatment, to consenting to cookies being stored when we access a website.
Why is it then so radical that kids should be taught that they have the right to withhold consent, if someone is doing something or asking something of them that they don’t want?
Teaching Toddler to PreSchool Kids about Consent
Teaching about consent starts when children are still very young. Don’t wait until they are in their teens to talk about consent, and boundaries. A friend told me about the rule that they had in their house, that the kids learned from a young age
If everyone isn’t having fun, everyone stops!
This works really well with toddlers, who are just developing a sense of empathy. This doesn’t happen automatically, it needs to be taught. Whether it is the 3 year old who is bothering his older sister, or the 8 year old who won’t stop repeating everything their sibling says and does … it is important that children are taught that when the other person has had enough, you stop!
One situation that often comes up is when children are messing around or tickling. A child may be saying no, but giggling and laughing at the same time. It can make it difficult for younger children to understand – why is my sister saying laughing, if she wants me to stop?
You can talk about reading the non-verbal messages that their sibling or friend is sending. She might not be saying, ‘no’, but her facial expression and body language shows that she is not happy, and getting angry or upset. She’s stopped laughing and responding to his silliness, or has turned away.
This won’t work for some children, who have trouble reading body language or facial expressions, so another way of enforcing the ‘no means no’ rule is to suggest the addition of a strengthening word. “Absolutely NO” or “Stop NOW”. At the end of the day, our lesson to our kids must be ‘no means no’.
This rule must be followed by everyone in the household, including parents and relations. If a child doesn’t want to give granny a kiss and a hug, then they should not be forced or coerced into doing so. It is important that children learn that they have boundaries, and these boundaries should be respected.
Teaching Tweens about Consent
When kids start school, they will come across bullying and controlling behaviour. It is really helpful to give the kids words to describe what they are experiencing. The tactics of a typical school bully are very similar to those of a controlling person – it’s a fantastic life skill to be able to recognise people like this.
Phrases and statements like these only serve to teach young girls that it’s okay for boys to hurt them, that it’s a good thing somehow. To the same effect, it teaches young boys that physical harm is a valid way to show affection, that it’s okay to hurt someone else because, hey, you’re doing it out of love. We need to stop teaching children that this is the way things are. This chain of excuses for abuse needs to stop with us.
It should be stressed that “boys will be boys” excuses will not be tolerated, for behaviour such as verbal or physical harassment of others. “He’s doing it because he likes you”, is not an acceptable response to a girl who has been hit or teased by a boy.
There have been incidence of boys being charged for ‘stealing kisses‘, and while we can dispute the sense of such a harsh punishment, the fact remains that girls should be able to go to school without being harassed. If a girl doesn’t want to be kissed, why should she put up with it, because it was just a joke?
Kids need to know that they and they alone own their body, and that if they don’t want to hold hands, kiss or hug, or even have a photograph posted online, they can refuse. How many parents ask if their kids are ok with them posting a photo of them on Facebook?
Teaching Teens about Consent
As the children get older, you can expand on your teaching to include talking of boundaries in sexual relationships. As they’ve already learned about reading non-verbal messages, you can already go beyond ‘no means no’, to teach about enthusiastic consent. It goes without saying that these lessons should be taught to both girls and boys, and are valid in all sexual relationships, including same sex relationships.
A lot of parents worry about talking to their kids about sex, but it really doesn’t have to be excruciatingly embarrassing. Read our tips here on talking to your kids about sex without euphemisms or embarrassment.
The Right to Say No
If you, at any time during a sexual encounter, feel uncomfortable or uneasy, you have the right to say STOP. You can call a halt. It does not make you a tease. It makes you a responsible young adult. Sex can be wonderful with the right partner, when both are enthusiastic participants.
Don’t agree to sex because you feel you have to, because you think the other person will like you better, because everyone else is doing it. Don’t agree to sex because your partner calls you names, or talks about leaving you if you don’t.
When Consent is Impossible
It really should be obvious, but it is important to stress that if a person is drunk, high or otherwise impaired, they are not ‘fair game’, and the right thing to do is put the person to bed and let them sleep it off. With a bucket next to their bed.
This includes watching out for anyone who is vulnerable, and ensuring that others don’t take advantage of them. If you go out with friends and notice that one of your group is incredibly drunk, keep an eye on them. Make sure they get home safely, even if you have to leave the party early to do so. There will be other parties.
The only way to be really truly sure that your sexual partner wants to have sex is to ask. Never assume consent, alway always check that the person you are with is enjoying themselves as much as you are. If your partner is unusually silent or unresponsive, check that they are still happy to proceed. If your partner expresses doubt, then STOP.
Do not try to persuade them, coerce them, change their mind. If they only have sex with you because they felt pressured into it, they will regret it later. And so will you.
Do you have someone in your life who makes you feel worthless? Who berates you and belittles you in front of your friends? Were they always like this? Or were they attentive and kind when you met them?
They wanted to spend all their time with you, monopolised you and then slowly cut you off from your friends. Perhaps they sought to make you financially dependent on them, or bought you unwanted gifts that made you feel beholden to them. It happened gradually, this isolation, so gradually that you did not notice it.
There are many many red flags to help you recognise when a relationship – be it sexual or a friendship – is a healthy one. Be aware of these warning signals and if you feel that a friendship is unhealthy, back off for a bit. If you are mistaken, it won’t harm the friendship. If they keep pressuring you, then you know that your instincts were right.
It’s a good idea to talk about rape myths at this point. Rape isn’t something that happens in a dark alleyway, or after a bad decision was made to take a mini-cab home. The media makes a big thing about boys who are accused of rape, but neglect to mention how incredibly rare false accusations are.
We hear about boys getting horribly mixed messages, which leaves them feeling unsure about what is ok and what crosses the line – but it is actually really quite simple. There are no ‘blurred lines’.
If you are with a girl and she’s incredibly drunk, or not responding, then to carry on would be rape. If you’ve already had sex with a girl, that doesn’t give you permission to do it again the next morning, the next day or whenever you feel like it. It doesn’t matter how many previous partners she’s had, or what she was wearing, or how far she’s let you go. She is free to say stop at any point, and you must respect her decision.
Consent workshops don’t imply that all men are potential rapists. They imply that many young people don’t understand enough about consent, and that is not surprising, because it isn’t a part of the national curriculum, so isn’t being taught at all schools in UK.
It’s up to us as parents to make the difference by talking to our kids honestly and openly about sex, and to put pressure on our schools and politicians to ensure that all children learn these lessons.
Incredibly helpful website, for information on UK curriculum, and how to find out what your child’s school is teaching, plus news on current campaigns.
The association campaigns for the introduction of a ‘Curriculum for Life‘, in UK schools, going beyond basic sex ed, with explanation of the biological functions of the human body, and covers topics such as personal finance, online and offline safety, relationships, healthy lifestyles, emergency first aid and careers, taught in a way which is appropriate to the age and maturity of pupils.
The Crown Prosecution Service has launched a social media campaign to get people talking about consent to sex within the context of sexual assault and rape.
This is in partnership with Rape Crisis, End Violence against Women Coalition, Survivors Manchester, White Ribbon Campaign and the National Union of Students.
There is confusion about consent, but there shouldn’t be – so we’re encouraging people to talk about the issue and understand it, by using the hashtag #ConsentIs… on Twitter and Instagram.
Teaching kids to recognise controlling behaviour for what it is, could prevent them from a future abusive relationship. We can start by teaching them about this kind of behaviour, which has strong parallels to the tactics used by those who abuse their partners. Read about the “red flags” that older teens should be made aware of, and ensure that you and your kids would recognise this kind of person.