Teaching Consent in Schools: When is the Right Time to Talk About it?
On face value, consent can seem an obvious concept. Do we really need a consent workshop to teach our children and teens what it means to agree to sexual activity or not?
A look at some of the headline news stories regarding consent, rape and sexual assault suggests that perhaps we do. Despite attempts to portray issues of consent as clear cut, there are still too many stories of apparent misunderstandings. Even if these are merely excuses used by the alleged perpetrator of an abuse, they can be effective in securing a not guilty verdict.
As explained by a character in a recent Nina Raine play, the legal system is a battle of narratives with the winner convincing the jury (in this case the audience) whose version and interpretation of events is accurate. Of course, by the time it gets to the courts, any damage has already been done of course and there can be no real ‘win’ for an abuse victim.
Teaching Consent in Schools
One of the reasons why consent needs to be broached early on in life is that by university age, there seems to be a problem in engaging young people in the topic at all. Last year, some colleges in the USA and universities in the UK found it impossible to provide the level of support they wanted to for new students because they either did not attend or walked out of consent talks, some even feeling angry and patronised. Quite often the simple idea of negotiating permission seems to be overshadowed by narratives regarding gender stereotyping and victim blaming.
But while many new students may have moved beyond the need to negotiate the subtleties of their intimate relationships, there will be others who may be less experienced and prepared. Perhaps they have come from a sheltered background and may be more vulnerable to manipulation. Perhaps they have never had the opportunity to clarify what consent means for them.
Part of a 2020 Dreams Consent workshop involves open forum debate which is a powerful method of allowing young people to develop and, in some cases, create those crucial narratives that enable consent to be properly negotiated. This isn’t some sort of contractual legalese but just the natural expression that comes from understanding, self awareness and self-respect.
During such debates, misunderstandings around consent – the ones that we hear about in the news – can be aired in a safe environment. Sensitive, age-appropriate role plays are another useful technique for allowing young people to practise verbalising their consent or its withdrawal or to recognise the unspoken signs of denied permission.
Isn’t it better for young people to have that battle of verbal and non-verbal narratives early in life while they are still forming their ideas about relationships? It is certainly better than having that debate in the courtroom.