What’s the easiest way to teach children about consent? Have them practice it with you. We have kids practice what to say when they get lost in the grocery store, how to talk (or not) to strangers, and different ways to say no to drugs. Isn’t it just as important to teach them about consent?
If we assume that issues of sexual consent first begin when we start regarding children as sexual beings, we’ll far have missed the boat. Personal boundaries are learned at the same time children learn normal social interactions, and it’s their understanding of nonsexual boundaries that may transfer to situations that have a sexual aspect. We don’t know when, or where, or how children will encounter situations in which they are challenged to be aware of and maintain personal boundaries. And aren’t they entitled to assertiveness and respect all of the time?
As someone who reads a LOT of feminist parenting blogs and is all about empowerment, I know I can’t take for granted that my touch is going to be welcome by someone. This includes children (especially girls), who are taught some pretty iffy things about consent, and for many reasons may not be able to properly communicate consent to me. This is why we have laws in place to protect children from exploitation, especially in situations that also involve emotional maturity and judgment. And when it comes to power relationships with adults, the messages are even more confusing. It’s okay to say no…EXCEPT when your parents think you should consent. Always defend personal boundaries…BUT not with certain adults ,who supposedly know better than you do. These messages aren’t just about sex, they’re about assertiveness and a right to one’s personal space. I think it’s common (and typically healthy) to use touch as one way of showing intimacy with others. But we have to be careful when we teach children about exceptions…should we exempt ourselves from the rules of consent just because we say so?
This recently struck a nerve when I was training with a local agency to facilitate support groups for children. We were learning about the role of touch in communicating empathy and connecting with others. Especially for children who are dealing with loss, developing attachments with caring adults can be an important part of the healing process. But something about this still made me uncomfortable – we are assuming an awful lot of things. 1) That our touch is necessarily welcome; 2) that it is our intent (not how touch may be experienced) that matters; and 3) we, as caring and well-meaning adults [read: we, because we say so] are entitled to intimacy with people that we don’t know simply because they are very young. I ended the training feeling torn between my knowledge of power relationships, and my trust in practiced facilitators. As usual, I turned to the feminist blogosphere for help.
Rebecca wrote a very emphatic letter about this over at City of Ladies:
I know it “hurts your feelings” when I get annoyed at you touching me without my consent. It hurts my feelings when you touch me without my consent. It hurts my feelings when you yell at me for being annoyed when you touch me without my consent. […] Because once you establish that consent does not matter, the difference between kissing the back of someone’s neck and putting your penis in their vagina is a difference only of degree, not of kind. […]
Are you disappointed that the only safety videos you could find when we were kids were ones that said that you are the only one who can let someone touch your body? Would you rather have shown us ones that said that our parents were the only ones who could let someone touch our body, and it was their consent that mattered? […]
[…] What Rebecca describes is a fight that cannot be won in a single engagement. It is a constant. Grandparents and aunts and uncles press in with their sense of entitlement to smooch and pat and kiss. If we teach our children to go along to get along, how is that differentiable from the gym teacher or the school nurse? […]
The ones who are going along to get along are us, the parents. Let’s be honest: we don’t want to have to explain to our parents and siblings that their sense of entitlement is wrong. We don’t want to have to say the things that Rebecca says in her letter. […] I’m the one who can say, “I’m their dad, and I told them they don’t have to kiss anyone they don’t want to.” I can’t say in every family who can do this job. I know in mine, it is me. And so I will do it.
The simplest thing we can do to teach children about consent is to model it through their relationships with US. If guardians and people close to them ask their consent before being touched, kissed, moved about; this will be the way they interact with other people in their life. If I ask consent before picking someone up and swinging them around – before physically moving them from place to place – they will learn that someone with power over them can not use physical force to trump bodily autonomy. Consent is not just about sex; it’s about a culture in which people are entitled to decide when, where, how, and with whom they interact in an intimate way. It’s not about your children not wanting to snuggle with you – it’s about teaching them that it’s customary to ask. It means that if anyone ever tries to snuggle them without asking, and they don’t want to, it’s okay not to want to. It means that while the adults that care for them must sometimes override their own judgment, they are still the ones in charge of their body, they are the only ones who can give out consent, and “good touches” and “bad touches” are good and bad irrespective of how much power someone has over them. Don’t just talk to your kids about consent. Practice it.