How do we teach sexual consent in schools? You’ll probably say, “Well, we don’t teach it,” which is mostly true. Most schools don’t have consent written into their curriculum.
But here’s the thing: There is no neutral when we talk about sexual consent. By not actively working to undo the damaging messages of our culture, we are passively supporting them. In fact, many of them show up in the policies and cultural norms that we enforce.
I was thinking about this recently because a group of legitimately kick-ass people here in Minnesota is pushing for legislation that would require consent education in K-12 classes. Their effort is based on some of the affirmative-consent education that has spread in higher-ed institutions, and seeks to make it part of a healthy, comprehensive sex-ed experience.
The more I thought about what consent education looks like now in schools, the sadder and madder I got. Just because it’s not written into our curriculum doesn’t mean we aren’t sending constant and strong messages about consent, and they aren’t great.
When we choose to have no curriculum or plan for teaching consent, these are the messed up lessons we teach our kids instead.
Bad Lesson 1: Touching someone means you are sexually attracted to them.
This weekend, I was out at a coffee shop, and watched as a young girl, maybe 2 years old, walked up to the man in front of her and put her hand on his knee. The girl’s mom said to him, “Oh, looks like she’s got a crush on you.”
Like, I get that’s a thing that we do, but I think it’s weird.
I think it’s super weird, and we do it all the time, and we do it with younger and older kids. We act like a hug is a sexual thing, like lying next to each other is too close. Doing so, we miss an important chance to teach about how to negotiate touch, even non-sexual touch, in a healthy way. When we discuss different kinds of touch, different meanings, and how to communicate about them, we help keep young people safer from those who would actually want to hurt or take advantage of them.
Putting such strict and extreme meaning to touch enforces the idea that someone touching you, on your shoulder or even in some playful, flirtatious way, is communicating more than it is, and at the same time excuses non-consensual behavior.
Bad Lesson 2: Your body is not yours.
One year, in a building I taught, a young woman was being disciplined by a behavior dean. He was walking her to his office and she said, quite clearly, that she didn’t feel comfortable being in his office with him. He told her that she had to go anyway.
Luckily, her friends saw it, came to me and I went and sat with her in the office, but still. This is a version of something that happens all the time in schools, whether or not the student is able to so clearly express their discomfort at the time.
I had never thought of the way our control of student behavior takes away agency over their bodies until I interviewed my wife, a sex therapist and author, last summer. She pointed out how we often control students by telling them where and how to sit, when to go to the bathroom, how to walk, where to be and who to be near.
Some of those things are likely necessary because we need schools to work and to cut down on the flaming chaos of the hallways. But my wife’s outside perspective made me realize that when we do those things, we’re sending a bigger message about their bodies at the same time.
Bad Lesson 3: The behavior of others is your responsibility.
The most egregious way we enforce this in schools is through our dress codes. I’ve written about it before, and so have many others, so I won’t spend too much time here on why dress codes are often sexist and shaming.
When the dress code is used to say that whatever harassment or teasing or touching can be blamed on a skirt that doesn’t hit your fingertips, or that someone can claim your body because they have seen your bra strap, dress codes are giving a dangerous message to students.
I’ve heard similar messages applied to staff, where an unruly class has been blamed on the outfit of the teacher, where unwanted advances from a coworker have been blamed on—I kid you not—the sharing of food.
When we don’t have real conversations about what consent means and how it is given, we assume too often that any victim of harassment or assault must have, in some way, asked for it. It’s not a statement many of us would feel comfortable saying out loud, so it shouldn’t be an idea that is written into our school handbooks.
Bad Lesson 4: Boys are bad.
Once upon a time, I was a boy in school. I didn’t like it. I remember teachers making jokes about how messy and unruly boys were. I heard jokes about how young men were like children. Now, I hear those same jokes in the staff lounge about teachers’ husbands.
We aren’t good at boys in school. Not as good as we could be. We boys will be boys them too often.
We also allow room for jokes and comments about “real men” and delight at the male teachers at the assembly when they put on a dress. So absurd! A man who would reduce himself to being a woman!
Masculinity is fine. It is great. But toxic masculinity is, quite literally, killing us. When we allow for or encourage this culture of “bad boys” in schools, we allow for an idea of men who get what they want because they want it, of boys who can comprehend no larger threat to their self-worth than a girl who won’t give them the physical or social attention they want.
Bad Lesson 5: Sexual violence is less terrifying than sexual pleasure.
What do the standard texts in our schools tell our students about love and relationships and bodies? I’ve been wracking my brain about this for days, going through the texts I’ve taught, that are taught in buildings where I’ve worked, that I was handed when I was in school. I’m struggling to find examples of healthy romantic relationships.
At first, I was struggling to think of examples of any real relationships in books, which seemed to be by design. I can imagine that we are mostly terrified of addressing romance, most especially sexual romance, in classrooms.
That said, I could think of tons of books and stories that carried rape scenes in their pages, or that alluded to sexual assault or molestation. Tons more had scenes of physical abuse of children and partners. But none, none that I could think of, suggested that sex is something that people find to be enjoyable when done in a healthy, consensual way.
Seriously, the most sex-positive piece of literature I’ve taught that is typical in schools was “Romeo and Juliet,” and they get married after knowing each other for like a day, speak a full five minutes to each other, and then both commit suicide. Not good.
We Can Do Better
When we don’t include healthy relationships as models in our schools, we hope they learn those skills elsewhere, but most of the messages they are getting about relationships are from “The Bachelor” and the messages about sex are from Pornhub.
We are missing a grand opportunity to teach something necessary, to tell counter-narratives to rape culture. We need to take a hard look at how we work against consent in schools, but more than that, we have a chance to take action and provide our students with the tools they need to understand and engage in a culture of consent.