I don't know about you, but sexual consent was in no way a part of my early sexual education. In movies or TV shows that had steamy scenes, there was never any specific ask, my parents didn't bring up consent when we had "the talk" (pause to shudder at that phrase), and I barely recall talking about consent at any point during sex ed. at school (I did, at least, get the benefit of comprehensive sex education). This is a major failing that is in the process of being rectified, at least for certain age levels. As they should, colleges across the U.S. are implementing consent programs, but what about younger kids? How should we talk about consent with children?
So many of us are uncomfortable enough even talking about genitals, much less talking about them to children, so the idea of finding a way to also explain forceful or manipulative sexual violation can seem... impossible. We can't say the word "rape" to a six year old, right? But in that question lies the secret to talking about consent with young people: Just keep it age appropriate. Putting it into focus like this makes it a lot less scary for the adults involved and ensures that each child has these conversations in a way they can understand. Here is a run down of some of the best ways to talk to young people about sexual consent that will get the conversation started.
Toddlers Through Early Elementary School
At this age, kids are still learning about their bodies, how they work, what they can do with them, what hurts, and so on. Debra Herbenick of the Kinsey Institute said in a New York Times interview that at very young ages, the best way to start teaching children about consent is to teach them to "keep their hands to themselves." Herbenick explained that children of this age have very little sense of boundaries, so teaching them that they cannot touch whomever they want, however they want is a great first step.
Herbenick also stated how important it is for adults to respect the bodies of children, saying:
You know how little kids like to be tickled? If a kid says stop, even if they’re laughing, the best thing you can do as an adult is stop. What that teaches them when they’re 2 or 3 or 4 is that they have control over their own body.
This is a hugely important point to draw out: Just because children are young does not mean that they should not get to make decisions about their body, especially if they feel uncomfortable.
In a 2012 CNN essay on this topic, parenting writer Katia Hetter wrote about how she does not demand that her young daughter give hugs to their relatives. Hetter wrote about her daughter, "I figure her body is actually hers, not mine."
As adults, we sometimes think that we have some sort of special entitlement to affection from children (think: "Go on, go hug grandma!" "Come here and give me a kiss!"). But by not giving kids a choice in this matter, it can send the message that they should partake in certain physical interactions to appease others, even if it makes them uncomfortable. Which is to say: They are being taught that people don't need their consent before touching them.
This bit could also apply to even younger children, as it has to do with allowing children to learn that their body belongs to them, which is an important message at all ages. From my personal experience with my young niece and nephew, I have found that they are quiet cuddly and want to share physical affection, but I have to let them come to me. I want it to be their decision to give me a hug, not something that I force on them because it's what I want.
Pre-Teen & Early Teen Years
BaLeigh M. Harper of Power Up, Speak Out!, an organization that helps adults work with kids on important but sensitive issues, suggests in an op-ed that middle school-aged youth need to employ consent in more areas that just physical or sexual contact.
If we teach middle schoolers how to ask for consent when sharing a photo on Facebook or telling a story about someone else, we are encouraging them to set their own boundaries and to respect the boundaries of others.
In a brilliant piece about consent for all ages, written for The Good Men Project by Alyssa Royse, Joanna Schroeder, Julie Gillis, and Jamie Utt, the writers state that middle school is the time to start explicitly talking about sex when discussing consent with kids. They point out that this is the age where touching such as butt-slapping, poking, and other physical teasing begins in earnest, so it's important to discuss how this may affect everyone involved.
Middle school is often a time when romantic physical affection (like kissing) can start. They write that this time in their relationship development is:
a great time to explain enthusiastic consent. About asking permission to kiss or touch a partner. Explain that only "yes" means "yes." Don’t wait for your partner to say "no" to look for consent.
By the time young people are into their teens, if they haven't been learning about consent throughout their lives (the case for many teenagers and adults now), they're going to be pretty confused about sex, and not have a clear understanding about what constitutes consent.
Rhiannon Holder, a teen sex educator, said in a Guardian interview that high school-aged youth need to understand the nuances of sex and consent in order to make sure they're always seeking consent, and feel comfortable denying consent if they are uncomfortable. In her work with teenagers, Holder says she will facilitate conversation around "what it means to be in a relationship; what it means to have safe and positive sex."
For instance, we would look at situations where you have had sex with someone before, or if you've kissed somebody; does that mean you have to go on and have sex? Also it's about taking responsibility for consent, so making it clear it's not just the person who has the responsibility for saying "yes." Young men should actively be seeking consent.
By exploring different scenarios and being explicit about shared responsibility for consent, older teens who may just be starting to engage in sexual acts can have a thorough understanding of what it means to get and give consent before potential harm is done.
These are some excellent tips to keep in mind when having an ongoing conversation with young people about consent. This is, of course, not an exhaustive compilation of all the material on this subject out there, but if you're looking to get the basics of getting this very important message across to young children, these ideas should certainly get the ball rolling, and ensure that the young people in your life are safe, and free to enjoy their bodies and sexuality in ways that are positive for everyone involved.