The importance of consent conversations

When I think back I’ve been talking to students about consent for most of my career. However these conversations were informal and often with small groups of students who hung out in my office. In 2014 I started having these lessons with grades 11 and 12 during Advisory. This year I tailored the lessons for grades 9/10 and 11/12 and I met with students either in study hall or PE class. I chose to do these lessons myself because it gave me a chance to meet with all 4 grade levels. The rest of this blog contains parts of article I wrote for TIE online in December in order to express the reason why all counselors and parents should have these conversations with their children.

I want them to consider what it means to give and ask for consent and ultimately change the way they behave and interact. I also want to normalize the practice of asking for consent and the understanding that it must be given to them, it cannot be assumed.

I start by giving them the definition of consent and then we discuss the following statements:

consent must be asked for or given

the response must be verbal

the absence of a no or silence is not a yes 

consent can be taken away

no is not an invitation to persuade anyone to yes

After we discuss these statements I introduce the definition of coercion and how it is the opposite of getting consent because it is an example of the last statement. We discuss why it is not okay to try to change someone’s mind once they have said no and that if there is no answer or silence to a question they should take that as no.

Their initial response is that it is awkward to ask for consent to do simple things like hug or touch or kiss someone because there are non verbal ways to give permission. So I ask how do you know this person wants to be hugged or doesn’t mind being touched on their knee or back? The most popular response is they don’t move away or they will lean into it. 

I challenge them by reminding them that non verbal cues can be misread and misunderstood and to be certain that consent has been given, a verbal response is the best way.

To their comments that it is awkward to ask for consent, I tell them that this weirdness will lessen as it becomes a regular practice.  I tell them that asking, “Do you like to be hugged?” or “Is it okay if I hug you?” doesn’t have to be awkward and it allows the other person to feel respected.

My goal at this point in the lesson is to help them understand that they should feel comfortable saying, “No, I don’t want to,” “Don’t do that,” or “Stop” at any time.  We discuss the importance of speaking up when their boundaries have been breached, even if it feels uncomfortable. 

When we move on to the part of consent that says it can be taken away at any point, initially students are surprised and confused. Society has trained many of us that if we start something we must go through with it. They have not been told very often that they have the right to change their minds and remove consent if they don’t want to continue with an activity.

It is essential that both girls and boys understand that the taking away of consent can happen and should be respected.  It is also important that they understand the difference between flirting and sexual harassment so that they don’t commit an offense.

As I have these conversations throughout this year, my hope is that my students continue to come to new understandings. I hope that they continue to reexamine the way they interact with each other, the way they flirt and give compliments.  I hope that they will speak up when they feel uncomfortable, to put a stop to a comment or behavior. 

Whether you work in the US or abroad if you are a counselor there is a way to have conversations about consent with your students. I supplement my conversations with YouTube videos but there is no incorrect way to start having these conversations with students. Parents feel free to use the same talking points with your children. It is never too early to start. #BlackExpat #EDpat #consentiscrucial #askforconsent #onlyyesisayes #absenceofnoisnotayes #speakupevenifyourvoiceshakes #schoolcounselor

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