"Mommy, do you want a piece of my candy?"
"No, thank you, Bug. I'm not hungry right now."
"But I got your favorite, Reese's! Have a piece of candy!"
This is a scene that plays out on a regular basis in my house, and yesterday's holiday only amplifies it. In this moment, chances are very good that I actually want to have a piece of her candy. I've learned, however, that moments like this one are an ideal opportunity for something more important than chocolate and peanut butter: it's a chance to practice consent education.
"Sweetie, what did Mommy say?"
"No..." [picture a disappointed look on her face.]
"And what does 'no' mean?"
"No means no. So you don't want candy, do you?"
"No, Bug, I don't want any candy. Thanks for offering, and thank you for respecting my 'no'."
Talking about sex makes many people uncomfortable. Talking about sex with children makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. Often, suggestions that we need to teach children about consent are met with resistance: they're too young, it's too soon, it won't make sense because they don't know what sex is. First, very few students make it to middle school with no concept of sex, thanks to their peers, the internet, and media. The very same internet that will introduce children to sex also offers a wealth of resources for parents and guardians looking to be the ones to broach the topic in an age-appropriate way. It's not a question of if they learn about sex, but from whom do they learn it. Approaching sex education as an ongoing conversation rather than a single instance of a "big talk" actually facilitates efforts to introduce and develop the topic in age-appropriate ways. And it creates an opening to have evolving, substantive conversations about consent over a course of multiple conversations.
Culturally, we owe it to our children to have these conversations. Many experts point to an important consequence of the rise of the internet: increased exposure and access to pornography. When children learn about sex from porn, they glean an unnatural, highly-stylized idea of it (check out Peggy Orenstein's Girls & Sex for an in-depth look at the new sexual landscape that girls are navigating). Coupling this new sexual landscape with the toxic masculinity exposed by the #MeToo campaign highlights the crucial need for consent education. Ezra Klein poignantly argues, "Our current sexual culture rewards men for aggression, for testing boundaries, for making an unexpected and maybe even unwanted move."
Klein's observation highlights the gray area that so many people struggle with when considering consent. One side points to a recent video that compares consent to a cup of tea to suggest a clean, simple test for understanding consent. The video runs through scenarios where you wouldn't (or shouldn't) force someone to drink a cup of tea, such as when someone falls asleep while you're brewing the tea. It concludes, "But if you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don't want tea, and you're able to understand when people don't want tea, then how hard is it to understand it when it comes to sex. Whether it's tea or sex, consent is everything."
Another side points out nuances to this argument through a slice of cake metaphor: "So, to recap: If someone offers you cake and you say, ‘Oh, I’d love some!’, that’s consent. If someone offers you cake and you don’t really feel like eating it but say, ‘Sure, I’d love some!’, because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, that’s also consent. If you say, ‘Thanks, but I don’t think so’, and they convince you to change your mind, that’s also consent. It doesn’t matter how many times you said no. It doesn’t matter if your friend was being an obnoxious, guilt-tripping, sulky, passive-aggressive pest. (Well, it matters. It may be a reason to reconsider your friendship. But it’s certainly not a reason to go to the cops.) As long as you were free to refuse the cake without risking some tangible harm, it’s up to you to grow a spine." These intensifying scenarios push us right up to the point where a creepy, unhealthy interaction tips over into sexual assault. When we understand consent education as teaching people to honor their own autonomy and respect the autonomy of others, we can create an culture in which only the first of her examples happens routinely.
Both thought experiments aim to articulate the connection between consent and coercion. The last point in her recap of the cake metaphor attempts to factor in alcohol: "If you’re drunk (but sufficiently in control of your faculties to eat cake…), that’s also consent. If you weren’t thinking straight and ate so much cake you were sick the next day, chalk it up as a valuable learning experience." This is the grayest of areas in the conversation about consent, and it's far from the ideal point of entry into the current conversation precisely because it is so fraught.
These thought experiments grapple with the implications of a culture that rewards masculine people for pushing boundaries and shames feminine people for letting those boundaries be breached. It's this nuance, that there is a palpable difference between the various ways that the person agreed to eat the cake outlined above, that I'm hoping to share with my daughter in our conversations about her Halloween candy. By starting when it's only a Reese's peanut butter cup, I'm opening the door to conversations about how it feels like when a friend tries to talk her into doing she doesn't want to, about how it feels when a romantic interest doesn't honor her words, about how to say what she wants and mean it.
About the Author
Exploring women's issues in search of a world that more equitable for everyone.
* frac·tal FRACTALS ARE USEFUL IN MODELING STRUCTURES (SUCH AS ERODED COASTLINES OR SNOWFLAKES) IN WHICH SIMILAR PATTERNS RECUR AT PROGRESSIVELY SMALLER SCALES (Google dictionary)