“That’s not realistic. No one does that,” assessed my (then) 14 year old daughter when she previewed the rough cut of Ask. Listen. Respect., the Action Alliance’s new video to teach teens about consent.
Her comment stung, but she had it exactly right.
We had developed the 1-minute video to be the centerpiece of a new statewide sexual violence prevention messaging campaign. The object: illustrate to young teens a set of concrete examples for how to ask for consent, what enthusiastic verbal consent looks like, and how to respond to “no” respectfully.
The Action Alliance prevention team had decided to focus on consent and negotiation after collaborating with the brilliant minds at Force: Upsetting Rape Culture, who assisted us in conducting a field scan. While the consultants at Force conducted online listening experiments and analyzed the data, we reviewed best practices, consulted with other prevention experts, and held discussion groups with young teens to learn about their lives. The void became clear. Negotiation and consent, two essential building blocks of healthy relationships and (in later, more mature relationships) joyous sexuality, were concepts unfamiliar to young teens.
During the middle and high school years, teens experiment with new identities and new relationships. Every relationship, no matter now short or casual, is a rich learning opportunity that lays the groundwork for future adult relationships. And yet, teaching and talking about the skills necessary to engage in negotiation and ask for consent rarely happens. In my daughter’s words: no one does that.
When we asked middle school boys what consent means, here’s what they said:
- “I’ve never heard that word, like, in a relationship.”
- “It’s like, you have to have parent’s consent to order that movie, so like permission?”
- “Talk about it?”
- “I don’t know I’m as confused as you!”
Perhaps even more concerning: teen boys explained that their friend/partner saying “no” to them was something they took personally. A rejection.
The Ask. Listen. Respect. video speaks simply and directly to young teens. It shows two teens (about 14 years old) practicing consent. They negotiate how they spend time together (“Want to watch a movie”? “Shoot hoops?”), each hearing a “yes” or a “no” respectfully. In the final scene, one teen asks if the other would like to kiss, and the teen responds with an enthusiastic “yes”. As they lean toward one another, the camera pans behind a tree, the scene ends, and the teens voice over: “Don’t worry about it being awkward, just say what you want…and ask first”.
We developed two discussion guides to accompany the video and promote conversations about respect, boundaries, and consent: one for parents, the other for facilitators of teen groups. All materials now live on our brand new Teach Consent microsite to make the materials most accessible to parents and facilitators.
The practices of consent and negotiation are essential to equitable, fulfilling relationships, regardless of a person’s age, regardless whether the relationship is romantic or platonic. Where physical intimacy is involved, these skills provide healthy counterweights to our culture’s pervasive narratives that intimacy “just happens”, and that coercion is sexy, while clear communication is not.
Teaching consent debunks the notion that we all magically just know what our partner wants, what feels good, what turns them on.
Where teens are involved, teaching consent and negotiation gives them tools to build empathy, deepen connection and trust, and helps prepare them to be responsible, respectful partners in future relationships.
To be clear: changing individual knowledge and behavior is one piece in the complex and layered puzzle of preventing sexual violence. Larger oppressive cultural forces related to power and agency, for example, shape individual experiences and choices. And while communication and negotiation are everyone’s responsibility, if a person chooses to move forward without getting clear consent from their partner, what follows may veer quickly into coercion and/or assault. The responsibility then lies solely with the person who advances. No one else’s.
Consent is the non-negotiable, bare minimum we should expect from our partners when it comes to physical intimacy. As such, it is one of the first and most essential concepts that should be taught. Precisely because it seems so foreign to teens at an age when they are experimenting with how to relate to their peers, precisely because many teens are entering into their first romantic relationships which set the tones for future relationships. Precisely because, at least at this point in our cultural evolution, “no one does that”.
Kate McCord is the Communications Director for the Action Alliance, a member of the Action Alliance prevention team, and a proud, grateful (and sometimes harried) mama of two truly incredible kids.
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