Consent, like many other topics related to sexuality, requires more than one conversation.
Though it is tempting in the era of #metoo disclosures to focus on consent being simple and easy, leaving it there can intentionally and unintentionally create a culture of confusion and victim blaming. And that doesn’t help anyone.
Recently, I led a weekend retreat with 50 senior high students from Federal Way and the surrounding area.
On Saturday afternoon, when I asked how many of them had learned about consent, all hands went up. Even so, the discussions we had in smaller groups around this topic were deep, meaningful and life changing for some.
In those conversations, some youth found their voices to talk about incidents where they’d experienced harassment and assault. And in those same conversations, other youth took time to listen to how their own behavior, which they had thought was “no big deal,” was actually disrespectful and even harmful to people they care about. These young people were taking another step toward respecting each other and being responsible for their own actions.
The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center has a satellite resource called 100 Conversations, 100conversations.org. This resource was developed with input from youth who saw that a lack of information about sex was a root cause of sexual assault. These wise young people realized quickly that having “the talk” with a child is not enough. Learning about sex and how it intersects with other aspects of our lives requires many, many conversations over a lifetime. Hence, the name of their site.
100 Conversations guides you through conversations to have with your family — about boundaries, values, relationships, consent, bullying, media and more. This is important work for families, and something many parents put off due to discomfort or because they are focused on other priorities, like school activities, sports and other extracurriculars. However, taking time to insert these conversations into mealtimes or carpool runs can change lives.
Saying “no” comes with a cost, and that cost is often some form of rejection. In a culture where many well-meaning adults make all kinds of exceptions for youth in order to ease the pain of growing up, we can miss the importance of having skills to deal with the many forms of rejection. Rejection can look like not being invited to a birthday party, being left out at recess, not making a team, or having your heart broken. It can look like being ignored, saying “I just want to be friends,” name calling and intentional social isolation.
When we don’t take the time to intentionally address the feelings caused by rejection and cultivate skills to deal with them, we are flirting with danger. Unexamined feelings of rejection can lead to rage and result in violence toward others in an attempt to gain vengeance. This can look like anything from verbal and physical abuse to bullying to mass shootings.
These emotions can also be directed inward, creating feelings of depression and hopelessness, leading to isolation, eating disorders, cutting or even suicide.
As tempting as it is to boil consent down to a one-time lesson or conversation, I urge you to keep talking about it, even when it is uncomfortable. Create some safe spaces for youth to dive deeper. Listen. Question. Support.
Find ways to have deep conversations about consent and more — over and over and over and over. Even if what you get in return is eye rolls. Even if they say, “I know all this already.”
Our future depends on it.
Amy Johnson, MSW, is a trainer and educator in the Pacific Northwest. She specializes in sexuality education and in promoting safe and healthy sexuality culture in faith communities. All opinions are her own. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.