On December 27, the Huffington Post published a piece on the call by California college students for consent education for K-12 students.
That will not solve the crisis of rape on college campuses. Instead, we call for empowerment self-defense training for all K-12 students.
Because consent education, while valuable, is not enough. What individuals and institutions mean by “consent” varies, depending on terminology (consent v affirmative consent v effective consent vs mutual consent vs legal consent) and specificity of the definitions. For example, the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault on College Campuses describes consent as the “voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity”, and posits that silence, lack of resistance, and past consent do not constitute consent as they define it. Other definitions require active, enthusiastic, uncoerced, and ongoing affirmation that the sexual activity is desired.
The discourse on consent education seems to focus on the use of clear language to communicate exactly what is acceptable, and not acceptable, in mutually desired and consented sexual activity, whether that is by the person “initiating” sexual activity (e.g., “Is it okay if I do ____?”, or “Are you liking this?”), or by the person who is the recipient of someone else initiating sexual activity (e.g., “Yes, I want you to do ___.”, or “I’m not comfortable with this and I want you to stop.”). These conversations take consent past the legal definition, seeking sexual relationships that are democratic, free, and mutually pleasurable, rather than legal-but-yucky.
Without question, consent to mutually agreed-upon sexual activity, freely given, is critical. And regardless of the specific definition of consent in play in any particular setting or institution, it is critical to educate people about what we mean by consent, and how to give it or obtain it.
Sex that is democratic, free, and mutually pleasurable is likely to result from affirmative consent. But neither understanding what consent means, or the language of giving or getting consent, will stop sexual assault. Because clearly understanding a definition, and having the script to ask or respond, clearly and directly, about sexual intentions and desires, does not mean that someone won’t try to rape someone else. Rape is not a misunderstanding solved by knowing the right answer on a vocabulary test.
What is required to stop rape and assault is for individuals to understand that they are not entitled to sexual activity with another person just because they want it.
And what is critical in enforcing that understanding is what empowerment self-defense training offers: the belief that we are entitled to our own sexual agency and bodily integrity, and the skills to enforce that right.
Consent education is a component of an empowerment self-defense model, where women, girls, men and boys are taught, and reminded, through the enactment of physical and verbal boundary setting and self-defense skills, that they – not their partners, their parents, their acquaintances, or strangers – get to say what they will and will not do with their bodies. It provides the skills to maintain the boundaries they have set when another person is not interested, not informed, or actively seeking to overstep those boundaries.
So yes, by all means, let’s start early. Let’s teach young girls and boys what rape means, and what consent means. Let’s teach them the language to communicate clearly and effectively. But more importantly, let’s teach girls and boys that girls’ bodies are not there for the taking, and that girls are capable of more than just saying that. Let’s teach girls and women how to protect themselves, to maintain the rights we are telling them they have.