Teaching Consent

by Leigh Thomas '15
May 11, 2015

Leigh is a Facilitator for SHAPE (Sexual Health Advocacy through Peer Education), an organization that provides sexual health and wellness education to students at the Met High School.

This is my fifth semester as a SHAPE facilitator, and I am still trying to figure out how to teach about consent.

SHAPE follows a model of peer facilitation, where we work with students through participation and activities to come to new understandings of issues of sex and sexuality. In the “Consent and Healthy Relationships” lesson, my co-facilitator and I typically begin by brainstorming with students what consent means and why it’s important. I like to focus on considering how someone feels when they give consent—happy, enthusiastic, not pressured, empowered. Then we lead a discussion to analyze some different case studies of situations of sexual activity to see if they were consensual.

The first time I taught this lesson I was surprised by how difficult it was. Consent is a tricky topic—some students dismiss it as too obvious to even talk about, but then disagree with each other when it comes down to analyzing scenarios. I as a facilitator constantly struggle to not impose my own views on the students. I have learned through practice that students can tell immediately when I am trying to imply that their views are wrong or bad and that they should change their minds. This causes students to become defensive or to shut down, neither of which is productive to a good conversation.

But when the subject matter is so close to my heart, it’s hard for me not to react in anger or frustration as students perpetuate rape myths or derail the conversation with concerns about false accusations. I know many students on Brown’s campus who are survivors of sexual assault, for whom these kinds of dismissals are a daily reality.

In light of these difficulties, I have developed some strategies for leading a productive conversation about consent. One is keeping a clear definition of consent on the board to refer back to. The one I use is “voluntary enthusiastic agreement made without coercion to engage in an activity.” It’s productive to go over with the class what each word means. Another strategy is trusting student intent when they speak up. When students make comments that frustrate me, it is important to remember that they do want to learn about this and might be scared or nervous by the subject matter.

Ultimately I am there as an educator, to serve the needs of all the students. Bringing up these issues in classrooms is an essential component of sexual education that SHAPE takes very seriously. I have learned a considerable amount alongside my students while teaching consent, lessons that I will carry with me after I graduate and hopefully continue working in the field of reproductive health.