I remember sitting at my freshman orientation in the fall of 2014 full of anticipation and excitement. I sat in the Staller Center while I learned what to expect here at Stony Brook University. However, that anticipation and excitement soon turned into anger and disgust when the program started addressing sexual assault. There was the requisite “Don’t have sex with people who don’t want to have sex with you,” “Don’t have sex with someone who is unconscious” and what to do if it happened to you. This was all fine and compulsory. However, what bothered me was a group of a few young men about one or two rows in front of me who started snickering and making jokes every time it was mentioned that drunk people can’t consent to sexual activity. I was filled with frustration. Something about consent felt trivial enough to them to ignore. Then it hit me. What if this was the first time that they were explicitly told that it was wrong to engage in sexual activity with someone who did not enthusiastically agree?
That’s when I began to think. The educational portion of the orientation was fine… but it was not enough. If someone is being taught the dynamics of consent when they are entering college, it is too late. Whether they have already had sex, or are planning to in the future, their 17+ years of not having comprehensive education on the complexities of consent have already taken a toll that can be irreparable in our society. Let’s face it. We live in a culture (for this article, I’m focusing on the U.S.) that does not exactly value consent. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), someone is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, less than two percent of rapists ever see a day in jail (some may even end up being president) and victims are routinely blamed for their own assaults. Additionally, we live in a society with a very limited idea of what consent is and what can be defined as assault.
This didn’t all go through my head in that one moment. But one thing stuck out to me. We need to start teaching consent earlier. Much earlier. I thought to myself one day, “Why not from birth?” This elicits surprised and sometimes offended reactions from some people. “You’re going to teach infants about sex?” one person asked, as if I was going to teach a newborn how to roll a condom. For the record, no, this isn’t my plan. Mostly because I believe consent is not all about sex. It’s about controlling your body, what you do with it and what is done to it, and that should start from birth.
I support full bodily autonomy for people of all ages. This means, parents, please don’t pierce the ears of your young children who were assigned female at birth, circumcise the penises of your children who were assigned male at birth or force your intersex newborns to undergo corrective surgery. Don’t fix them into immutable gender roles. No “Heartbreaker” onesies or “Ladies Man” bibs. When they are old enough to choose, or begin to explore clothes or toys, let them. Let them explore their gender, their names and their activities, if they want to. Don’t make them hug relatives if they don’t want to. Explain to them the real names of their genitals, how to keep them clean and the difference between a good and bad touch.
Hopefully this goes without saying, but sexual education as a whole needs to improve drastically. Abstinence education does more harm than good and should be defunded. Children from elementary school through high school need age appropriate, evolving sexual education that focuses on pleasure and consent, while presenting all of the possible options (abstinence being one of them, masturbation being another, with many different options in between). There needs to be an expansion of what counts as sex and an acknowledgement of the validity of different sexualities, genders and relationship types. Older children need to be taught how to use different types of barriers and birth control, how to be aware of the different options should a pregnancy occur and how to communicate effectively with (a) partner(s), among many other things.
The ways to teach consent — to instill the values of consent — from a young age and beyond are too numerous to list. But in order to fully address consent, we must also address people’s intersecting identities. In order to live in a society that truly values consent, and where every person has full bodily autonomy, we must also fight racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, whorephobia, ableism and other oppressions that affect how people can move through the world and navigate society. We need to teach that consent is no laughing matter. Most importantly, we need to teach and be taught that everybody and every body is of equal value.