On teachable moments and consent
|Infographic from http://vitaminw.co/society/what-consent-looks
The other day the Tween came out of the house wearing a pair of shorts from last summer, which means they were now both too short and too tight. It was a stark reminder to me that it was, once again, time to go shopping. These kids won’t stop growing.
So the next day she came home and I proudly handed her two pairs of shorts that I had bought for her, because I love her. Because I saw her plight and I wanted to her to know that I think about her. My mistake, of course, was that I bought her clothes without her approval so of course she hated them. She tried on a pair and then took them right back off; she didn’t like they way they felt. Which I understand, I often buy clothes and then decide I don’t like the way they feel or fit or look.
But I was a little sad, because I had tried to do a nice thing and it didn’t work out the way I planned. I will admit it, I moped.
Seeing my sad face, the Tween then said to me, “It’s okay mom. I’ll wear the shorts.” And she got up to go put them on. BUT . . . this actually terrified me because it made me think about consent. Yes, consent. Stay with me here, I’ll tie it all together in a moment.
When we talk about sex, consent is when one party willingly agrees to have sex with another party. Consent is willingly and enthusiastically saying yes. Consent must always be freely given. When we talk about rape, we always say that No means No. But when we talk about consent, it’s not just the absence of no that matters, but the presence of YES. And that YES must be freely given – meaning there is no guilt, manipulation, threats or coercion.
What this means is that if party A asks for or tries to initiate sex and party B says no, that no needs to be respected. That doesn’t mean Party A then begins to use guilt, manipulation, threats or coercion to ask for sex and try to change that no into a yes. It means that the no is respected and we move on to the next topic or part ways. It does NOT mean that you now begin a campaign to change my mind and turn my no into a reluctant yes.
And yet here my very sensitive daughter was agreeing to do something because she saw that her no made me sad. And alarm bells went off in my head because I thought, I don’t want her to think that she can’t say no. I don’t want her to wear these shorts because she sees that I am sad and feels guilty. Because the truth is, being able to stand up for yourself can be a lot of little lessons that we learn throughout our life. And this moment, I thought, was one of those moments where I could remind the Tween that she has a right to say no and that she is not responsible for the feelings and emotions of others. So we had a conversation and it went like this:
Me: Tween, it’s okay that you don’t like the shorts. And it’s okay that I am sad that you don’t like the shorts. But that doesn’t mean that you need to wear the shorts to make me happy because you are not responsible for my feelings or my happiness. You don’t have to do things just because you think it would make me happy. You should never let anyone’s feelings guilt you or manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do. You are allowed to your own opinions and feelings. You’re allowed to say no and to stand up for yourself.
Now she doesn’t know that we were having a conversation that was laying down a foundation for consent, but I do. Because I looked at that moment and thought this is an important moment; this is a teachable moment where I can either teach her to stand up for herself or I can use guilt and manipulation to make her do what I want her to do knowing that it would set a dangerous precedent for others to do the same in the future.
I had a high school boyfriend once in my junior year. His family was getting ready to move the next day and he came over to say goodbye. We never really talked about it, but we knew we were going to break up and I was really okay with that. But that night, he came over and said, “Don’t you think we should finally have sex?” And I was like, “Um, no. No I do not.” That night he tried to use guilt (“Don’t you love me?”), manipulation (“It’s the last time we’ll ever have to be together!) and more to try and change my no into yes. In that moment I looked at him and thought, it really irritates me that you are going to spend our last night together being an ass and trying to get me to do something that I very clearly told you I have no interest in doing. Which I might have said out loud because he then looked at me and said, “Maybe I should just leave.” And then he did. I want my daughter to know in moments like this that it is okay to say no and that the other person should respect her no. It was okay that he was disappointed that we weren’t going to have sex that night, just as it was okay that I was disappointed that she didn’t like the shorts that I bought her, but in neither case does that mean the other person is responsible to make those feelings better because doing so would force them, or manipulate them, into doing something they don’t want.
Parenting is tricky business I am learning. There are probably lots of teachable moments that I have missed or made the wrong call on. But in this one moment, I think that I did something right.
More about Consent as part of the #SVYALit Project:
There are also a lot of great discussions and essays about what consent is, and what it isn’t, on the #SVYALit Tumblr
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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