Let's Talk About Consent, Baby

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of co-leading Take Back The Night at Seattle University. At the end of the event, our school’s newspaper, The Spectator, asked to interview Katie (my co-lead) and me. We agreed, and had what we thought was a very productive conversation about consent and sexual violence. Unfortunately, the article that was published grossly misquoted us. While the overall piece took a stab at the message we were trying to get across, it definitely was not our message. At our next HAWC meeting, we talked about what we had actually said and what our message was, rather than the message the writer had put out. Katie and I had both said in the interview that we should be teaching consent to kids before sex education, so that when a child encounters sex education for the first time, consent is already understood. At least in my experience with sex ed, consent was assumed and therefore never discussed, which is… to be frank, bullshit. When we talk about consent, we say it’s never assumed, so why should we assume it’s already implied when we teach sex ed? (Spoiler alert: we shouldn’t!) The thing is, little kids aren’t having sex. But they do (or should) engage with consent everyday.


Think about it: When a child asks another child on the playground if they can play with the ball, they are asking for consent. When a child asks their friend if they can borrow a crayon, they are asking for consent. When you visit your cousins and see your three year old cousin and ask, “Can I have a kiss?” you’re asking for consent from the child. Every situation gives the person being asked the opportunity to say no. No, you can’t play with the ball, we’re playing with it. No, you can’t borrow the crayon, it’s my favorite. No, you can’t have a kiss, I don’t remember you so I don’t think I know you. Or, just no. I don’t want what you’re asking for to happen.

We ask kids to respect each other’s consent or lack of consent, though we encourage them not to be selfish with their toys. If you’re not playing with the ball or using the crayon, share with your friend! You’ll get whatever the toy is back. But if the object they desire is being used, we ask them to respect that. Did you see if there are any other balls in the bin? How about you use this crayon or this colored pencil instead? But when it comes to us, to adults, we seem to think we don’t have to respect the consent of the child. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a toddler trying to disentangle themselves from someone’s arms, only to be told, “I’ll let you go after you give me a kiss.” It’s a common thing, and I bet when we see it or if we do it, we don’t think anything of it. We see it as us trying to bond with the kid. The child, however, recognizes that their “No” means nothing to us. We are more powerful than them, and we will use that power over them, regardless of what they tell us they want to happen.


When I told my roommate I wanted to write this article, she happened to stumble upon this blog post called “No Means Force” by Dave Hingsburger. Hinsburger recalls going to get lunch with a friend next to an ear piercing booth. A mother and her six year old daughter approach the booth, and though the daughter is clearly stating she doesn’t want her ears pierced, the mother doesn’t listen. She talks to the woman at the shop about the piercings and they try to get the little girl to pick out a pair of earrings. The little girl clearly says, “I don’t want my ears pierced,” prompting the adults at the booth to try to manipulate her, telling her how nice she’ll look with pierced ears and how all the other little girls have their ears pierced. Despite the little girl screaming and crying while two holes are stabbed into her ears, her mother only tells her that she’s embarrassing her, and then the deed is done. And even though she didn’t want her ears pierced, the six year old girl now has her ears pierced, and will probably have scars or holes from the piercing for the rest of her life.


When I was a baby, before I could even remember, my mom, dad, and tia took me to get my ears pierced. I cried and wiggled, so my piercings were uneven. I never resented them for it―I was always happy to have my ears pierced. So when I was about to turn fifteen and told my parents all I wanted for my birthday was my second set of ear piercings, to correct my uneven piercing, and maybe to get my helix pierced, I thought it wouldn’t be a problem. I was met with a resounding “No!” and told I couldn’t pierce my ears again. So I got my second set on my eighteenth birthday, when my parents couldn’t stop me, and my helix my second month in college. For some reason, one set of ear piercings was fine when I couldn’t say no, but three more holes in my ears was too much to bare. When I told my mom that my friend Devin said I would look good with a nose piercing (hinting that I wanted a nose piercing), she said, “Tell Devin to fuck off.” We laughed about it, but in that comment was another resounding, “No.” When the same friend was a baby, his grandma wanted to pierce his ear. Only one ear. So at seventeen, when I threw a Halloween party, he came as a pirate with one hoop earring in. He said it was the only time in his life he was glad to have it pierced.


The moral? Adults only care about children’s consent when their consent benefits whatever the adult desires. Or, as Hinsburger says, “Little children learn early and often that ‘no doesn’t mean no….’ [They] learn early and often that their will is not their own… More often, for kids and others without power, no means force.”


Typically, coercing a child is seen as a form of respect. We make them do something because we are the adults, we are in charge. John Peterson, a family therapist, says that this method of forcing respect drives children to respect authority and power rather than good relationships. I was really lucky to have parents who taught me how to stand up for myself. When my physiology teacher tried to manipulate me into staying in his class, (and unfortunately succeeded), I knew I didn’t owe him any respect. I didn’t make his life hell, but I didn’t respect him, and I was okay with letting it show. Forcing kids to show respect for people who manipulate or coerce them will just make their relationships harder in the future.


For example, consider two kids with very different parents. One has parents who are very communicative. When she gets a time out, after a few minutes, one parent will go talk to her to make sure she understands why she’s on a time out, and then talk about how they can communicate better in the future to keep from another fight ensuing. The other child doesn’t understand this. His parents don’t communicate with him at all, and when he throws a tantrum, he’s ignored or provoked until he gets angrier, and then the parents get angrier, and the fight continues until he’s put on a time out and ignored until he’s calmed down, or until one parents has to be the ultimate bad guy and punish him. The first one is shy, but warms up to you, and asks you what you want to play or watch or do. An agreement can be made. For the other child, it’s his way or nothing. I know both of these kids. I’ve seen, like many of us probably have, how communication (a key factor for consent) can shape someone.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say we all want everyone to be taught consent. The world would be a better place if we all knew how to respect other people’s consent. So what do we do? Teach kids about consent in every aspect of their lives. Teach them that it’s okay to say no, and that they have to respect when other people say no, just like we want them to respect us. And, perhaps most importantly, respect children’s consent. Our words are only as good as our actions, and the best way to teach anyone consent is by setting an example and teaching them to follow it.