Teaching Consent Doesn't Have to Be Hard

What if teaching consent to middle school students was so easy and uncontroversial that every school did it? The good people at Power Up, Speak Out! believe that's possible.
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#MeTooK12 has gained momentum in the past few months, but many middle schools don't know how to respond. Even if they suspect that teaching consent is part of the problem, they're not sure how.

At Power Up, Speak Out! we can relate. As a violence prevention program working in rural Montana, we've created a five-lesson toolkit for educators that encourages middle school students to think critically about healthy relationships, power dynamics, boundaries and consent. But for years we struggled with this topic. Teachers didn't like the awkwardness of talking about sex with preteens. Even worse, students often reacted to lessons about consent and sex by becoming more entrenched in their previous views (which included lots of rape myths) instead of hearing what we had to say.

That's why we decided to figure out how we could connect an abstract concept like consent to students' everyday experiences so they wouldn't dismiss it as some legalistic, scary-sounding thing. We thought students needed a clear model of what healthy peer and dating relationships looked like. 

We realized consent is just a fancy word that means permission to cross someone else's boundary. Starting there, we found plenty of examples of boundary crossing that have nothing to do with sex. We introduced this approach throughout Montana in 2012, and we discovered that teachers felt more comfortable with the lessons. Students also grasped the concept more easily and carried it over into high school and their sex education classes.

So how do you teach consent? Start by building up students' knowledge of boundaries.

In our lessons, students learn three important things about personal boundaries: they are self-created, they need to be respected and they can change.

Every person gets to decide what they're OK with and what they're not OK with. Boundaries can change depending on who they're with, what they're doing or where they are (like home versus school). Boundaries can also shift over time. 

In our teaching, we especially emphasize respecting each other's boundaries. No one likes to be uneasy, embarrassed, humiliated or hurt, which is what happens when our boundaries have been crossed without our permission. How do students avoid making someone feel that way? By looking for consent. We tell students that consent meets four criteria:


  • is an active process between two people; 
  • is activity-specific;
  • can be taken back at any time;
  • must be given in a free and clear mindset.

Then, we give students everyday examples. For instance, what if Terry wants to read his best friend Sam's diary? We ask questions like…

  • Why should Terry ask Sam? (Because it's Sam's, and she gets to set her boundary—remember boundaries are self-created. Terry can ask, but getting consent needs to be an active process between him and Sam.) 
  • If Sam gives Terry consent to read her diary, can Terry also share it with his other friends? (No. Consent is activity specific. Sam might be OK with sharing her diary with Terry but not with his friends. That needs to be a separate conversation!)
  • What if Sam changes her mind and asks Terry to stop reading her diary and return it to her? (Terry should stop and return it. Boundaries can change, and consent can be taken back at any time. Terry doesn't have to understand why Sam changed her mind to treat her well and respect her boundaries.)
  • Should Terry ask Sam about reading her diary while she's sleeping and take her snoring as a "yes"? (No. If Sam's not actively listening and hearing what Terry's asking permission for, she can't give consent in a free and clear mindset. What other things might cause her to not have a free and clear mindset?)
  • Is it OK for Terry to beg, pressure, threaten or make Sam feel guilty if she doesn't want to let him read her diary? (No. Consent must be given in a free and clear mindset—it's not fair for Terry to disrespect Sam by making her feel bad about setting her own boundaries.) 

It's also important to ask students if people always need to use words to communicate consent. Have them think about playing a game of catch. We know the other person is ready because of eye contact and they'll have their hands out, poised to catch the ball. However, if they're not looking or they freeze or close their eyes, are they ready to play? Of course not!

We know how to read nonverbal cues. However, if students are ever confused about whether a classmate wants to let them read their diary or borrow something or give them a hug, they can always ask. Tell students, "If you can't figure out whether someone has given you their consent using nonverbal clues, ask so that you can respect their boundaries."

Some teachers may be worried that, because this approach doesn't talk about sex directly, students might not transfer the knowledge of consent to sexual activity. 

However, we've found that this isn't the case. 

After one teacher used this approach, an eighth-grade girl reported she'd been sexually assaulted by an older classmate because she had the language to express that she'd experienced something without her consent. This is just one of the examples we've heard. Kids are smart enough to apply the analogies, whether that's reading someone's diary or initiating sex. 

We believe that we can change the culture to make #MeTooK12 a thing of the past. To do so, we need more foot soldiers teaching consent to students of younger ages. It doesn't have to be hard. We've seen it work, and you can do it, too.  

Hoover is the communications manager and an educator for Power Up, Speak Out!