Teaching Consent: Real voices from the consent classroom

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Jane Gilmore has been writing and speaking about domestic and sexual violence for more than a decade.

Her latest book is Teaching Consent: Real voices from the consent classroom – the result of Ms Gilmore’s collaboration with Deanne Carson, who has taught respectful relationships, body safety and consent to children and young people from kindergarten to year 12.

The book blends memoir, expert insights, anecdotes and poignant stories from both teachers and students and describes how we educate children about bullying, consent, gender diversity, pornography, respect, sex and sexuality, and social media – and what we can learn to do better.

“Consent is an everyday word that, if it’s embedded young, becomes an unthinking empathetic and considerate approach to any interaction with other people,” says Ms Gilmore. “When little children grow up with this, they need very little help taking it into sexual relationships when they’re older.”

- Advertisement -

Jane Gilmore shared this book excerpt with EducationDaily:

Deanne Carson, CEO of Body Safety Australia and one of the most empathetic and knowledgeable consent educators I have ever met, once told me about a conversation she had with kindergarten teachers when she was training them on teaching consent and empathy for little children. The teachers were troubled over a four-year-old boy who was persistently trying to hug his little friend of the same age. Little Friend was finding it overwhelming and annoying. Persistent Boy was anxious and upset. The teachers patiently explained boundaries and empathy to him. “Little Friend doesn’t want to hug you right now,” they’d say. “It’s not ok to hug Little Friend when he doesn’t want you to.” “Do you understand how it makes Little Friend feel when you hug him against his will?” Persistent Boy understood everything the teachers were saying and was very sorry Little Friend felt bad, but he still couldn’t stop himself.

The teachers presented this problem to Deanne as their failure to properly explain boundaries and empathy to Persistent Boy and wanted to know how they could improve. Deanne gently asked what they thought was happening for Persistent Boy when his hugs were rejected. They gave her the answers they thought she wanted, answers that would show they understood her training and were trying to implement it: “He’s not respecting boundaries” “He’s not understanding consent.” “He’s failing to empathise.” “He doesn’t understand why it’s wrong.”

“Are you sure?” Deanne asked, “you’re telling me Persistent Boy is sad that Little Friend is upset by him, that he knows he can’t hug him without consent, and he knows he should stop when he’s asked. He’s very aware of the boundaries and that he’s doing the wrong thing by breaking them. So, what is happening inside him that he can’t stop himself?”

This changed the conversation, and they started talking about the source of the problem – rejection. Persistent Boy thought all these little rejections meant he might be unloved, maybe even unlovable.

- Advertisement -

When children internalise rejection even the most trivial act can feel life-threatening. You don’t want me or care about me. No one will care for me. I am a helpless child and will die without care. If I am to live, you must love me! It’s a visceral cri-de-coeur, almost always misinterpreted as “attention-seeking” or “bad” behaviour.

The only way Persistent Boy knew how to react to rejection was to keep begging. Trying to redirect him by suggesting more empathy for Little Friend without acknowledging his feelings of rejection only made him more afraid, more in need of reassurance, and so the cycle continued.

Deanne suggested they concentrate on teaching Persistent Boy to understand rejection as something external to him, not a reflection on how intrinsically unlovable he is, or even how much Little Friend loves him. “There could be any number of reasons that have nothing to do with Persistent Boy. Maybe Little Friend doesn’t like hugs, or maybe he is just busy playing,” she said. The empathy factor was not for Persistent Boy to give Little Friend permission to play unhugged, but to understand Little Friend as a separate person with needs and wants that were just about him, they were not a reflection on their friendship.

Persistent Boy and Little Friend were only four years old. They’re not supposed to be able to manage their emotions or understand complex internal worlds. That’s what the best parts of education and family life are for – to teach them as they grow.

But what if no-one ever teaches Persistent Boy to understand rejection as something he doesn’t need to fear as life-threatening? What happens when he becomes Persistent Teen with his first girlfriend? He’s in love. He wants sex, not only because of physical desire, but because he loves her and believe sex is an expression of that love. If she says no and he enacts the sixteen-year-old sexual version of persistently seeking a hug, his girlfriend will be under enormous pressure. This is not a theoretical exercise, it’s a common story we hear from sixteen-year-old girls. Pressure, persistence, endless asking. “Are you ready now?” “How about now?” “Now?” “Are you sure?” “What about now?”

- Advertisement -

Pressured Girlfriend’s “no” is experienced as a painful, incomprehensible rejection of him and his love. Persistent Teen’s relentless asking is experienced by Pressured Girlfriend as painful, incomprehensible rejection of her as a person whose needs matter. Whichever one of them “gives in,” they are both wounded by the experience.

Too many negotiations of sexual consent follow this pattern. It’s about so much more than just the sexual act. Each person comes to it with very fragile emotions, and it is laughably insufficient to give them nothing but “yes” or “no” to work with.

If, as happens too often, Persistent Teen’s fear of rejection is expressed as aggression or violence, the rape he then commits has lifelong consequences. Most deeply for the girl he rapes, but also for him, in how he thinks of himself and how he approaches love and rejection from all the Pressured Girlfriends in his future.

Persistent Teen isn’t four years old. He is much closer to adulthood, and he has a quasi-adult responsibility to manage his emotions. He is certainly old enough to take responsibility for harm he inflicts on others. But when is he old enough that we can blame him for not learning something he was never taught? When does it become his responsibility to know rather than the responsibility of the adults who care for him to teach? What do those adults do if consent is something they have never been taught themselves?

Parents and families who don’t understand consent education occasionally think such programs are dangerous – that they will teach children how to have sex, rather than how to understand, manage, and respond to how they and their partner feel about sex. Sometimes these parents complain to schools, or even to the media. Schools who have been the object of outraged misinformation on the front page of a newspaper are understandably reluctant to continue those programs. And then all the children who are expected to know what they were never taught are left, bewildered and injured, trying to work these problems out alone.

- Advertisement -

* * *

Note: In the introduction to the book, I wrote about the difficulty of telling children and young people’s stories when they cannot give fully informed consent for their stories to be made public, and how this usually leads to their stories being ignored and forgotten. There are no factual accounts in this book. They are multiple threads from a myriad of stories woven together to tell the true stories of sex, consent, rape, survival, joy, and shame. If you think you recognise any of the people in this extract (or in the book) it’s because their story is so familiar, not because I wrote any of it about a single encounter.

All of it is true. None of it is you.

Teaching Consent: Real voices from the consent classroom is published by Body Safety Australia, a not-for-profit organisation providing collaborative community solutions to foster robust, respectful relationships with children and young people.

Jane Gilmore will share further insights from her experiences as a consent educator with EducationDaily in future articles.

Share This Article
Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live