PDA vs. EVC: An Idea for Consent-Minded Sex Ed

February 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

In my middle-American high school, students could get in trouble up to being expelled for “public displays of affection.”  By the time I graduated, the administrators had become so strict, they were expelling students for hugging or high-fiving at school.

Stewing in a retrospective rage about PDA’s recently, I thought anew about how this system estranges young people from their own consent.  Shaming and punishment for completely consensual acts of physical affection, whether sexual or not, probably grew from administrators trying to prevent students from making out in the hallways, cracking down in an overzealous attempt to maintain control.  The rule is, in short, an incredibly bad rule.  It is counterintuitive to just about everything I can think of that is good:  consent, touch, solidarity, body autonomy, friendship, happiness, and, yes, sex.

I wish I could replace a legalistic, authoritarian PDA rule with a consent-based rule system. I was thinking about how little I knew about consent when I was in middle and high school.  I think a lot of people have their first real, deep friendships as teenagers. And a lot of us have our first sexual relationships then.  All in all, it’s a pretty important time to advance in our comprehension of consent and ability to engage an exchange of negotiating our own boundaries and wellness with someone else’s.

I started to think out a model of what new rules might look like.  Students could be collectively introduced to consent and engage in a week of EVC where they were not allowed to touch without getting explicit verbal consent.  Any touch that was not explicitly allowed would become taboo, as it should be.  The language of consent and skills to ask for desired touch, respond authentically, and manage one’s own feelings when disappointed could be taught as rudimentary skills required when touching other people.  And after that week, consent could be expanded to a standard of more simple expressed consent.  There could be discourse teaching students to bring in nonverbal signals and cues, to look for and give consent, and use basic consent skills like the 90-10 approach.

The rule then would be that no touch was allowed that was not consensual.  I think just about everyone would break the rule at some point, and particularly at first.  Adults would need to be capable of leading students through negotiating hurt feelings and miscommunications.  And in the end each student would need to have their right to account for their own experience of having consented or not upheld and never overridden.  Teachers and administrators would then have to apply their own judgment as to an offending student’s intent and the proper response.  Rampant offenders would be singled out pretty fast.  Types of bullying and coercion that go on without breaking any “rules” would come to the surface.  And in general, everyone would get some model of consent in their mind and start learning skills early.

I didn’t have a language for consent until after college, but was figuring it out in slower, foggier ways from my experience years before then.  During my sophomore year of high school, a trend kicked up where we would suddenly pat each other on the rear and say “good game.”  I thought it was hilarious, and I was really bold about it and got some fantastic responses from people.  One guy I did not know well was in mid-conversation when I got him. He turned and winked and said, “I play hard,” then picked up what he was saying without losing stride.  We actually became better friends after that.

But I patted one of my friends, standing in the midst of a bunch of our mutual close friends, on the rear who was really, really upset.  She had already had her butt touched several times that day and didn’t like the joke.  She didn’t have any solid footing to make an argument, since she was considered a “prude” and had been essentially judged all day for her “weird” response.  Those of us who were her close friends I think were all surprised and abashed for a moment by her response, but then staunchly defended her right not to be into “good-gaming.”  I apologized and felt genuinely sorry, putting onus on me and not her for being out of line.  And I only got people I knew liked the game afterwards.  It was a weird moment of recognizing consent, and realizing that it was a real risk to invade someone’s boundaries even with good intent, not knowing how they would feel.

My group of friends didn’t have any language to talk about consent.  We just had to feel our way about it.  It’s a confusing business to sort things out in the midst of a rape culture.  I think I would have been really into EVC and an applied consent ethic as a teenager.  It would have helped me to think and relate to other people better, and I think it is worth teaching.  To be honest, I think it is imperative, and I find it really twisted that we don’t consider consent a standard topic of education for all people.

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