Session 8—Consent: Building Healthy Boundaries
Parents and caregivers are rightfully concerned about their children’s exposure to unwanted touching or sex. Adults cannot control the sexual opportunities, risks, or coercion their children will encounter. However, parents and caregivers can be role models for self-care and mutual respect. And they can explicitly teach children their rights, their responsibilities, and interpersonal skills related to sexual consent. This session supports parents and caregivers to be positive influences who help their children and youth develop appropriate sexual boundaries and respect those of others.
As parents and caregivers explore consent and how it applies to their children, memories may be triggered of times when their boundaries were violated or they violated someone else’s. Keep this in mind. Speak carefully. Be ready to acknowledge and address any comments—from yourself or participants—that could be interpreted as blame of a person who has experienced sexual violence or coercion. When there is sharing, limit personal stories. Strive to keep the session focused on consent as it relates to parenting.
You will want to remind participants that this session is not a therapeutic environment. Be ready to state that you, the facilitator, are unprepared and without the skills to respond therapeutically to a painful memory or a triggered reaction. Acknowledge that while such memories and reactions may possibly arise in the session, this is not a context in which such memories or reactions can be explored. Be clear and specific that (a) a participant may remove themselves from the room as needed for self-care and (b) you are willing and available to talk further, after the session with any participant who feels disturbed. If you lack pastoral training, you may wish to alert your minister or religious educator in advance that this session is taking place.
In 2019, the UUA produced “Faithful Consent” (6:40), a short video featuring interviews with adults of all ages from a variety of faith traditions. After this session, participants may wish to add an extra session to their Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators series in order to engage with this video. The video, five short companion clips, and an accompanying discussion guide can be be found on the UUA’s web page, Creating a Culture of Faithful Consent.
- Chalice, candle, and lighter or LED candle
- Newsprint, markers, and tape
- Journals or paper, and pencils or pens
- Computer with Internet access and a projector
- Covenant on newsprint sheet, from Session 1
- Handout 8.1, Definitions
- Handout 8.2, Recommended Multimedia Resources
- Explore the Recommended Multimedia Resources handout for this session. Update any links as needed. Expand the handout to include any local resources. You may email the handout to participants prior to the session, copy it to distribute in the session, or plan to provide it afterward.
- Preview the video of Phen Bowman, Saidu Tejan-Thomas, Joshua Braunstein, and Raymon Johnson performing Bois Will Be Boys (3:02) in a poetry slam.
- Preview the video Tea and Consent (2:49) written by Emmeline May and animated by Blue Seat Studios.
- Preview the video of Monica Rivera’s TEDxCSU talk Body Sovereignty and Kids: How We Can Cultivate a Culture of Consent (16:17). The portion of her presentation you will show in this session begins four minutes and twenty seconds in, so plan on a viewing time of 12 minutes. Cue up the video so that her first words will be “Now, one of the other things I’ve had the opportunity to do . . .”
- Copy Handout 8.1, Definitions, for all participants. Review the definitions so you will be comfortable introducing them to the group.
- Set up the computer, test the Internet connection in your meeting space, and cue up the first video.
- Post the group covenant.
- Write the Spotlight questions on newsprint and set them aside.
- Write the Perspectives questions that follow the Scarleteen website excerpt on newsprint and set them aside.
- Write the Reflection questions on newsprint and set them aside.
OPENING (5 minutes)
Welcome participants. If any are new, do a round of name introductions. Quickly review the covenant, and affirm that observing these norms will support the group.
Say that the topic of consent can touch raw emotions, especially for people who have experienced sexual violence or coercion. Invite everyone to take care of themselves during the session. For example, participants are empowered to take themselves out of the room, if they wish, or to bring attention to another person’s hurtful comments. State that the session is not a therapeutic environment. Say that you will strive to keep the session focused on consent as it relates to parenting while acknowledging any participants’ personal experiences that may arise. Ask for participants’ support in this. Explain (if this applies to you) that you, the facilitator, do not have the skills to respond therapeutically to a painful memory or a triggered response. Tell participants that if they find themselves struggling, you can check in with them after the session or by phone or email and help them connect with a counselor or religious professional.
Invite a participant to light the chalice while you read these opening words, a rally chant from protest marches against a culture that allows sexual assault:
Whatever we wear, wherever we go,
yes means yes, and no means no.
FOCUSED CHECK-IN (5 minutes)
Invite the group to sit in silence, taking in the words just spoken. Lead the participants in taking a deep breath together. Then ask a general check-in question, such as “How is your spirit today?” and invite participants, one at a time, to respond briefly.
Think of an interaction you have had involving sexual or affectional consent. This could involve consent that you asked for, consent you gave, or consent you received. What was the scenario? What was the communication like, around consent?
Invite participants to journal or reflect privately for two or three minutes. Then invite them to share. Suggest they describe in a few words the physical or emotional feelings that the question has brought up, rather than retelling a personal story. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak or to pass.
SPOTLIGHT (10 minutes)
Invite participants to watch a video of slam poetry about rape culture. Explain that while the poem is highly gendered, sexual harassment and assault can happen to any gender. Warn participants that the poem’s language is blunt and raw and may trigger any memories of or associations with rape, misogyny, and sexual assault. Ask them to consider the following questions as they view the video. Post the Spotlight questions and read them aloud:
- What rings true? If anything feels triggering, do you know why?
- How do you feel the performance represents the culture in which you are raising your child? What seems relevant, what does not, and why?
- How might you place yourself in the scenario?
- How might you imagine your child?
Show the video of “Bois Will Be Boys.”
When the video concludes, invite the group to share a minute of silence to reflect on or to journal about any responses to the Spotlight questions or other thoughts, feelings, or issues that have come up.
PERSPECTIVES (35 minutes)
Say that today many adults as well as young people are regularly exposed to news about sexual interactions that happen without consent. Yet even many adults are uncertain what consent is. Many are not sure what to call different kinds of unwanted interactions.
Distribute Handout 8.1, Definitions. Ask a volunteer to read aloud the definition of consent. Then ask the group to suggest specific words and actions as examples of a partner providing consent before or during a sexual encounter. Be sure that a range of consensual behaviors, verbal and nonverbal, are mentioned. Point out that this definition emphasizes “yes” messages, that is, affirmative or enthusiastic consent. It differs from the historic shorthand of “No means no,” according to which consent might mean just not saying “no.”
You might offer these examples:
- Kissing someone when they ask if they can kiss you
- Answering “Yes!” to the question “Is it okay if I . . . ?”
- Responding “I love it” to the question “How does it feel when I . . . ?”
Say you will show a short video that explains consent in a different way. Show the second video, “Tea and Consent.” When the video has ended, ask:
- Does the metaphor of sharing tea help to clarify what is meant by sexual consent?
- Could the metaphor, or the video itself, help you explain consent to your child or youth? At what age might it be useful?
- Could comparing unwanted tea to unwanted sex be dangerous? Does it trivialize sexual assault?
Now have a volunteer read aloud the definition of sexual harassment. Ask participants for examples of behaviors that fit the definition. You can suggest:
- Repeatedly asking someone out on a date after being turned down
- Making comments or asking questions that are too personal
- Talking about one’s own or someone else’s sexual preferences
- Constantly telling sexual jokes
Say that determining whether something is sexual harassment is not always easy or straightforward, even for adults, which can make it especially confusing for young people. The fact that someone feels harassed doesn’t prove that the behavior was harassment. On the other hand, even if someone did not intend to make someone else feel harassed, the impact of their behavior on the other person is still important.
Ask another volunteer to read aloud the definition of sexual assault. Ask:
- Is your understanding of sexual assault in line with this definition?
- How easy or hard would it be to discuss sexual assault with your child? Why?
Have another volunteer read aloud the definition of rape. Say that this definition was created by the federal Department of Justice, but each state may use its own. Point out that the definition refers to rape only as the act of penetrating someone without their consent. It does not explicitly include other forms of forced sexual activity. For example, What if someone is touched on the genitals without their consent, but without penetration? What if someone is forced to touch the genitals of someone else? What if someone is brought to orgasm without their consent through physical stimulation, but without penetration?
Note that the definition uses the word “victim” for a person who is raped. Explain that many people prefer “survivor,” because it is more empowering.
Say you would like to share a post from a Scarleteen discussion board. Ask participants, as they listen, to hold in their minds the four terms they just discussed, particularly consent. Read aloud:
“Is what my boyfriend did, rape? Help me deal with this once and for all”
So about two months into our relationship, we both were really eager to consummate but we never had the time or the right place to go at it. And the few times we were able to try, it was unsuccessful because it was my first time and it was really painful for me.
But this one day, we were at my friend’s house all alone in her room (she was away). And we tried to do it again, I really wanted to do it, yes. But when he was about half way in, it really hurt and I told him to stop, but instead of stopping he pushed it in and he stopped after he was inside me (he wasn’t moving) and he was just asking me how I felt. I was in too much shock to even say anything . . .
Ask participants to consider the following questions. If the group is large, you might invite them to pair up to discuss them:
- Was consent given? Why or why not?
- Does this scenario meet definitions of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and/or rape? Why or why not?
- What gender did you assume the author was? Why did you make that assumption?
Say that estimates of the proportion of teenagers who experience some form of violence in their relationships range from 9% to 35% and that actual percentages may be higher, depending on the population being studied and the way questions are phrased. Acknowledge that people of any gender and any age can be vulnerable to unwanted sexual interaction. Then say:
Even though parents and caregivers cannot protect children 100%, they can help children develop a sense of personal agency and clear boundaries when it comes to their bodies.
Invite participants to watch 12 minutes of a TED Talk by Monica Rivera. Explain that she is the director of the Women and Gender Advocacy Center at Colorado State University. Begin playing the video at 4:20, just before Rivera says, “Now, one of the other things I’ve had the opportunity to do . . .”
When the video ends, ask participants to take a moment to focus silently on Rivera’s injunction “Don’t raise kids, raise adults” (13:15). Suggest they journal any thoughts or responses.
REFLECTION (25 minutes)
Invite participants to reflect on the opening words, the definitions, the videos, and the Scarleteen post. Post and read aloud these questions. Ask that participants choose a question or questions that speak most deeply to them.
- What is your greatest fear for your child?
- What could cause your child to doubt their own wishes or decisions about their body or relationships?
- What could cause your child to misunderstand or disregard another person’s lack of consent?
- In what ways have you supported the body sovereignty of your child? In what ways have you undermined it?
- What cultural forces make it challenging to teach a child about consent?
- What parts of your own history might you use in discussions with your child? Why would you mention those experiences, and when and how would you have such discussions?
Invite participants to take a deep breath together. Then ask that they speak one at a time as they are moved, without interruption. Remind participants of the amount of time each person may speak.
TAKING IT HOME (5 minutes)
Say this, or something like it:
As we’ve explored in this session, people use various skills and strengths when they’re finding healthy, consensual boundaries. What can we take home from this session to help our children build communication skills, self-awareness, self-confidence, and a resilience that will enable them to cope with rejection?
Say you will teach an activity for practicing these skills and strengths. The activity is simplified from one in Our Whole Lives: Sexuality Education for Grades 7–9 and can be shared with a wide age range of children and youth at home.
Have participants form pairs, in which one person is A and the other B. Then lead this process:
- Participant A asks B, “May I give you a fist bump?”
- Participant B gives consent for the fist bump, using whatever words or actions they choose.
- A and B switch roles and repeat the question and consent.
- A and B switch roles again, but now A asks for a fist bump and B declines. Again, they choose their own words or actions to decline consent.
- A and B switch roles again and repeat the question and nonconsent.
Regather the large group and process the activity with these questions:
- How did it feel to ask for consent?
- How easy was it to turn someone down?
- What are some ways you communicated consent? Nonconsent? Did anything make communication difficult?
- How did it feel to be rejected?
Affirm that comfort with open communication and the ability to state, accept, and respect boundaries are components of healthy relationships. These are skills it is never too early to nurture in our children.
CLOSING (5 minutes)
Ask participants to think about all that was shared and experienced during the meeting and to lift up one comment or experience for which they are particularly grateful.
Ask a volunteer to extinguish the chalice while you share closing words. If time is tight, share this quote from the Caribbean-American poet Audre Lorde:
Only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.
If you have more time, share these words of Juliet Carter’s, published in an opinion piece titled It’s Affirmative: Yes Means Yes in the newspaper of the University of California, Santa Barbara:
I was certainly a stubborn child once who didn’t want to kiss my relatives, but eventually, I learned it was something that you just have to do, even if you don’t always want to. But by forcing even these most innocent interactions, it teaches children that they should do what is asked of them and their bodies, even if it makes them uncomfortable. It’s an act of assumption and it teaches a code of putting other people’s desires before your own.
Thank the group for their participation. If you haven’t done so yet, distribute Handout 8.2, Recommended Multimedia Resources, for participants to take home. Remind the group of the day, time, and place of the next session.