In the first chapter of Speak, the protagonist Melinda lists the first 10 lies they tell you in high school: We are here to help you. These will be the years you look back on fondly. Melinda is raped at a party the summer before she begins high school, and loses the ability to speak.
Today, we still tell lies in high school. Only 11 states mandate that sexual education be medically accurate. In many others, there are no requirements for sexual education courses all. There is little discussion of consent, intimate violence, emotional abuse or what healthy relationships might look like — and teachers working to design an educational system in which consent is prioritized, discussed and taught from the very beginning face significant opposition.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. The recent news about Steubenville, Ohio and the deaths of Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia and Audrie Pott in California — both of whom committed suicide after pictures of their rape were circulated online — point to the urgency of developing a new way of talking about consent.
Sometimes the ability to name the experiences you’ve had, even if you don’t have the vocabulary for them, comes from fiction. That’s something Laurie Halse Anderson, author of the award-winning novel Speak, often notices when she tours from school to school talking to students about consent and sexual assault. Students will seek her out after she speaks. Often they’ve never talked about their assault before. Often they have no idea where to turn.
Anderson said she often refers the people she meets to the Rape, Incest and Abuse National Network (RAINN), who in turn, often recommend Speak as a resource to give survivors access to a character who has lived through the same thing.
“It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship,” Molly Brouillette explained. Brouillette works at Macmillan Publishers, where she’s been coordinating with Anderson on the Speak4RAINN campaign. During April, Anderson’s publisher at Macmillan will match donations to RAINN up to $10,000.
It’s not just survivors of assault who recognize something about their lives in the book. “Sadly, there are a lot of kids — a lot of boys in particular — who read the book, and have this horrible moment of thinking that maybe something they’ve done has not been OK. That maybe someone didn’t consent in the way that they thought they did,” said Brouillette.
“I think that a lot of times books with female protagonists are often just thought about as 'girl books,' but I think boys should be reading books like Speak at young ages, hopefully before some of these events occur.”
Karen Jensen is a public librarian in Ohio, where she runs a site called Teen Librarian Toolbox. She’s been talking recently about consent-based programming in libraries and ways librarians can support kids dealing with assault and abuse. She’s often asked whether she thinks certain books are too violent or mature for teens.
“I get really frustrated with adults who think that this is too much for teens. If you only understood, first of all, what’s happening in the lives of teens, and what’s happening in their homes … one out of three girls is being abused, and a lot of teens have seen that happen,” she said. “I want teens to know what these things look like, even if it’s not happening to them.”
She sees an educational culture in which adults and administrators are afraid of bringing certain issues into the schools that are already part of students’ lived experiences. What they’re lacking is not the knowledge that abuse and assault exist — but the resources, vocabulary and education to prevent them.
Another activist, Shannon Salisbury, an educator in Toronto, Ontario, recently launched a crowd-sourced project to develop resources and lesson plans teachers can use in their classrooms to avoid perpetuating harmful narratives around assault and consent.
One of the things Salisbury is interested in is establishing the vocabulary students need to name and process their experiences. Consent culture is a way of shifting that vocabulary — if consent is the basis for talking about the relationships in our lives, then a different set of words, narratives and relationships emerge.
“If we’re talking about rape culture, then why aren’t we talking about it in a reactive way?" she said. “Well, the problem with rape culture is that consent is negated, and it’s not on the map. So why don’t we shift the lens, so how we’re talking about rape culture is through consent?”
While teaching a unit on harassment and prevention to a health class of 11-and-12-year-olds, Salisbury asked her students to work in groups to define three words: respect, boundaries and consent. During the next class, they were given different scenarios illustrating sexual harassment and asked to imagine what could be done differently. She then asked them each to write a reflection on how best to prevent sexual harassment.
Out of 26 students, 22 said that the best way to prevent sexual harassment was to avoid dressing inappropriately. But this idea hadn’t come up in class once.
“I tried to debunk it with them, but they were so quiet. Because no one had ever told them that this actually wasn’t an acceptable way to frame sexual harassment. All of the messaging they had gotten up to this point was, you have to protect yourself, and this is how,” she said.
For Salisbury, this was proof that conversations around consent and victim-blaming need to begin much earlier, and that educational systems need to be designed so their students internalize a different set of messages as they grow older.
A consent-based educational model isn’t just about responding to rape culture — it’s a proactive, comprehensive system where consent is integrated into the curriculum from day one. In the same way that rape culture ingrains certain messages about sexuality, responsibility and control that take on new meanings as we grow older, consent culture works by prioritizing consent and bodily autonomy long before they’re understood in the context of sex.
While dress codes are often envisioned as a way of avoiding distractions from what’s being taught, they are part of the curriculum. They’re part of the way students are being taught to relate to other people’s bodies.
“If you’re given the message over and over again that there is no expectation that you will stop yourself, why would you stop yourself?” she said. “That message is going through the entire system, and you’re being told, over and over and over again that we have no expectation that you won’t be a rapist. Or that [we know] you won’t be able to control yourself. Or that we know that girls will be too tempting and you just won’t stop. I want more for my son than that. I want more for my daughter than that.”
When Karen Jensen became a parent, she read a book called Protecting the Gift, which is about keeping children safe. “When the foundation of approaching other people is the respect and the acknowledgment of that person’s autonomy and governance over self, then you can start to understand this idea of consent,” Jensen said.
That involves teaching children they always have the right to choose who touches them, regardless of their relationship to the child. “Just because they’re two doesn’t mean they have to kiss the grown-ups around them because that just leads to this whole idea that I have to do these things to please other people,” said Jensen.
The idea that physical intimacy is something you do to make the people in your life happy is something Jensen sees taking a very specific, gendered trajectory as children grow older. For young girls, it results in a narrative which frames sex and intimacy as a duty, something which has substantial implications for their understanding of consent.
Salisbury sees some of the messages young children are internalizing today as contradictory to the understanding of consent they already have.
“When you’re looking at toddlers, they have very clear ideas of what is OK and what is not OK for their bodies, and you’ll see kids sometimes resist grandma hugging them, or having their picture taken,” said Salisbury. “It’s often seen as a child being non-compliant, whereas if you’re looking at it through a consent-based lens, you can say, well, if that doesn’t feel comfortable for you, I respect that.”
Teachers and activists trying to introduce consent-based education in kindergarten and elementary school face substantial resistance from parents, administrations and governmental agencies who associate talking about consent with encouraging children to engage in sexual activity.
Books, libraries and online resources all provide alternative ways for students to access information about consent — something that’s made crucial by the barriers students often face trying to access information in their homes and schools. But it's these other avenues that prove critical in promoting emotional accessibility.
“If they don’t feel comfortable talking to a parent or educator they can reach out to somewhere like RAINN, which has both a phone hotline and an online hotline that has been very popular, for lack of a better term, with younger victims who may have issues like Melinda in which they can’t vocalize what happened — but they can type it,” Brouillette said.
For Jensen, libraries are a space where students often feel they might be able to access information they can’t find elsewhere.
“If you work at a school or at a public library, teens will come to you with a lot of questions, looking for information, and it’s often obvious early in that conversation whether this person is looking for this information to write an academic report for school that they’re required to do, or if there’s something going on in their life that means they need information,” Jensen said.
Those moments provide the opportunity to open up a dialogue, as do the relationships and trust that often develop organically in a library setting. She said she often finds herself referring teenagers to local crisis organizations where they can get more information and support.
Salisbury said that it’s not just children and teenagers who don’t know where to find information about consent. That’s part of why she’s working to develop specific, free and ready-to-use lesson plans for teachers who don’t have the time or resources to develop their own units.
“If it’s directly tied to the curriculum, then I am, perhaps naively, assuming that there will be less pushback from people who are not comfortable with children having information,” she said.
She found that when children are given the vocabulary to talk about consent and the space to talk openly about their experiences, a new culture of empowerment and respect begins to appear.
“Knowing that you can identify your own red flags, or the red flags in your peers or your classmates or your best friends or your parents — being given the opportunity to have the language for that in any context opens up so much for students. And I think that when we prevent our students and our kids from knowing things, it infantilizes them and it puts them at further risk,” she said.
An earlier version of this article appeared at Campus Progress.