It is not a secret that rape and sexual assault are overwhelmingly common both on and off college campuses. There is not a clear number that experts agree on, but most statistics reflect that around 20 percent of women experience sexual assault, and around 3 percent of men. If we look at the prison systems, the numbers for men skyrocket to nearly 20 percent. The Department of Justice indicates that most men who experience sexual assault experience it, on average, at age 4.
Sexual assault does not wait until a person turns eighteen.
If sexual assault does not wait, then neither should the concept of bodily autonomy.
We are very aware of teaching the concept of “consent” to high school and college students, but for a lot of students this concept is difficult to grasp. Something about requiring a “sober yes” is very complicated for some folks.
I would venture to say that part of difficulty is because we do not allow children, from around 2-years-old on up, autonomy over their own bodies.
Certainly one of the most obvious examples of this is spanking, which involves literally hitting children. When adults hit each other, it is either consensual or it is assault. When adults hit children, it is perfectly acceptable. That child did not, could not, consent to that action. This teaches the kid that if adults cause them to experience pain it is acceptable.
We should not teach children that some people are allowed to hit them. If the first person a kid loves hits them regularly, but they are forced to live with them, what does that say about staying with someone who hurts you in the future? We teach kids that some people are allowed to hit them, so maybe their future partner is one of them.
Similarly, we force kids to hug people. We shame kids who do not want to hug family members, teachers, family friends and so on. As adults, we often do not ask kids, especially little kids, if they want to be hugged, we just do it. Forcing kids to hug people is absolutely a way of undermining their concept of bodily autonomy. Adults do not have to let other people touch their body—but we force little kids to allow others to touch their body in a way that is not for their safety or protection. Making a kid hold your hand in a parking lot is to keep them safe, making them hug you does not protect them in any way.
Tickling without consent is actually unacceptable. A lot of adults will use tickling to effectively force kids who are sad or angry to smile—which undermines not only their bodily autonomy, but the validity of their emotions. Children are allowed to be sad and angry. They are allowed to experience emotions in the same way adults are. Forcing them to laugh is incredibly patronizing and undermines their feelings and experiences.
If we do not allow children the space to feel sad or angry, then they cannot learn how to cope with those emotions, or they learn that those emotions are not okay. This concept plays into toxic masculinity, and reinforces the idea that women are just “too emotional.” Everyone has the right to emotions, including children. Teaching kids that their feelings are not acceptable is actively dangerous.
Another thing adults have a habit of saying to children is “you can’t say ‘no’ to me.” Except yeah, they definitely can and sometimes they should. Teaching kids that they are not allowed to say “no” is a scary concept. Everyone has the right to say no, to anything at any time. Saying “no” is an integral part of consent. Instead of telling kids they are not allowed to say ‘no’ it is much healthier to attempt to explain why doing whatever thing is necessary. Sometimes kids are not willing to hear that, and in those cases you can take other measures (take things away, time out, etc.).
Another option is to work on their empathy, by saying something like “I feel sad when you make bad choices” or “I do not like what you are doing right now.” This approach models an appropriate response to people doing things you do not like, not responding in an angry way that elevates the conflict, but in a calm way. If a kid is tantruming, your best bet is always to remain calm. They will echo that energy, and it will help them learn how to manage their anger in the future. You can choose a number of behaviors that will make their saying “no” to a simple request less likely in the future without ever telling them they are not allowed to say “no” to authority figures.
If a child is being touched in a way that they do not like, they should be able to say “no” and expect that touch to stop.
Telling kids that they are never allowed to fight, especially physically, is incredibly dangerous. If a person is being hurt by another person, they have the right to tell them to stop, and if that does not work, they have the right to physically fight them off. Children deserve those same rights.
Teaching little kids that they do not have the right to touch their friends if their friends do not want them to, or even their parents if their parents do not want them to, is a good way to start to teach the idea about what it means to be an abuser. It begins to teach the idea that everyone has bodily autonomy, and that they do not, inherently, have the right to touch someone who does not want them to.
There are a lot of really simple behaviors that caregivers could engage in that would be helpful to teaching children about consent. Allowing children control over their own bodies, letting them know that no one has the right to hurt them, allowing them to experience and cope with their own emotions, and giving them the right to say “no” to behaviors that hurt them. Simple changes have the potential to make a world of difference with regard to this culture’s ability to understand and implement consensual relationships. It would increase children’s safety, improve mental health outcomes (because experiencing and expressing emotions is acceptable), and lead to increased mutual respect in relationships.