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It’s Not Just About Consent

To prevent sexual assault, we’re going to need to start teaching consent earlier—much earlier, argues Tovia Smith over at NPR:

Kate Rohdenburg, who runs a violence prevention program in Vermont and New Hampshire called WISE, says even 5- and 6-year-olds can be taught basic principles of boundaries and autonomy.

“Of course, we’re not saying the word ‘autonomous’ to kindergartners,” she explains. “But we talk about who here likes hugs, and some kids raise their hand and some don’t. ‘Well, how are we supposed to know if this person wants a hug when they’re feeling sad or not?’ And kindergartners will tell you that you should ask them.”

… “I think it’s reasonable to think that parents, even when they have babies or toddlers, they start using language like, ‘I’m going to change your diaper now. Is that okay with you?’ ” Rice says. “Obviously it’s OK, but it’s reinforcing the concept of consent really from a very early age.”

There are some good points in Smith’s piece about teaching the consent and politeness to high school students. But the above two points are ridiculous. Asking my baby if it’s alright to change her diaper is not going to educate her on issues of sexual consent, or help her set “boundaries.” Talking to kindergarteners about respecting the space of others is an obvious issue of etiquette, like learning to share toys and use “inside voices.”

The problem with the culture we’ve crafted surrounding sex isn’t ultimately about consent—it’s ultimately, and more deeply, an issue of respect and charity. We don’t need to ask our kids whether they want their diapers changed: we need to teach them about character.

The seeds of sexual assault are going to start young, Smith is right about that. But talking about consent to a kindergartener is not going to solve the problem—because a young man like Brock Turner doesn’t care whether or not a woman gives him consent. He’s already decided that his desires trump the needs or desires of anyone else around him. We need to reach beyond sexual politics, and seek to guide the hearts of our children: teaching them what is right, and stirring in them a desire to do what is good.

When I was a young girl, I remember reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Say what you will about the romantic, embellished prose or stereotypical characters—it taught me what it looks like to be a lady, and what it looks like to be a gentleman.

Take, first, the character Rebecca: noble, valiant, stubborn, virtuous. She has self-respect and nobility. When others treat her badly, it doesn’t upend her security or confidence. When she’s threatened by a man who wants to her to become his mistress, she firmly, resolutely tells him “no.” It doesn’t matter what the world thinks or what the consequences might be: she knows what is right. And she has the dignity and courage to pursue that unflinchingly.

Then there’s Ivanhoe: a valiant knight, caring son, loyal lover. He also does what is right, no matter the consequences. Near the end of the book, Ivanhoe seeks to rescue Rebecca from her tormenter and be her champion—even though he’s in love with someone else. This is what a gentleman is: someone who seeks the wellbeing and safety of vulnerable people around him, regardless of whether it’s in his own interests.

Stories like this—be they fairy tales or histories, biographies or novels—foster virtue. They shape our loves and desires, pointing us toward the good. Between a video game such as World of Warcraft—in which violence is promoted and women are portrayed in an objectifying and sexualized way—and the above story, which do you think would encourage boys more toward gentlemanly behavior? Toward seeking the consent and comfort of women they’re attracted to?

Words like “lady” and “gentleman” seem antiquated in today’s society; and it’s true, they’re derived from a time in which gender roles were less fluid and sexual mores were more strict. But I’d argue that ladylike and/or gentlemanly behavior needn’t be consigned to the history books, because these words capture what it means to have a virtuous balance of self-respect and deference, dignity and charity. Being a lady has nothing to do with acting “feminine” or wearing frilly clothing. Being a gentleman has nothing to do with lording one’s might or “manliness” over others—quite the opposite. These words describe a person who prizes their own self-worth and dignity, while also caring deeply for the wellbeing of those around them.

And it’s these two ingredients that—when well-balanced—enable our sexual relationships to be healthy and prosperous. Women need to have the confidence necessary to say “no” when they want to, to be stubborn in pursuing what they know will make them happy. Men need to have dignity and self-worth to see certain acts as evil and abhorrent—to see sexual assault as repulsive and beneath them. At the same time, men need to care deeply for the wellbeing of the women around them. They need to seek their health and happiness, first and foremost. And women, too, must exercise this sort of kindness toward the men in their lives.

This isn’t something that a Youtube video about tea or a discussion about hugs in kindergarten will fix. It’s something that requires regular, thoughtful, intentional investment in a child’s character: seeking to put virtuous role models in his or her life, striving to foster habits of virtue through intentionality and love. It’s about fostering children’s moral imaginations, not just teaching them how to set boundaries or say “yes” and “no.”

Admittedly, this makes things a lot harder: it’s a more three-dimensional response to the issues of sexual assault we’re confronting. But it will give us better long-term solutions to this problem by fostering self-respecting, charitable individuals who seek the good of those around them, no matter the circumstances.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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