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YES! TO CONSENT, a Montclair-based organization that facilitates workshops for young people about consent and communication

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Please introduce YES! To Consent.
YES! was founded in Montclair, NJ in 2015 by Eve Gutman, Isy Abraham-Raveson, Natalie Smyth, and Rebecca Klein. With an intersectional feminist perspective, we seek to empower young people and deconstruct rape culture through educational workshops about consent and the broad spectrum of sexuality.

What specifically do you teach in your workshops?
We teach workshops on a wide variety of topics, including consent, gender identity, sexual orientation, masculinity, identity and privilege, how to talk to kids about sex, and more. The common thread through all of our workshops is a positive approach to sexuality and a deep respect for the young people with whom we work.

What have you found to be most effective in teaching consent? Is there a certain lesson that goes over particularly well?
There are many different components of consent, and we’ve taught a variety of workshops that emphasize different components for different groups. We have led activities helping young people determine their own boundaries and activities that define and explore coercion. With young children, we emphasize the importance of asking before we touch others and respecting others’ ‘no’s. We know that some of our participants have already been sexually assaulted, and others will be, and we want them to know it is never their fault that that happened. We offer support and resources to help them heal. Overall, we believe in teaching consent from a positive perspective. We don’t believe in fear-based education; we are not trying to scare participants into respecting each other. Rather, we want all people to understand that expressing sexuality has the potential to be really great as long as we take care of ourselves and each other. Additionally, our workshops utilize an interactive structure, reliant on participation, thorough conversation, and plenty of space for questions, which stimulates our students and creates a much more open atmosphere. Allowing our participants the space and power to direct conversation and demand clarity has worked extremely well.  

How do the concepts of sex positivity and consent relate to one another?
Consent is the basis for all positive sexuality. Sex positivity is the belief that all forms of sexual expression are valid as long as no one is being harmed. Consent is the practice of trying our best not to harm each other. Also, we need to practice sex positivity when we teach consent. When we teach from a place of fear, shame, and potential negative consequences, participants shut down and don’t learn. When we emphasize all the potentially wonderful parts of sexuality - the pleasure, the connection, the joy, the self-discovery - and consent is the bedrock of all of that, participants connect and learn.

Why is teaching consent in classrooms so important?
We live in a culture that normalizes sexual violence, from the harassment on the street and at work to rape. Our president, supreme court justices, and many other powerful people are sexual predators. In order to change that culture, education has to start early and happen often. Consent education has the potential to teach the next generation to have a healthier understanding of sexuality and relationships. It has the potential to teach young people, especially young women, that they have the right to control what happens to their own body. Most of us didn’t hear that message clearly as we were growing up. Teaching consent consistently from a young age can lead us all to have healthier, happier relationships with our bodies and with sexuality.

What do you feel teachers and/or parents can do to help educate their students/children about consent and healthy relationships?
One of the biggest things parents and teachers can do is to respect their children’s bodily autonomy. When possible, give them choices, and respect their answer. When a child does not want to hug a relative or another child, don’t force them. Teach them how to express affection in multiple ways, some without touch. When you do need to touch their body in a way they don’t like (for example, as a teacher sometimes I have to put a coat on a child who doesn’t want to wear one), explain why that situation warrants an adult making a decision about their body. Build strong self-esteem and courage in speaking up to adults when something is happening that makes them uncomfortable. Teach children accurate names for body parts and normalize their use. Trust kids’ instincts, which will teach them to trust their own. Teach emotional skills, such as reading facial expressions and body language. Build empathy. All of this will contribute to children’s understanding of consent and bodily autonomy.

Have there been any barriers or resistance getting into public schools?
Sadly, some schools have reacted to our programs with a lot of fear. They feel that even consent education will be too controversial. They expressed fears of lawsuits. However, it is our job to continually advocate and remind them that consent education is sexual assault prevention. Sexuality education is not dangerous but the lack of sexuality education absolutely is.

Are there any current or upcoming projects or events you would like to share?
There is an episode of Mic Dispatch featuring us that’s out now, which is very exciting. And, as always, we are doing workshops and teaching sexuality education. Reach out if you’re interested in bringing a workshop to your community!

ELEANOR MORRISON, author of C is for Consent 

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Please briefly introduce yourself.
I'm a writer with experience in academia, activism, and entertainment media. 

Why did you decide to write this book?
My son was not even a year old when all the big #MeToo stories of 2017 were hitting (Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, etc... a new one every day). Reading these stories and looking at my son, I felt such a tremendous responsibility to get it right with the way I raise him. And I realized I wasn't the only parent who would be having those feelings and thinking about this subject. I wanted a book that would be just as much for parents to get used to talking about the concept of consent as it would be for the kids to learn the concept in the first place. Consent isn't just this thing related to adult sexual experiences — it's woven throughout our daily lives from the time we are kids. Teaching respect for body boundaries to very young children will inform their respect for their own bodies and the bodies of others for the rest of their lives.

What research or information did you gather to complete the story?
As a research-loving parent, I've been immersed in a wide range of research, pediatrician recommendations, and respectful parenting practices since before this book came to be. C is for Consent was this wonderful coming together of many things I'd been thinking about, reading about, and enacting in our daily lives. For instance, I knew that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids not be forced to show physical affection to people if they don't want to, which includes being able to turn down hugs and kisses from grandma and grandpa. But it turns out a lot of people aren't aware of that recommendation, or even more unfortunately disagree with it, prioritizing an avoidance of momentary disappointment by a grandparent over the healthy development of a child. You don't have to give a hug when you receive a gift. Why should your child? Neither adults nor children should be forced to perform politeness with their bodies. 

Why do you think that it’s important to teach kids about consent?
Kids are our future. Trite but true! If we want cultural norms to shift, we have to start with our own children. And more immediately, we really have to help our children be thoughtful about this subject because there's a cultural onslaught of messaging that doesn't respect body boundaries. Imagine if instead of all the implicit lessons society and media give us about disregarding consent, encouraging kissing a girl who says no, we had narratives respecting other people's ability to decide what they want to happen to their bodies. We're inching closer to that, and having more open cultural conversations about consent, but society is going to take a long time to shift. If we don't provide direct guidance to our kids on the subject, they will pick up lessons elsewhere.

Can you share some tips for ways that parents can do so?
The most fundamental action for parents to take is to listen to their children's verbal and nonverbal cues about physical affection, and respond supportively. I might want to lavish my child with kisses at a time that he wants a little space, and it is within my control to acknowledge his feelings and behave respectfully. A relative or good friend might be pressuring my kid for a hug, and it is up to me to step in and let my child know it is his choice whether he gives a hug or says no thanks. And by the way, these things are possible with a preverbal child! We started this approach in our household long before our son had words, because it was pretty clear from his nonverbals what he did or didn't want. If we teach kids to be in touch with their feelings about their body, and we consistently reaffirm that their preferences will be respected, that is the healthiest possible foundation we can offer our kids.

Do you have other current or upcoming projects related to consent or consent education?
Just this book! I'm trying to get it into more stores and libraries so that more children and caregivers have access to it. Anyone who wants to support that effort can call up their local bookshop or library and tell them that C is for Consent is available on Ingram! Ingram is the biggest global distributor of books, but shops and libraries have to know to order the book before it can appear on their shelves. This was just a small Kickstarter-backed project, so I don't have the publicity or marketing budget big publishers use to get their books carried everywhere. This is a true passion project, and it's been an honor to take it this far. I dream of the day this book becomes a go-to baby shower gift, toddler birthday gift, preschool and kindergarten library selection... Until then, I'll keep trying my best to get it out there.