By Susan Sullivan, Prevention Campaign Specialist for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) campaign for 2019 is laser-focused on one concept: consent. The goal of SAAM is more than awareness – the ultimate goal is prevention. Since consent is a clear, concrete example of what it takes to end sexual violence, it only made sense that this year’s theme center on empowering all of us – including those in traditionally marginalized groups – to put consent into practice. Engaging in conversations with our partners, children, and friends about consent is #1Thing that we can all do to promote safe and healthy relationships.
In recent years, general audiences have gained familiarity with the language of consent. We see consent showing up in news articles related to the #MeToo movement founded by Tarana Burke. Discussions about consent are quickly becoming the norm for parents sending teens off to college. New apps are popping up with proposed solutions to the consent question. Many organizations have developed their own useful tools about consent, including Planned Parenthood’s “FRIES” visual or NO MORE’s and Healthline’s Consent Guide. NSVRC also had pre-existing resources on consent, such as our Going to College tip sheet for parents and our Everyday Consent resource to name just a few.
With this variety of consent resources already available, what is it that makes the “I Ask for Consent” campaign fresh and compelling?
Consent & Healthy Sexuality
The intention behind NSVRC’s campaign for SAAM 2019 was to approach consent from a sex-positive point of view. We wanted to send the message that consent is really about having a dialogue with your partner, which is why the slogan is “I Ask.” The campaign shares the message that “talking about what you and your partner want to do not only ensures sex is consensual, but also makes it more enjoyable. You’ll feel more confident about what you’re doing and your partner will feel comfortable getting close to you.”
As you can glean from the message above, we approached the topic from the belief that the vast majority of people want their partners to feel safe, comfortable, and respected. Maybe they haven’t considered how asking for consent impacts broader relationship dynamics. Or they assumed in the past that asking for consent would be too complex or awkward to be approachable or actionable. These were the considerations that went into creating the main campaign resource, “I Ask for Consent.”
One of the strengths of this resource – and the three others in the series – is its brevity. This tiny but mighty resource is only 350 words, making it a reasonable time investment for someone who has picked it up from an event table or community space. In the “I Ask for Consent” resource, we lay out the basics to open up the consent conversation – and provide actionable steps along with examples of what asking for consent looks like in real life.
“I Ask for Consent” covers:
- What consent is
- When and how to ask for consent
- What consent is not
- How to understand non-verbal cues
- Dealing with the “no”
Keeping Consent Timely & Relevant
These days, so many of our interactions occur through text messages, email, and social media, rather than face to face. We know that technology has become a tool of abuse for some individuals, while others may act in unhealthy ways through digital communication without even being aware of it. This is why one of our key resources this year focuses on ensuring there is consent in interactions through text or over social media.
In the “I Ask for Digital Consent” resource, we share the message that “just because you aren’t talking face to face, you should always consider how your action might make another person feel and ask questions if you don’t know.” Digital abuse and consent violations are complex topics, and we couldn’t possibly get into the nuances of those issues in this resource alone. However, the information included is intended as a catalyst to get folks thinking about how they can be more respectful and mindful when interacting online.
“I Ask for Digital Consent” covers:
- Consent when texting
- Sharing information about others online
- Not pressuring others to send pictures
- Online consent violations
Digital consent isn’t the only topic that was inspired by changes in our cultural landscape. There have been many stories in the news that illustrate how abusers take advantage of a power imbalance, like the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, who used his authority to abuse hundreds of athletes; Bill Cosby, who used his celebrity to abuse young women; R. Kelly, who used his status as a music icon to perpetrate violence against young girls of color; or Catholic priests using their power to abuse children. While these are extreme situations of consent violations, power imbalances can and do show up in otherwise healthy relationships in more subtle ways – and can ultimately complicate consent.
When thinking of the concept of power imbalance and how power (or lack thereof) impacts one’s ability to consent, it’s critical to keep in mind that sexism and racism are both tools of oppression, and the intersection of these “isms” make women of color and immigrant women particularly susceptible to sexual violence. Experiences with institutionalized racism, as well as other cultural and systemic barriers faced by women of color and immigrant women continue to make it difficult for these survivors to report their abusers, to access support services and to trust the systems and institutions that are supposed to help them.
Our “I Ask How Power Impacts Consent” resource looks at the ways someone’s privilege, position in society, level of ability, or age and sexual experience could create an imbalance of power in their relationship. We offer tips on how to recognize that imbalance in a situation, communicate openly with your partner, and make consent clear.
- What power is
- Imbalances of power and what they may look like
- Considering how holding a position of power might influence consent
- Making consent clear
Keeping It Actionable
In addition to keeping resources positive, timely, and relevant, it was also important to connect the information to tangible real-world examples. This is especially apparent in our “I Ask How to Teach Consent Early” resource, which is designed for parents on ways to model consent for children in late childhood and early adolescence. These tips for parents point out that children are already having discussions about consent, whether that be asking if a friend wants to sit together at lunch or on the bus, or if they’d like to share school supplies, toys, or food.
Having conversations about consent doesn’t have to be an additional chore for a busy parent’s to-do list. That’s why – just like the other three resources – our resource for parents provides examples of how to have these conversations. We wanted to help parents pinpoint teachable moments in their own lives to model consent to their children. For instance, a parent could say: “It sounds like your friend didn’t want to sit beside you on the bus today. Sometimes you don’t want to sit beside me and that’s okay. Everybody gets to make choices about what’s comfortable for them.”
Our “I Ask How to Teach Consent Early” resource covers:
- What consent is
- Talking openly about consent
- Teaching respect for boundaries
- Teaching how to ask for consent
- Modeling asking for consent
Teaching kids about the skills of consent can help reduce sexual coercion, harassment, and even assault. The ASK. LISTEN. RESPECT. video by the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance was created for tweens and teens ages 11-16 to show concrete examples of how to ask for consent, what enthusiastic, verbal consent looks like, and how to respond to “no” respectfully.
I Ask Beyond SAAM
SAAM is a key time for advocates to share these resources at events and on social media. During April, we’re looking forward to seeing advocates share the “I Ask” message throughout their communities and with their online networks. As folks share this message, they’ll demonstrate the importance of consent and set an example for their partners, friends, and loved ones. However, conversations about consent cannot end on April 30th. Our hope is that, even if the details from these resources fade away, the idea of asking will remain. Through the simple but memorable phrase, “I Ask,” we want to empower everyone to put consent into practice now and always.
Where to Find SAAM Resources
We hope you’ll join us in sharing the critical message that asking for consent is a normal, healthy, and necessary part of all interactions. You can find these palm cards available for purchase in NSVRC’s online store, or you can access the same content as a printable handout on the SAAM website. You can also learn how to get involved with the “I Ask” campaign and download free posters, coloring pages, and check out the Spanish language campaign materials at https://www.nsvrc.org/es/saam.