Creating Cultures of Consent: Teaching and Modeling Consent for the Next Generation

Consent education is not political fodder—it is the foundation for civility, human dignity, decency, and the creation and retention of a safe and equitable society.

Creating Cultures of Consent: Teaching and Modeling Consent for the Next Generation
Protesters at the 2019 Women’s March in San Francisco. (Lynn Friedman / Flickr)

I will never forget watching the wave that was the 2017 #metoo movement hit the American psyche and public perception like a massive rush of cold water to the face of the patriarchy. I was encouraged to learn that this conversation had been started in 2006 by Tarana Burke but only given media attention 11 years later. At the time, I was right in the middle of my sexual trauma prevention and response work, going from my beginnings in K12 schools to navigating Title IX programs in higher education and finally moving into government spaces. I saw the shocked responses, “Is it really this bad?” to the dismissive dissonance, “Well, I’m not a predator.”

For those of us who have spent many years and decades deep in the trenches of this work and its intersections—racism, ableism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and childism—it was both encouraging to see people finally wake up to the realities we see daily and equally disheartening to see they naysayers try and right it off as an exaggeration.

I thought a lot these past years about what about the conversations we are having around ending rape culture would look like. As a parent, survivor, teacher and scholar, I found myself spending hours pondering what it could look like to teach the children well, in the ways of not just opposing rape culture but shifting and flipping the entire paradigm to a new culture—a culture of consent.

In my book Creating Cultures of Consent: A Guide for Parents and Educators, I wanted to discuss the theories and implications of raising a generation of people who saw consent centralized, not as a side note. Who watched consent culture being model at home and in their classrooms. Young people who grew up talking about decolonizing consent and challenging the way we marginalize male, trans and survivors with disabilities (to name only a few).

The following is a collection of edited excerpts from the book that highlight some of the ways consent must be expanded in its conceptualization and teaching. This includes an examination of the ways in which we each grew up and what we have yet to internally unlearn in order to create these new worlds for ourselves and those around us.

Most of Us Grew Up in Rape Culture

Often, when I present at conferences, I will ask the audience, “Raise your hand if you grew up in a culture of consent.”

Usually, we get two to four hands out of a hundred raised. I thank the brave souls who raised their hand, but also take that a moment to enlighten them. Even if we grew up with the most consent-loving, gender-defying, healthy relationship-having families on earth, almost all of us still grew up in a larger collective culture that promoted the opposite of all of those things. Thus, the battle to overcome these messages is not only for our children to bear—it is a burden we shoulder right beside them.


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What is on the line here is no small matter. At large we are trying to change the dynamics that lead to dating violence, stalking, exploitation, harassment and assault. On a smaller level, we are hoping to change hearts and minds to resist entitlement and toxic gender beliefs and embrace bodily autonomy.

Around the world, for most of human history, consent has been minimally applied to wholly ignored. Instead, the standard has been the exact opposite: Victim blaming is the first reaction. We slut-shame women for having healthy sexual desires; we say men/boys have uncontrollable sexual needs; and that every guy wants any sex he can get (thus there can’t be male survivors).

Creating Cultures of Consent: Teaching and Modeling Consent for the Next Generation
“If we want a world where interpersonal violence is not tolerated in any form, then we must be clear on what that constitutes.” (Ben Schumin / Flickr)

These messages are sneaky and subliminal. We don’t sit down and listen to lectures telling us these myths and lies; instead they seep into our consciousness through music, media, jokes and passing comments. Because they aren’t blaring, we accept them as “not that bad” and internalize the much larger and more severe messages they give.

Building Rape-Free Cultures

On the flip side, around the world there are also wonderful examples of consent culture. These communities are often referred to as ‘rape-free cultures’ by social scientists.

Let those words sink in for a second—rape-free cultures. Did you ever think of a community or culture as rape-free? Now it is important to note that rape-free cultures does not suggest that literally no one has ever been raped in the entire community’s history, but rather that rape (and often domestic violence) are incredibly rare (often only perpetrated by outsiders), and that rape as a word and concept is foreign or unheard of.

Anthropologist Dr. Peggy Sanday has made exploring these cultures and their unique traits the focus of her work. Sanday has found the following attributes to be consistent across rape-free cultures (Sanday, 2003):

  1. They do not have toxic extremes of gender, especially with boys and men.

Rape-prone cultures encourage and enforce women and men to be dichotomous and binary. They socialize girls/women to be submissive and passive and possessions to be owned by men. Boys/men are encouraged to be aggressive and to demonstrate their male identity through interpersonal violence and a lack of emotion and empathy.

Rape-free cultures do the opposite.

2. Women have an active role in leadership and social discourse.

When women and girls are forced to be silent, both literally and figuratively, in all aspects of society or where their voices are seen as bothersome or unimportant, sexual violence increases and is normalized.

3. Sex is not about power and control.

Sexual expression, identity and relations can be viewed through a variety of lenses depending on the culture you grew up in. In rape-free cultures, sex is about interpersonal connection, and women are empowered to enjoy sex and speak up about their pleasure and needs. Rape-free cultures generally do not shame out of wedlock pregnancies or having multiple partners in a woman’s lifetime.

Rape-prone cultures make sex taboo and something only men should enjoy, much to the chagrin of their female partners. Women are seen as vessels to be owned and breed to their one and only master—usually passed down from the father to a male he deems worthy of his property.

In a world that’s gender expansive, instead of restrictive, we see a sharp decline in interpersonal violence. We observe relationships—from families to colleagues to spouse—that are mutually respectful and beneficial. No one feels drained, threatened or manipulated by connecting to another. If these standards become the norm, then behaviors such as sexual violence and domestic violence are extinguished.

Consent Education

Above all, consent is respect for the dignity, personhood and well-being of every living thing. It means not simply asking for or receiving permission but holistically seeing each person that you interact with and wanting them to enthusiastically and wholeheartedly choose whether into interact with you or not.

Consent education must have parameters that are designed with the objective in mind. If we want a world where interpersonal violence is not tolerated in any form, then we must be clear on what that constitutes. At the same time, within those objectives, we must give room for discussion and debate. Our students are relying on us to be guides on their exploration of what personal autonomy and mutually respectful relationships entail, but not to tell them the answers as absolutes (such as in a compliance or indoctrination framework). In finding their own definitions and examples, they begin to take full ownership over the more overarching concept of consent. In doing so we, as the educators and experts, are exposed to new layers and understandings of the topic ourselves.

Because consent education for all is vital, it is not political fodder—it is the foundation for civility, human dignity, decency, and the creation and retention of a safe and equitable society.

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About

Dr. Laura McGuire (they/them) is a survivor, scholar, and seminary student. They work as a sexologist and full-spectrum doula who teaches, writes and speaks on topics concerning consent, trauma, cultural humility, and queer inclusion through The National Center for Equity and Agency. They live in Florida with their spouse, two children, and three pets. Most days you will find them enjoying the outdoors, painting, or reading a book that completely challenge their existential beliefs.