When the #MeToo movement exploded on social media in October, the reaction among Maddy Eichenberg’s female-identifying friends at school was, “Yeah, this is pretty much our reality.”
“It’s just something high school girls know they have to deal with,” said Ms. Eichenberg, 18, a senior at Lexington High School in Lexington, Mass., and the co-president of her school’s Intersectional Feminism Club. “A lot of female friend groups have a list of — or know about — high school boys who they know have been treating women in a gross way, and make sure their friends stay away from them.”
While the #MeToo movement has largely focused on adult perpetrators, children and adolescents who engage in sexual harassment, bullying and abuse can also leave their victims with deep and lasting scars. Experts say today’s murky consent culture prevails in adulthood because these behaviors aren’t being addressed in childhood — a pivotal time when kids are learning social norms and developing their sense of identity.
Research shows that 43 percent of middle school students experience sexual harassment from their peers. And a third of teenagers report experiencing relationship abuse. Rates may be even higher in kids with disabilities and those who identify as L.G.B.T.Q.
Instead of waiting to have “the talk” until adults think it’s age-appropriate, consent education should start at the earliest age possible and remain a constant lesson through childhood and adolescence, said Jett Bachman, a youth educator at Day One, a nonprofit organization that works with youth to promote healthy relationships and end dating abuse.
These lessons can start at the most basic level of teaching respect for physical boundaries, said Mx. Bachman, who uses the gender-neutral honorific. For example, rather than pressuring pre-school-age children to hug relatives or adults they don’t know, adults might suggest alternatives like a high five or a wave. This gives children agency in deciding when and how they want to physically interact with other people.
For kids in elementary school, Mx. Bachman said incorporating the word “consent” into their vocabulary will encourage them to apply it to all areas of their lives. In learning to ask permission to use a classmate’s toy, for instance, they learn that all people have a right to their belongings and their own private space. By the time they reach their teens, these lessons can be extended to their relationships.
At Lexington High, Ms. Eichenberg and her classmates are working with the school administration to update the curriculums for their health classes to include more modules on consent and sexual harassment. New lessons include how to gauge consent based on nonverbal cues and how to advocate for yourself when you’re in an uncomfortable situation and need to find a way out safely.
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