A week or so ago, some acquaintance on facebook posted this video from Parenting Gently. Despite the fact that I am not a parent and have no real interest in contemporary parenting (gentle or otherwise), the title of the video intrigued me enough to get me to click through: "4 Ways Parents Teach Kids That Consent Doesn't Matter."
Because it's the start of the school year, and I have two classes full of college freshmen, I've been thinking about anti-rape education a lot lately. I did a brief reminder (with handouts from the internet!) about what Consent means - the most important reminder, I think, is that being asleep/being drunk/being passed out does not mean you are consenting. And that maybe if your person is really drunk, even if they are consenting, they might not really mean it. So use some intelligence.
It struck me as rather awful that at age 18 or 19, these students might need some information about what consent actually means, but then i realized that we don't talk about it very much until then, and it's almost always in the context of rape. The Parenting Gently video makes it really clear that there are ways we, as adults, model consent/disregard of nonconsent - and that that carries over into all aspects of life, including sex and sexual coercion.
Parenting Gently's 4 ways that adults teach kids that consent does matter are:
*Tickling & Rough-house Play
*Contradicting Their Feelings
*Respect For Elders
You can watch her extremely concise and insightful discussion of each of these, but I was particularly struck by what she says about Tickling/Roughhouse Play: If you're tickling a kid and they say no (even if it seems like a playful no), stop immediately. That way, they learn that saying NO results in a behavior ending, but it ALSO shows them that the correct response when someone says No or Stop is to stop what you're doing. It works both ways. It models the effectiveness of saying NO, it gives power to the kid, and it also shows what you do when someone doesn't like what you're doing to them.
A couple of days after watching this video, which I've been turning over in my mind since the initial viewing, I checked my much-neglected tumblr stream. For some obviously masochistic reason, I still follow "Reasons my son is crying," and this was near the top of my tumblr stream.
And it made my blood boil, especially in the context of the Parenting Gently consent video.
The tumblr is a photo of a little girl, maybe 3 years old?, sitting on the floor in a blue dress, crying. the caption: "She asked Daddy not to look at her. He didn’t listen."
I think steam probably came out my ears I was so angry. Who knows why she asked daddy not to look at her? But when a girl asks a man not to look at her, "he didn't listen" is not the best response. And yes, it's her dad, and yes, she's only 2 or 3, and yes, it was probably all quite silly anyway. But who knows? Who knows what was going on in her mind when she asked her dad not to look at her? Maybe she had a really good reason for it. She's clearly in a safe, secure location - looks like she's sitting on a kitchen floor - so it's not like her dad needs to keep an eye on her for safety reasons. We don't know who took the picture, but if it was dad, I'm even angrier - imagine, not only ignoring your daughter's request not to look at her but PHOTOGRAPHING her in that moment!
I do think my reaction is influenced by the gender dynamics there as well as the age dynamics. Girls are so looked-at, their whole lives, and sometimes you just don't want to be on stage. Laura Mulvey, fetishistic scopophilia, etc. Men are taught to look at women, their whole lives, and that they have every right to look at women when and how they want. And even if the woman is a three year old girl, and the man is her own father, it's still a problem. I won't even go into any of the stats about child sex abuse and likelihood of family perpetrators. I don't know anything at all about the situation being reported in the tumblr other than what I see and read. I don't do hysteria over child molestation, either, for a variety of reasons, but I also see no reason to pretend that no father has ever molested or been sexually inappropriate towards a daughter. It is a Thing. You can't say "but it's just her dad," as if that, in every single case, is an automatic exculpatory statement.
Sometimes you just don't want to be looked at, and when there's no pragmatic reason that supervision is necessary, no one *should* look at you if you ask them not to.
Taking Parenting Gently as a guide, fast-forward this moment by about 16 years. Girl, age 18 or 19, asks Boy not to look at her (for whatever reason; maybe she's changing, maybe she's taking off a layer of clothing and doesn't want her shirt to pull up in view of him, maybe she's feeling shy, maybe he's making her feel creepy, maybe he's looking at her in a disturbing way, who knows). Boy ignores request; in fact, Boy takes out his phone and takes a picture of Girl.
And suddenly we're in a disturbing coercive situation where Girl's right to be not-looked-at is violated. Girl has been set up for this situation by parental disregard of consent/nonconsent. Maybe Boy has been similarly set up - say, by the "contradicting of feelings" item on Parenting Gently's list. Girl says "Don't look, I'm feeling shy," and Boy thinks "Oh, you're not really shy, you're just being silly/self-conscious/a tease."
I know a lot of people would think this is a huge leap to make, and maybe it is. But I somehow don't think so. Ignoring children's actual feelings and desires - for instance, to not be looked at - tells them, as humans, that it's okay to ignore people's actual feelings, and that their own feelings and desires aren't legitimate. If we're lucky, we re-educate them at some point down the line to have self-respect and to know that their emotions are legitimate and should be respected, etc etc. But why not start that training from the very beginning? Why not say "Your feelings should be respected, and you should also respect other people's feelings"?
That sounds very Mister Rogers-y, not surprisingly of course, but I think it's also true and important. Kids, as much as adults, are human beings with thoughts and feelings and wishes. We don't get to ignore them, make fun of them, trample over them, or contradict them just because we're older (see item 4 in the video: respecting your elders). Doing those things suggests that those behaviors are okay in adults, and they aren't. Doing those things suggests that your resistance/refusal is going to be ignored.
These are not behaviors we want to encourage amongst people in our society - or they shouldn't be.
Consent matters, and it matters from the very earliest imaginable moments.