Written by: Betty Barsley-Marra-Health Educator, Robert Crown Center for Health Education
Samantha, a sophomore in one of my classes, stopped on her way out to ask if she could come by after school to talk. As the teacher of Human Sexuality classes, it was not unusual for students to have personal questions for me. While I always encouraged students to talk with their trusted adults at home, I offered my willingness to coach them through challenging discussions because I was well aware that some students did not believe they had a trusted adult at home. Being a trusted adult is not automatic, trust is built over time and can be tremendously fragile and difficult (sometimes impossible) to repair once broken, but more on that later.
When Samantha returned later that afternoon, she said, “I had my first real kiss over the weekend.” I responded, “Okay…” and waited for more. “It wasn’t what I expected. In fact, I didn’t expect it at all. It came outta’ nowhere. Wasn’t he supposed to ask or warn me or something…and what’s with all the tongue stuff?” A common response to her question is that one doesn’t ask to kiss another person. After all, that would ruin the romance of the experience, and why warn them? It’s not an open sewer ahead, it’s just a kiss! The reality is that everyone does not agree with the above perspective. Some people want, even need, the comfort of consent for a kiss. Certainly, Samantha did, which is what prompted our talk. Even those who describe the experience of an unexpected kiss as romantic can believe consent is essential as the experience progresses to include genital contact and intercourse.
I expect that the boy who kissed Samantha thought he made the right choice. Perhaps he saw, heard, read “signs” that Samantha wanted to be kissed. After all, everyone knows them, right? We see them played out in films, hear them in song lyrics, our friends share them, etc. While many long-term adult partners, although not all, can recognize partner consent, children and teens need to be explicitly taught about consent…what it looks like, what it sounds like. Young people must see consent, not as a challenging game they have to master, but as a partner conversation. A conversation in which sober partners both give an enthusiastic, voluntary “yes” that can be revoked at any time. While consent is something we can begin teaching children, in Illinois, someone must be at least 17 years old to legally give consent for sexual behavior.
While teaching consent is important regarding sexual behavior, children need to learn about non-sexual interpersonal consent from their very earliest years. It includes learning boundaries regarding personal space and bodies … what is okay and what is not. The adults in a child’s life can regularly allow preschoolers choices (between two options acceptable to the adult) and when honoring the child’s choice, they learn they have a voice that matters. For example, “To keep you safe when we cross the street, I need to pick you up or hold your hand. Which is your choice?” For an infant, having conversations with a baby right from the beginning sows the seeds of respect. Regularly making eye contact, asking the baby questions always allowing some time for the baby’s response, maybe a gurgle, a body movement or a laugh, then it’s the adults turn to speak again. It’s not that the baby understands the question or is capable of a reasonable response, but it is an experience that helps the baby over time to understand that they matter, that they have a right and role in this interaction. One becomes that trusted adult in the life of a tween or teen by building that relationship right from the beginning. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), “Every 92 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted…and every 9 minutes, that victim is a child.”
As we talked that afternoon, Samantha began to muse that perhaps she was overreacting… that maybe a kiss is no big deal. I disagreed with Samantha. To those who agree, I share below the ultimate kiss quote from Emil Ludwig, a German-Swiss author from the first half of the 20th century, which I use to begin every adult Human Sexuality course I teach. It elevates the importance of the kiss as the prelude to all else that follows and pales in comparison. “The decision to kiss for the first time is the most crucial in any love story. It changes the relationship of two people much more strongly than even the final surrender; because this kiss already has within it that surrender.” Consent matters for the kiss and all else that follows.