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The importance of consent in youth development

By Sarah Odendahl

Close up from behind of male and female walking and holding hands
On April 28, you’ll find me wearing denim jeans and a teal shirt. Why have I planned my outfit in advance? To show solidarity with victims of sexual violence.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. April 28, 2021 is Denim Day, a date that marks protest against a 1999 Italian court ruling in which a rape conviction was overturned due in part to the victim’s clothing choices. Both events seek to raise awareness of what constitutes sexual violence, how common it is, and what consent means.

Youth workers have a particular need to understand issues around consent and sexual violence. 1 in 9 girls under the age of 18 experience sexual violence at the hands of an adult, and young adults 18-24 are at particular risk of sexual violence. A 2007 study on campus sexual assault by the National Institute of Justice found that 35% of victims didn’t report what had happened because “it was unclear that a crime was committed or that harm was intended.”

Conversations about sexual assault, harassment and consent have come more into the public eye since the #MeToo movement went viral on Twitter in 2017. We can see the effects of this societal shift by examining laws around sexual education classes. In 2018, only eight states and the District of Columbia required sexual education classes in schools to discuss consent. By May of 2019, that number had grown to 18 states. Despite increased calls for youth to learn about consent, many youth workers still find it hard to educate on these topics. Chat room notes from the 2019 Comprehensive Sexuality Education Conference hosted by Maine Family Planning show that educators felt a number of barriers to teaching youth about consent, including lack of support from families and administration, awkwardness around the topic, and “needing to learn about the topic [themself].”

Minnesota youth are not immune to the problems of sexual violence, nor to confusion around ideas of consent. The 2019 Minnesota Student Survey revealed 6.2% of 9th graders have been “pressured, tricked, or forced” into a sexual activity, while 2.9% of 9th graders were “not sure” if they had ever been the perpetrator of such action.

Youth workers need tools to address consent and support survivors of sexual violence.  How can you prepare?

  • Learn about consent. RAINN’s 5 Rules for Getting, Confirming, and Honoring Consent is a great place to start learning or refresh your knowledge on the topic.
  • Model consent in your programs. Discussions about consent don’t have to be centered around sexuality. Many classroom teachers use a greeting menu to help elementary school youth set boundaries on bodily autonomy. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has resources to help youth workers teach consent to any age group.
  • Plan your response. If a youth came to you today and disclosed an act of sexual harassment or assault, how would you respond? What are your organization’s reporting requirements? Are you a mandated reporter? What resources are in your area to support survivors? Having an action plan will allow you to better serve your youth.

Sexual violence won’t be stopped without individuals committed to awareness and prevention. What step will you take this week to support and protect the youth in your community?

-- Sarah Odendahl, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

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  1. Your blog sparks me to think of all sorts of ways that consent comes up in youth programs. From policies around program evaluation, photo release and codes of conduct to practice issues like confidentiality, “challenge by choice” and respect. I’d love to see programs not only focus on developing young people’s healthy boundaries and consent skills, but also be intentional about how modeling consent supports physical and emotional safety in our programs. Thanks for making this a priority, Sarah!

    1. You bring up a really interesting conversation around "challenge by choice." In a previous job, I worked with adventure programs for youth, where we made conscious opportunities for youth to opt out at various points because of the "fear factor." I can't say I do that for all programming, especially if I don't consider the activity "scary." What perspectives have I missed, and how have I made youth uncomfortable by not offering more choice?

  2. Thanks for raising this super important (and under-discussed) topic, Sarah. It is in the background of our youth programs whether we know it or not, and for many of us it has come up in conversations with youth. I really appreciate the toolkit you shared about how to respond when someone discloses. We cannot change the trauma that has occurred, but we can help to prevent further trauma by how we respond, and hopefully be part of a healing and supportive response. I think about all the ways that consent matters, and how important it is for us to start role modeling that from when children are just tots and all the way through their youth--whether through choices about what happens with their bodies or the experiences they have. This is an important aspect of inclusion that I think we often overlook in youthwork.


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