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‘I ask’: What to know about consent, and what to teach your kids

District Attorney Bernie Cantorna wants abuse victims and survivors to know help is available

Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna speaks during a discussion about Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention Month on April 1, 2019.
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Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna speaks during a discussion about Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention Month on April 1, 2019.

It is hard to know how to have an impact on big social problems like sexual assault. And it is easy to feel as if the small contribution one person makes won’t really make any difference at all. But as anthropologist Jane Goodall wrote, “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” The reality is that small things can make a big impact on how we — or our children — might experience sexual violence in the world. And if Jane Goodall is correct, wouldn’t we want the impact we make to be a positive one?

April is Sexual Violence Awareness Month and this year’s theme is “I Ask.” In other words, it is all about consent — understanding it, asking for it, and creating a culture where consent is the norm. Cultural change is a tall order, but there are multiple small ways we can all have an impact on the lives of those we care about. Here are a few:

  • Understand what consent is — and is not. When someone gives consent, they are giving permission for something to happen or agreeing to do something. “Um, maybe?” or “I guess so” are responses that indicate uncertainty, not consent.

  • Ask for consent and accept the answer. Make this a practice in all the physical interactions you have with others. Ask if someone who looks like they need a hug actually wants a hug. Ask before touching others — regardless of your intent, the impact on the other person could be profoundly negative.

  • Teach your kids about boundaries — and model for them that boundaries are a good thing. We all have the right to determine how and when we want to interact with others, especially in physical ways. It needs to be OK to refuse to hug Uncle Ned or not want to kiss Grandma.

  • Talk to your kids (and your teens!) about digital consent. Just because we are all now connected 24/7 through electronic media, does not mean that it is OK to text someone else — even a boyfriend or girlfriend — nonstop all day. Boundaries apply here as well. Having access to others electronically is a great way to stay connected to those we care about, but if we don’t respect their boundaries, it can easily turn into a way to exert power and control behavior. And sharing pictures of other people without asking them first is probably a bad idea as well.

  • Help your kids understand that when someone says “no” to a request whether it is sitting with them at lunch or going to the prom, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like you. And even if it does mean that sometimes, it doesn’t change your child’s value and worth. Your child is still loved and valued by their other friends and by you. Asking for consent at playtime or in romantic relationships takes courage — and so does hearing and honoring the answer if it is “no.”

These seemingly little things can have a big impact — on our children, on our relationships and even on the world we live in. As we change our small interactions with others, we change the ways we impact their lives, we change the ways we see the society around us, and we change ourselves. That’s a pretty positive impact to have.

Anne K. Ard is the executive director of Centre Safe, Centre County’s domestic violence/rape crisis center, 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College. Contact her at 238-7066 or at annekard@centresafe.org.
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