The past 3 weeks, I have met 225 young people aged 16-17 to deliver a total of 9 1-hour Embodied Consent workshops. The ‘Embodied’ bit means we aren’t sitting in front of a PowerPoint presentation, and we aren’t watching the ‘Consent=Cup of Tea’ video on YouTube.
Yes, I got them walking around the space, making eye contact with their peers, feeling their feet on the ground and noticing their bodies. And yes, of course they laughed and larked around!
They talked for 1 minute each about what they think Consent is, and their partner actively listened. They shared their thoughts and understanding, including a lot of talk of Tea (video link below).
An exercise about personal space led to many of the young people nose to nose and in full body embraces, including some of the loudest young men! I asked them to scale their comfort level from 0-10 and observed how in situations like this the young people are probably overriding their body’s signals about comfort levels in order to prove something, bravado or as a response to peer pressure.
‘Odd, Weird and Awks’ – Holding embodied consent workshops for the next generation
Within some boundaries and ground-rules we established at the beginning, they had the opportunity to practice different kinds of non-sexual touch with each other. They were treated to a demo by myself and their youth leader, which was an interesting 3 hour journey for them as well!
In pairs, they asked ‘Can I do XYZ’ (‘Taking’ in Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent) and their partner had to decide whether it was a yes or a no. I was lucky to work with a great youth leader who was able to talk about the sensation of the no, his ‘gut feeling’. Then the touch was delivered for 15-20 seconds, (unless it was a hug and then it was more like 4 seconds.)
It was important to me to get the message across that consent is not just about asking to do things to other people and getting an agreement, but it is also about asking for what YOU want. This is the ‘Receiving’ quadrant of the Wheel of Consent. So, they had 5 minutes to ask for touch that they wanted. This is where I got the most ‘this is weird’, and ‘totes awks’ comments.
Interesting, I thought. I told them that if we cannot ask for what we want this is how we end up having crap sex! The youth leader told me they all paid attention as soon as I related it to sex in an honest and upfront way.
One group negotiated a 3 person massage chain, which inspired me to offer the whole group the opportunity to create a collective massage circle to end the session. With consent, which they gained verbally, they all massaged each other’s shoulders in a circle. There is a photo of me in the midst of this circle, which unfortunately I am unable to share or use, but use your imaginations! This was particularly magical, with all their anxious and awkward feelings and all the identity and social issues that they face.
Holding embodied consent workshops
Many young people asked confronting questions that gave me a clue as to their experiences in life so far. One young woman sat out, saying ‘I don’t think it’s right that if your partner says no to something then you keep asking for different things. That’s not right, that’s what some lads do’. The structure that is designed to be an open-ended negotiation where you can say no to everything, was reminding this young woman of the unpleasant harassment of someone who cannot take no for an answer. I acknowledged her experience. I thanked all the young people who chose not to take part, for doing what was right for them.
One worker I was demonstrating with observed that some young people were goading him from the audience to say yes to my requests to touch him, how this felt to him (even though he was in a position of power), and how it was in fact a microcosm of the culture amongst young people, where pressure is exerted by others to be all taking part in sexual behaviour.
Some young people were able to see that consent for sex and touch is only one dimension, and that our boundaries can be overstepped in many areas of our life. They could also understand why it can be so hard to not always be in our true consent, because of ‘shoulds’, peer pressure, fear of upsetting or angering the other person and because sometimes we ‘freeze’ and can’t find our voice.
The workshop raised issues for some young people about power, as the issue of young people not being believed by adults was discussed. I hope the workers continued these important conversations.
I helped them to understand that if the answer to a question about touch was ‘Maybe’ this was a No, until it turns into a Yes that is felt in the body. And we said Thankyou when someone said no to us. We cultivated the attitude of gratitude when someone is able to tell us their truth.
I pondered all this afterwards…
These young people are all touching each other all the time! But in an unconscious way based on assumptions, often play-fighting, or cheeky, edgy touching of intimate body parts. They don’t frame this constant as ‘awkward’ but seem acclimatised to it; it’s normal. Yet asking them to make touch conscious, intentional and consensual was intensely uncomfortable for them.
What if, in assembly from an early age, school children experienced structured sessions where touch and closeness is included, and explicit consent and pro-consent attitudes are fostered and modelled by the adults and leaders? *
If some of these young people had previously experienced some activities like this, become more comfortable and calm with intentional touch, how would they have found this workshop?
We know from research that high numbers of young people report experiences of sexual harassment, coercion or unwanted sexual contact…it’s all on a continuum, and there are so many reasons why young people don’t talk about these things, or report them when they happen, or feel able to say no. These include a lot of social factors about who has power and the justice system and ‘toxic masculinity’.
If these young people had heard the adults in their life negotiating and communicating about boundaries in a conscious, respectful way (not making the child kiss Aunt Sharon, but encouraging the honouring of the self and the body), how would things be different?
Would they already be better equipped with the attitudes, confidence and skills needed to navigate adult, sexual relationships?
If so, would we have improved the emotional and sexual health of the next generation?
I like to think that’s what I was doing for the last 3 weeks on a Tuesday morning. Even if I was the weird person who showed up and made them feel excruciatingly awkward for an hour.
Embodied consent workshops for the next generation
If you would be interested in practical and experiential workshops for young people about Consent and Boundaries, or workshops for adults who have some catching up to do! Please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.
*(Some schools do this with sharing meditation, massage activities, with the goal of holistic wellbeing. Theraplay ® has a programme of Sunshine Circles ® for school environments to help children regulate, concentrate, feel connected and engaged.)
Betty Martin Wheel of Consent with loads of free resources and print outs.
Consent and Cup of Tea
An alternative to Cup of Tea video
Theraplay ® Sunshine circles
Thanks for reading,