"How we honor our bodies and one another in relationships is a way that we honor God. Remind everyone that they are beloved children of God, set loose to share God’s love with others."
What is Consent & Why Should We Be Talking About it in Our Faith Communities?
Consent occurs when one person voluntarily agrees to the proposal or desires of another. The opposite of consent is coercion, clearly the opposite of what God desires of us. While particularly visible as it relates to bodily autonomy, consent is a concept we should be aware of in all of our actions. Yes, consent is about every individual's agency of their own body and sexual activity; it's also about agency in every action. Episcopalians and other Christian denominations believe that God has given us free will; the ability to choose who we wish to be. It stands to reason that faith leaders should recognize consent and routinely encourage autonomy of choice.
Be Prayerful, Trustworthy, Clear, and Resourceful
Youth and young adults are looking for direction from their faith leaders. If you have developed a group in which all participants feel safe in sharing then talking about bodily autonomy and consent should be considered as a topic of dedicated conversation. An overall tenet of youth ministry is to be fully present with your group, whatever the activity or conversation. There are four best practices in ministry that apply directly to critical conversations around physical, emotional, and sexual consent: be prayerful, be trustworthy and aware, be bold and direct and open the conversation to contemporary experience and knowledge.
How we honor our bodies and one another in relationships is a way that we honor God. Remind everyone that they are beloved children of God, set loose to share God’s love with others. Open and close all conversations in prayer, then facilitate all group interactions with gentle grace and understanding.
Be Trustworthy and Aware
There is a tremendous spectrum of experience in understanding body autonomy, who has power over our bodies. Every circle of participants is different. Age is not a great predictor of skills in this area, so it would be wise to start at the beginning without any assumptions about your group. Be careful, though, to not use language that is condescending, even when explaining basic (to you) concepts.
Be as current as you can with the ever-changing lexicon of gender and relationship status. Reinforce the fact that there is no baseline experience-requirement for understanding the topic, and it’s not a contest for best/worst/least experience. And, with the ever-shifting community conversations and expectations, this is work we will all have to do across our lifetimes, so none of us has “arrived.”
Be Bold and Direct
Before initiating a conversation on consent, do a self inventory. What motivates you to talk about this topic? What do you believe about this? Where are your contradictions? Respect your own journey, and also your group's journeys. Don’t waste time with generalizations. Respect the circle by respecting their ability to embrace specific versus general information. For example - “Diet & Exercise” gets knowing, bored responses from people trying to live a healthy lifestyle. “Cut processed foods and sugar for a month and see how you feel” is more likely to inspire thoughtful, critical dialogue and engagement. Specifics about what is expected or “okay” regarding sexual activity/physical intimacy for people of faith is no different.
Do not be afraid to be specific about body parts. Using factual words to talk about all parts of the body empowers even very young children to be clear in communicating and that their body is not something that has to be hidden or be ashamed of. As a youth minister, I've found that the more you relieve the conversation of these specifics, the more space is created to talk about the larger issue of communication and consent. Don’t be afraid to say “What you are doing doesn’t matter nearly as much as why you and your partner believe you are doing it, and that you agree upon what it means.” Kissing, sex, holding hands, intimate texts, can either carry promises or simply be playful explorations of a relationship.
Open the Conversation to Contemporary Experience and Knowledge
The larger themes of love and respect are absolutely a part of our inherited sacred texts. But the modern landscape of social media, access to drugs, independence, and pornography is not. Employ resources that broaden the story, with integrity, so participants have room to explore the characters and recognize themselves in opportunities for growth. You’ve established trust, and you wish to speak directly, but often times finding the lead-in materials is tricky. These Are Our Bodies has lots of resources to begin these conversations. You can also invite a guest speaker, or fellow minister from another parish to join you if you think it might be less awkward. I like to say “here is a bit of writing I found (or a video I saw) about this topic. Let’s hear it, and then see if you think it’s relevant.”
I recommend two resources on the topic of consent. The first is included in the Young Adult module of These Are Our Bodies and is a YouTube video. This British Police department's humorous explanation of what exactly consent is widens the conversation by using an analogy of wanting (or not) a cup of tea. This makes for a useful conversation opening for younger teenagers to talk about the peer pressure - not only to be sexual when they aren’t ready, but also to try drugs, to bully other people, or to think poorly of themselves because they are being told they should somehow be different. It is not a stretch to consider how those are also realms where one person or persons try to force themselves on others, and convince them to do or want to be a part of something when they have tried to say no – even if they might have said yes before.
The second resource is a series from the Modern Love feature of the New York Times. It is a number of anecdotes from young college students about the sometimes grey area of actual experience and consent. It is a difficult read, but gives super specific examples of scenarios young persons will be exposed to on campus (their own or others' experiences) and the questions that arise. I read it out loud to rising college freshmen and it was interesting to hear them acknowledge their own double standards about safety, consent, and the possibility of carrying new safeguards regarding themselves and others into this next season of their lives.
Side note: The important conversations about consent and #metoo have recently intersected with the emphasis some college organizations have on training their students to be designated drivers/ non-drinkers/ “party monitors” so they can take care of their drunk friends. But I have had young men and women tell me that they avoid intoxicated people, especially women, at all costs now, even if they might be in danger, because of potential accusations of misconduct. Here is a direct and difficult note about this.
Heidi J. A. Carter is the Lay Associate for Ministry at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Creve Coeur (St. Louis) Missouri, and co-author of the Young Adult Module of These Are Our Bodies. She has also been a consultant and trainer with LeaderResources, primarily around issues of Staffing, Adult Formation, and The Journey To Adulthood Parish Program of Spiritual Formation for over twenty years.