If this were a real court case, I imagine myself as some strangely delightful combination of ADA Cabot from Law & Order: SVU and Elle Woods of Legally Blonde fame. A sharply ethical observer of human behavior who is both unyielding and unserious. It makes no sense and that’s the feedback I got when I developed my signature program, Consensuality, whenever I attempted an elevator pitch.
Though of short stature, I’m not a short-winded person. Elevator pitches are not my speed. I spent most of kindergarten in the hallway, for talking too much. Situated in a convent, I was casually questioned by all the nuns who passed by.
“Why are you in the hallway today, Stacey?”
“I don’t know Sister.” Of course,I knew. And of course, I wanted to talk her ear off. I just wanted to connect. I was eventually placed at the noisy quad of desks. What hell that must have been for the quad next to us.
I knew I had a lot to say and no one was listening. Sometimes they were trying to quiet me, but that only sparked my drive to be heard. As I learned to temper my talkativeness (somewhat), I learned how to listen. Observe. Watch. I could feel the weight and mood of rooms shift during classes or presentations. It was fascinating because the presenter was either unaware or didn’t know how to pull the audience back in.
In my early 20s, I finally found something to say (but let’s be real, I was still doing a lot of talking). I was working in higher education, bopping around in health education, teaching, new student orientation, and res life. Suddenly, Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, was all anyone talked about.
I realized that was the problem, everyone was talking but no one was teaching, not really. I connected with the tenants of Title IX deeply. Sex discrimination is a cruel accomplice and a bitter inspiration. I tried finding programs, workshops, and curriculums that connected to the core of what students (and people) misunderstood about consent and sexuality, which created space for the harm so many experience.
I couldn’t find it. So, I created my own program, Consensuality (which, btw, gets high marks from students and has won awards). I felt like I literally ingested Title IX after blending it with student development theory, sex education protocols, student feedback, trends, and topping it with my unique brand of humor. And lots of cat jokes, analogies, and pictures. So yea, maybe there’s a cat hair in there, too.
That’s not what most students were getting. As time moved on, research started filtering in.
“Teaches how to perpetrate.”
“Not practical, too legal.”
So, what were we doing besides making the case against consent education? Students often report wanting and being supportive of the education that is supposed to occur in mandatory Title IX training, but it’s not meeting their needs. We are wasting everyone’s time and somebody’s money.
We make the case against consent education by rendering it ineffective. Tasked with reading heavy legal documents or procedures detailing mandates, institutional fog, few life rafts full of cash to fund meaningful work, we drown.
There is a way to blend those mandates into something really powerful. What I often see, in other trainings and facilitators, is what the students see. There is an inherent bias and lack of education many facilitators and training modules have because they don’t really address the sexuality of it all, which is the crux of the issue. Research shows students don’t find these programs to be a source of meaningful messages, so they don’t recall them or act on them for their socialization.
As someone who is trained in sexuality education (PhD pending!) and worked in college student conduct for many years, I have a very, very strange perspective on the whole thing. From my lens (which I am certainly biased about too, thanks), we don’t have a fundamental understanding of human sexuality and the interplay of power and agency. And by we, I mean most people out there working with laws and policies that revolve around consent. It’s certainly not your fault on the surface; you were handed certain tools and followed a roadmap to keep in compliance and out of the news. As research grows, we can’t keep looking at those tools with the same, singular purpose.
You might wonder “where do I start?” I started by incorporating an adapted version of the Circles of Sexuality, originally developed by Dr. Dennis Dailey. When you reframe those circles into a lens about sexual harassment, misconduct, assault, and all the other forms of non-consensual conduct and contact people experience, it makes sense. And it’s engaging. And interesting. And people are always curious to learn more about sexuality. We are deprived of age appropriate, healthy levels of education around this topic. That creates these crevasses people fall into as survivors, perpetrators, and those who hold up the structures that make these harmful behaviors “not ok, still illegal, but permissible.”
Think of it like this: we are teaching people to drive by only talking about car accidents. There is no evidence to show we’ve eradicated non-consensual behavior through the education we’ve been facilitating. So, why not try something different? Otherwise, we are just adding to the pile of evidence against consent education.