Empowerment vs. Accountability: Conversations about Consent

Empowerment vs. Accountability: Conversations about Consent

Should survivors of sexual assault be counseled to be empowered, to have good boundaries and a positive self image or should perpetrators be held accountable for their actions? This question and many others like it are the outgrowth of conversations the Next Step Domestic Violence Project is having with 7th and 8th grade students. Their “Addressing the Root Causes of Gender-Based Violence” project seeks to create transformative change to address gender inequality in a way that it that their standard domestic and sexual violence, stalking and dating violence education has not. Rather than listening to a lecture, presentation or play, the students engage in a focus group discussion with two goals in mind: to shift belief systems about domestic and sexual violence, stalking and dating violence and to shift behaviors and responses around these same issues in selected schools in Hancock & Washington Counties.

The focus group questions are developed from an extensive outline which covers physical and verbal interactions, social media/technology, coping skills, impact, etc.  During the groups students are asked a series of questions and they respond in writing or with short verbal answers, or sometimes by raising their hand to gather quantitative information. The groups are not so much encouraging discussion between participants, though that inevitably happens, as they are about collecting responses much in the way people respond to a survey. First students are asked to describe incidents of degrading language about girls/boys that they have heard in the school this year and then to describe the impact of degrading conduct and language on themselves or someone they know. Subsequent questions get students considering coping skills and the impact of coerced sexual interactions for the victim and for bystanders.

Pamela Gagnon da Silva has seen emerging belief systems that support victimization around 5th grade typically, and by 6th grade most students are able to share instances of physical and sexual inequity that cause them to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. “Sure girls need to be empowered,” says Pam “and perpetrators need to be held accountable, but and everyone needs to be educated about consent. Consent is key!” Pam has been an educator and clinical professional counselor at Next Step for three years and is keenly interested in the individual, organizational and community changes that need to take place to shift cultural understandings about gender and power.

Consent is a simple but easily complicated practice. Consent is permission for something to happen or agreement to do something understanding that everyone has a right to their own body and to feel comfortable with how they use it, no matter what has happened in the past. But it is as much about culture as it is about clear communication and cultural change takes time. Over the next year, Next Step will be partnering with the Family Violence Project in Augusta to develop a curriculum based on the focus groups and the resulting materials will be shared statewide through the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

For more resources about consent, healthy relationships and the eradication of gender-based violence visit: http://www.nextstepdvproject.org/, http://www.familyviolenceproject.org/, or http://www.mcedv.org/.

Posted 06.01.2016 under News and Resources