“It was pretty clear that they agreed with the general concept of respecting people’s boundaries,” YES! co-founder Isy Abraham-Raveson said
C is for consent.
A Montclair, N.J.-based organization wants to flip the script on how kids receive sex ed — starting with teaching the concept of consent as early as kindergarten. One 30-minute workshop by the nonprofit YES!, short for Your Empowered Sexuality, has kindergarteners learning about boundaries through role-playing and interactive exercises.
In boundaries workshops held in May at the Montclair Cooperative School, participants started off telling adult facilitators their own favorite body parts and played a game of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” Facilitators then acted out a series of potentially confusing boundary scenarios — hugging someone who’s leaning away, simultaneously laughing and saying “stop” while being tickled, and being asked to kiss Grandma but feeling uncomfortable — and dissected each one for potential problems and solutions.
Not only were the kindergarteners “already there” in terms of articulating their feelings, they “understood even more complicated situations,” YES! co-founder and curriculum writer Isy Abraham-Raveson, a Philadelphia-based preschool teacher, told Moneyish. “It was pretty clear that they agreed with the general concept of respecting people’s boundaries.” Students left armed with “My Body. Their Body,” a YES!-conceived, critter-laden coloring book that drives home the workshop’s message. The book is available for download on the group’s website, which also features educational YouTube videos and a sex-positive storytelling blog, Verbatim.
Though high schools are more likely to require instruction on sexual health than elementary or middle schools, the American Public Health Association recommends kids receive age-appropriate comprehensive sex education starting in kindergarten — and a 2014 Georgetown University study suggests beginning sex ed for younger adolescents could help reduce unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions, STIs and maternal deaths. (Per the Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states and Washington, D.C. even mandate sex ed in the first place.)
Consent, meanwhile, has bubbled back into the national dialogue thanks to disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sex scandal, followed by droves of women and men sharing their own tales of sexual abuse. “The sooner that we introduce bodily autonomy and mutual respect” the better, Abraham-Raveson said. She called college consent courses, which teach the concept once attitudes about sex are already formed, “a Band-Aid measure”: “Think about how much more powerful it would be if we never had to go back and retroactively explain all of these negative experiences people have had,” she said. “If that was part of our understanding of sexuality the whole time.”
Abraham-Raveson, 24, launched YES! in 2015 alongside fellow Montclair High School alumni Eve Gutman, Rebecca Klein and Natalie Smyth, to deliver a brand of sex ed they’d never experienced. The group set out with a focus on consent, but evolved to encompass “a more holistic understanding of sexuality,” Abraham-Raveson said, adding free workshops geared at middle and high schoolers on gender and sexual orientation, sexual values, masculinity, and intersectional feminism and activism. “We now think more about all of the aspects of sexuality, which include self esteem and body parts and safer sex practices and identity and a million other things,” she said. While some kids fixate on whether they can be blamed for unwanted contact, she added, YES! tries to shift the focus onto how to take care of others instead of hurting them.
“It definitely reaffirmed how I felt of how important and necessary it is to have these conversations, especially in a group setting with my peers,” onetime workshop participant Julia Maskin, a Montclair High junior, told Moneyish. “It’s one of the first times that we’ve talked so openly about it.”
YES! also offers adult workshops on how to talk to kids about sex, urging participants to examine their personal values and use organically arising teachable moments — like a tampon commercial or Caitlyn Jenner TV appearance — as entry points into discussions on bodies and identity. The program prompted Montclair mom Rebecca Harris-Lee, for example, to rethink oversight on her 12-year-old daughter’s school dress code compliance.
“It helped me realize that I was participating in a shaming culture, where basically part of the dress code says shoulders are distracting,” she told Moneyish. “It’s putting the onus onto the girl, the child, that something she may inadvertently be doing is causing someone else to be distracted — when it’s really up to the person to be distracted or not … It just kind of flipped my reality, and I realized that basically I was always going to support what she was wearing from then on. And I have.”
Marie Saint-Victor, mother to a high-school sophomore, said the group opened her ears to “a different kind of listening.” “I already felt like I was this progressive, open parent. I thought I was already doing many, many sex-positive conversations with my son,” she told Moneyish. “But there’s so much more than what I had to say — it’s what they had to say.”
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