As a teacher, I believe very deeply that teachers make a difference far more often than they get to see it. Which is why those moments in the classroom when you see the difference, right in front of you, are treasures to be cherished; they’re what carry us through the rest of the work. I had one of those moments in a More Than Sex-Ed class recently, talking to a group of middle-schoolers about consent, when the light went on in a student’s eyes.
Our consent lesson plan emphasizes that every act and every kind of touching requires permission, that an “enthusiastic yes”—as opposed to simply the absence of a no—is the requisite, and that communication enhances, rather than diminishes, excitement.
One boy in the circle had a deeply thoughtful expression on his face. I’m going to break my own rule about avoiding assumptions, and guess that he had probably never tried to imagine in such detail what a conversation about having sex might sound like. Eyebrows knit together, he raised his hand.
“So . . . if you ask somebody if they want to have sex, and they say no . . . can you still say, like, ‘ok, do you want to cuddle?’ Like, is that okay?”
I wish I had a button that would make balloons and confetti drop from the ceiling. Yes, bright-eyed young student, that is literally the perfect thing to say.
My co-teacher and I affirmed the heck out of his suggestion, and repeated the point from a previous lesson about the many kinds of intimate, fulfilling, feel-good touch that do not carry any risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. The boy who had asked the question beamed. He was clearly pleased with the answer; his concern for his imaginary partner’s comfort was evident, and his peers all got to see that—and since peer pressure often has more impact on adolescents* than anything an adult says, I’m pretty optimistic that the message stuck for all of them.
I made the point that it’s only ok to offer cuddling if you really mean cuddling; offering cuddles and then attempting to pressure someone into sex again is dishonest and manipulative. And that someone might not want to cuddle either and that should be ok too. But when it’s consensual: just cuddling for its own sake, with no agenda, while respecting someone else’s boundaries, can be absolutely wonderful. The group of young teens seemed sold.
It may be years before that boy needs to talk with someone about whether or not they want to have sex, but when the time comes, I think he’ll be ready to do it right. I’m pretty confident that he, and hundreds of other students who have come through our program, have the communication skills to talk about sex when millions of people don’t. I bet that future young adults, who I will never meet, will have healthier and more fulfilling relationships because their friends and/or romantic partners were in this class. To those people, I say . . . you’re welcome.
*Seriously, this is where the magic happens. This is why our program model is facilitated discussion, instead of lecture—teens learn most from each other, for better or for worse. More Than Sex-Ed wants to make it better.