Friends Central School just landed a whopping $250,000 grant to launch a project called “Healthy Relationships and Consent Education.” Because it will be led by Al Vernacchio, the school’s sexuality educator, it would be easy to presume the goal is to teach students about the need for mutual consent in intimate encounters.
And it is, but only kind of. Vernacchio actually has much bigger goals for the multiyear program that will unfold at Friends and, he hopes, expand to other schools one day, including higher ed.
Vernacchio is up to something pretty genius: He has broadened the notion of consent as something that’s required whenever we interact with another person’s property, body, or reputation. So it’s needed not only to keep sexual encounters from escalating into #MeToo disasters but to ensure that all interpersonal action considers everyone’s boundaries and agency.
Vernacchio’s “lofty” hope: If we teach this to kids, they’ll carry the lessons right into adulthood. Which would be something, because we adults haven’t been consent’s best stewards.
“This is something I’ve wanted to work on for a long time; consent is about so much more than sexual consent,” said Vernacchio, a charismatic, thoughtful man who’s also the author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health.
He’s an engaging public speaker, too, whose 2012 TED talk went viral for suggesting that we replace the baseball metaphor for talking about sex (with its competitive references to “scoring,” “stealing bases,” and the like) with the friendlier, more collaborative metaphor of ordering a pizza, which is based on “shared pleasure, discussion and agreement, fulfillment and enjoyment.”
Watch it once (it’s brilliant) and you’ll never think of pizza — or use that baseball analogy — the same way again.
“A student shouldn’t expect to use another person’s phone without asking, for example, or grabbing a pencil out of their backpack,” said Vernacchio, who has been a sexuality educator for 30 years (the last 23 of them spent at Friends Central in Wynnewood, where he’s known as Mr. V). “They also shouldn’t repost someone’s private comments on Facebook without getting an OK or eat fries off their plate in the cafeteria without permission.”
To adults, these examples may seem minor compared to the notion of unwanted sexual touch, but consent happens on a continuum, he said. If educators can elevate a school’s culture to normalize “everyday consent,” then consent will feel familiar when it’s time to discuss using it regarding sexual interaction.
Many teens know too much about the act of sex, yet too little about how it unfolds in a healthy relationship. And their understanding of consent is all over the place, said Vernacchio.
“Most teenagers are aware that consent needs to be somehow established in a sexual situation, but they don’t necessarily know how to do that,” he said. “They often think the absence of a no means a yes, which is problematic. They also don’t always realize how things like power and privilege can interrupt consent.”
“So one person might be genuinely asking for consent. But if the other person is feeling like, ‘Oh, my God, this person is older, they have more social status, they’re really cool. I don’t feel like I can really say no.’ That’s not really consent. So we’ll be looking at how other factors influence the ability to give, receive, and seek consent.”
With the advent of #MeToo, Vernacchio said, the time felt right, last year, to seek financial help for the project from the Edward E. Ford Foundation, whose mission is to strengthen and support independent secondary schools.
He pitched a three-pronged program that would create collaboration between students at Friends and a partner high school to learn about consent and present their findings to their fellow students and the public; sponsor a national student conference every other year on consent and healthy relationships; and convene national, five-day summer institutes for teachers and staff to create plans for consent-curriculum in their own schools.
“We really felt it was a proposal of the moment — so many schools are wrestling with consent,” said Ford Foundation executive director John Gulla. “This could catalyze a common-sense approach that has the potential to benefit schools more broadly” and could even be adapted for younger students depending on the maturity level of children.
“We also appreciated the consent piece around others’ reputations and think it can be a powerful tool to decrease cyberbullying,” he added.
Indeed, careless use of social media has done heartbreaking damage to how we see and treat each other while distancing us from the pain we can inflict with the tap of a send button. To frame it as a consent issue feels next-level.
Friends Central is a progressive, Quaker school, so a project like this fits seamlessly there. But how would it be met beyond the school’s walls, where social conservatives might bristle at such frank talk with teenagers?
“The beauty is that you can tailor it to the values that are important to your own community,” said Vernacchio. “So if you want to use consent education as a way to make kids think deliberately about when is the best, most appropriate time to move into a sexual relationship, this program can help you do that.
“What we’re really talking about is helping people grow in their respect for others, recognizing their humanity, not treating them like objects. I think those are hard things to object to.”