Talking About Consent in Middle School

In the maeltrom of the #MeToo movement and the eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court — not to mention the antics of other politicians credibly accused of sexual assault —it now seems like a vital time to confront the very real day-to-day concerns of eighth graders. After all, many if not all of them are about to set sail on some very tumultuous seas themselves. With hormones ranging and bodys morphing before their very eyes, it’s crucial that they learn the language of consent, boundaries, and mutual respect.

Rather than confronting the controversy head-on, rather than squabbling over the partisan politics that might accompany the testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford and the denials of Mr. Kavanaugh, we examine instead Gustav Klimt’s early 20th-century painting, “The Kiss”. If you’re unfamiliar with it, well, here it is.

In it, we see a man and woman embracing, his hands holding her cheek and chin, her right hand draped over his neck and her left hand perhaps caressing his right. She’s kneeling; he may be standing.

Studying the image on its own for a few minutes, students quickly suggest that this is a very romantic embrace: “it’s like a fairy tale kiss”, one student suggests, prompting another to call out “Sleeping Beauty, because her eyes are closed”. The consensus is usually pretty clear. They’re in love. A glance at Klimt’s German title Liebespaar (lovers) confirms as much.

However.

A closer look reveals that there might something else going on. I prompt the students to look at and imitate their body language. “Put yourselves in the man’s position. Physically imitate it.” Gradually, giggling, students stand up and start posing. “Crane your neck as he does in the photo. Put your hands over your imaginary partner’s face, like his. Stay like that while we talk. How do you feel?”

“Strong.”

“In control.”

“Powerful.”

“Masculine?”

The first three come from boys; the last, from a girl. Maybe hers is a question because she’s crossing the expected-gender line. Maybe it’s teenage uptalk in which few comments are actual comments but questions seeking confirmation. In any case, there is broad agreement that the man has initiated this encounter — which still feels consensual and even romantic as we talk.

It’s time to change roles.

“Just as the woman is doing, kneel on your seats. Lay your head back like she does. Imitate her hand positions around your imaginary partner’s neck and hand. Imagine a face coming closer to kiss you. How does this feel?”

“Awkward.”

“Claustrophobic!”

“Controlled!”

With these competing phrases on the board, it’s time to talk. What is it about each person’s pose that evokes these feelings? This takes place in the form of a Socratic Seminar — students sit in a circle of desks and have to manage their own contributions. I, their teacher, largely stay out of it unless there is cross-talk or an interruption. Here is a sampling of some of the more-pointed comments that emerged:

“She seems overwhelmed by him, like she’s letting him do it”. A female student.

A male student: “It’s just romantic, though. He’s taking her in his arms and it’s like she’s fainting from being in love!”

Another female student: “I can picture them, like, locking eyes and just falling for each other.”

A male student offers, “look at her head. There’s no way she’s comfortable. And her hands, they’re just there. She’s not smiling or holding him. She’s just limp, like she’s waiting for it to be over.”

We could dissect the painting for hours, but it’s really just meant as the conversation starter. Middle schoolers, eager as they are for a debate (read: argument), may not yet have the language for engaging a real debate about romance, boundaries, and consent. There’s enough ambiguity in “The Kiss” to serve as a useful proxy for trying to examine their own interactions, self-conceptions, and aspirations.

There’s usually some resistance to verbalizing or asking for permission, based on their notion that romantic encounters are spontaneous, magical events in which each participant can perfectly intuit the other’s desires. “It just happens, okay?” as one male student exclaimed.

We return to the painting: “isn’t that what this man might say?” Yes. It probably is precisly what he’d say.

While it would be wonderful to live in a world in which those magical moments just happen, I remind my students that reality is much more complex. We examine the woman’s body language, speculate as to what’s running through her mind, and identify what she might say:

“I’m not ready for this.”

“I’m uncomfortable.”

“Not now.”

“Not yet.”

We back up from the moment Klimt created to figure out how the couple could have arrived at the romantic kiss Klimt envisioned. There’s a lot of gray area to explore. Would it ruin the mood to ask, “may I kiss you?” Well, how do both people know that they share that mood? We have to discuss all of the nonverbal cues a person offers — body language, eye contact, engagement — but can these ever achieve the level of consent each person deserves? Maybe. Someday. Not yet.

I don’t mean to say that this one day dispels in one fell swoop all of the misconceptions these adolescents carry with him. After all, by the time they’ve reached this classroom, they’ve absorbed countless hours of music, movies, games, and shows that portray men, women, and their interactions in some stark, vivid, and, in some cases, very distorted ways. This one day cannot counter that cacophony, but it does lay a foundation on which we can build, on which my students can start to think about and discuss consent, romance, and mutual respect. The conversation we’re having — about the conversations they’ll have together before that kiss and other kisses to come — will have to continue.

Among other identities, I'm a middle school teacher, husband and father, bicyclist, vegetarian, environmentalist, Gooner, and maybe, just maybe, a bit more.

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