Beyond “No Means No”: Resources on Consent

These novels, works of nonfiction, and multimedia offer ways to have conversations on a topic that too often goes unaddressed.

For a long time, lessons about sexual consent have been limited to “No means no.” But this simplistic message barely scratches the surface. It fails to address the many incorrect myths around consent—that consent between two people in a couple is assumed, that flirting or wearing so-called provocative clothing is an invitation to sex—which are entrenched in our society.

There’s plenty that kids, teens, and, yes, even adults don’t know when it comes to consent, in large part because we’re often reluctant to engage in difficult conversations. The following novels, works of nonfiction, websites, and videos offer a starting place. From basic lessons on personal boundaries for preschoolers to explorations of healthy sexual relationships for teens, these materials stress the importance of communication, respect, and honesty and are bound to spark conversations.

Books for younger readers

Teaching toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary schoolers about bodily autonomy paves the way for more complex lessons later on. “Your body belongs to YOU, and you are the boss of it”: Jayneen Sanders’s Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, & Respect (Educate2Empower, 2018; PreS-Gr 1) begins with that important message. Accompanied by Sarah Jennings’s buoyant illustrations, the upbeat text explains that it’s always OK to turn down unwanted physical contact—yes, even a hug from Grandma. The author encourages kids to consider body language and facial expressions: Is an anxious-looking child who says “yes” to a kiss really agreeing? Sanders’s My Body! What I Say Goes! (Educate2Empower, 2016; PreS-Gr 1) imparts a similar lesson but focuses more on identifying and addressing potentially abusive or unsafe behavior. Anna Hancock’s images of expressive, round-eyed characters keep the tone reassuring.

Targeted at a slightly younger audience, Zetta Elliott’s matter-of-fact Benny Doesn’t Like To Be Hugged (Rosetta Pr., 2017; Todder-Gr 1) encourages readers to respect their peers’ boundaries. Featuring sweetly rounded illustrations by Purple Wong, the book centers on a young black boy who may have autism. Benny has definite likes (cupcakes without sprinkles, wrinkle-free clothes) and dislikes (loud music). His unwillingness to hug isn’t presented as something that needs to be fixed, though—it’s just part of who he is. 

Cory Silverberg’s graphic novel Sex Is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings, and You (Seven Stories, 2015; Gr 2-6) is the rare children’s book that doesn’t just tackle puberty but also consent (though not sex). Fiona Smyth’s bold cartoon illustrations portray a diverse array of cartoon kids who dole out child-friendly advice on accepting and respecting their own and one another’s bodies; the characters ask readers if they’ve been touched in a way that made them feel scared or uncomfortable and give them suggestions on what to do.

Nonfiction for middle & high schoolers

Though books on sex education, gender, and sexuality for older audiences haven’t always addressed consent, this has begun to change in recent years. In addition to tackling masturbation, sexual and gender identity, pornography, and body image, YouTube vlogger Hannah Witton’s frank, encouraging, and refreshingly hip Doing It (Sourcebooks, 2018; Gr 7 Up) devotes a detailed chapter to consent. “No means no,” notes the author, but more than that, “a no isn’t a challenge; it isn’t a case of pestering them enough to turn the no into a yes.” Witton includes information from a criminal attorney on consent and the law—readers will find the section on sample scenarios useful.

For The V Word: True Stories About First-Time Sex (S. & S./Simon Pulse, 2016; Gr 9 Up), Amber J. Keyser collected forthright entries by a variety of contributors. Don’t skip the appended resources, which are just as valuable as the essays. In Keyser’s interview of Book Riot editor Kelly Jensen, the blogger offers examples of consent done right in YA lit and discusses sexually empowered female protagonists.

Pete Wallis and Thalia Wallis’s candid, no-frills graphic novel What Does Consent Really Mean? (Jessica Kingsley, 2017; Gr 7 Up) is a can’t-miss meditation on the subject. A group of teenagers mull consent after learning that a classmate has been raped. Though they start out by referring to the girl as “a bit of a slut,” eventually, they come to a more mature, compassionate understanding: “Consent means you’re both happy in your decision.” Along the way, they tease out issues such as societal pressure to have sex.

While Hey Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets (Feminist Pr.; Gr 9 Up) is primarily aimed at educators and activists, it will resonate with young people as well. The founders of Girls for Gender Equity, a New York City nonprofit organization that seeks to end harassment in schools, explore their successes, failures, and challenges; the discussions they have with teen girls whose opinions on consent and victim-blaming slowly evolve will speak to teens.

Multimedia

Blending stick figure cartoons and clever, often tongue-in-cheek humor, Blue Seat Studios produces educational animated videos, including several on consent. The company has released a well-known version of the “Tea” video (originally created as part of a 2015 campaign by the Thames Valley Police in England), which relies on the metaphor of making a cup of tea for a friend to convey basic principles of consent. “James Is Dead” uses dark satire about two friends debating the reasons why a teen was fatally stabbed at a party to illustrate the absurdity of our assumptions about rape (“Did they find out who did it? I mean, assuming it was a murder and not some assisted-suicide thing. Hey, maybe James really wanted this to happen.”).

And “Consent for Kids” tones down the over-the-top humor a bit for a simple look at bodily autonomy that’s perfect for preschoolers and kindergartners. Looking for something less theoretical and more concrete? In Planned Parenthood’s excellent  “Consent 101,” a series of four short videos, actors model sexual situations (two women eagerly deciding to retire to the bedroom; a man turning his girlfriend down for sex), followed by commentary from a charismatic host. Funny and self-aware (with very slight occasional nudity), it should be an integral part of any high school sex ed course.

And the DVD In the Heat of the Moment: Making Difficult Decisions About Sex (Human Relations Media, 2018; Gr 7 Up) offers another sensitive look at the importance of communication, with a whole section on consent.

How does consent play out in fiction?

While the above resources offer factual overviews, the following novels will raise questions, spark discussion, and give kids and teens a chance to actively engage with these issues. One of the few middle grade novels to tackle consent, Tony Abbott’s devastating The Summer of Owen Todd (Farrar, Oct. 2017; Gr 5-8) centers on a boy whose best friend is molested by his male babysitter. There’s a lot here to unpack for readers, with the guidance of a thoughtful adult—a child’s inability to consent, for instance.

Louise O’Neill’s unbearably dark Asking for It (Quercus, 2016; Gr 10 Up) is a must-read for teens contemplating consent. When several boys rape Emma at a party and post the photos to social media, most people in their small Irish town side with the assailants. The author intentionally depicts an unsympathetic character, and while some readers might start out just as willing to throw stones as Emma’s peers, they’ll eventually ask themselves tough questions—why is our society so quick to deprive a woman of her right to bodily autonomy? And how can we change?

So often we decide that powerful or influential men who commit sexual assault are doing nothing wrong. Countering that insidious attitude is S.K. Ali’s rich coming-of-age tale Saints and Misfits (S. &. S/Salaam Reads, 2017; Gr 9 Up), which centers on Janna, a teen who fears that no one in her Muslim community will believe that pious Farooq tried to rape her. Of note, the scene in which Farooq assaults Janna offers an opportunity to illustrate that discussions on consent need to move beyond “no means no.” Frozen in terror, Janna doesn’t say no when Farooq grabs her (“The only screams I can muster are repeated whimpers of ‘Mom, Mom, Mom’”), but it’s starkly clear that Farooq has violated her consent.

Finally, Ashley Herring Blake’s achingly poignant Girls Made of Stars (HMH, May 2018; Gr 8 Up) shatters the assumption that consent is implied in an existing relationship. Mara’s beloved twin brother, Owen, rapes Hannah, his girlfriend and Mara’s friend. Mara’s parents stand by Owen, but Mara chooses to support Hannah instead. Blake emphasizes that though Owen is likable (not the proverbial stranger in the bushes), his behavior is no less wrong, or illegal. 

These selections provide a solid jumping-off point, but they’re just a start. Let’s keep the conversation going—what other resources can spark discussion about consent with young people?  

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