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Sunday Reflections: In our mailbox – How do you talk to teens about issues of consent in light of the Steubenville case?

A reader of TLT e-mailed an and asked:

I am a newly started YA librarian in Houston TX.
Issues of consent have always been important to me, but in the wake of Steubenville it seems like consent is a vital thing I should be talking about with the teens I work with. So I have been looking for resources about YA library programming about consent, and haven’t turned up anything. Since Teen Librarian Toolkit is the first blog I go to (seriously, I love y’all!) I was wondering if you knew of anything along those lines, or if consent in YA librarianship would ever be something TLT would take on?
File this under Things They Didn’t Teach Me in Library School, but how do you incorporate sensitive, informational programming into your library?  I actually have some thoughts on the topic.  (Also, thanks for the awesome compliment.  You made our day!!)
Consent is a huge topic right now in the public discourse, in part because of as you mentioned the Stuebenville case.  It is important that adults talk with teens – both male and female – about what consent is.  In short, consent is giving someone permission.  In this case, it is consent to have sexual relations.When talking about consent it is important for teens to understand a few facts:
1) The law recognizes that certain age groups are unable to give consent at all, typically teens under the age of 16 (though verify this with your local legal counsel)
2) The law recognizes that certain members of society (such as adults) or people in positions of power (like teachers and coaches) can abuse their position of authority to manipulate consent and this is not real or meaningful consent.
3)  People who are passed out, intoxicated, or that have cognitive difficulties also can not give consent.The main thing we need to teach all of our teens about sexual activity is this: YOU AND YOU ALONE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR ACTIONS.  Someone can not compel you to rape them.  Not with the way they dress, the places they hang out, etc.  The victim is never at fault.

A couple of years ago, I did a program on relationship safety at my library in conjunction with local SANE (Sexual Assualt Examiner Nurser) organization in our hospital.  They have a special education task force that partnered with organizations to talk about domestic violence, rape, etc.  We hosted a series of informational programs that, while important and well done, were not very well attended.  I have always found that teens will come for fun, less so for informational programming, no matter how relevant it is to their lives.  If I were to do it again, I would partner with the schools if possible to get more of a captive audience, making sure that I provided plenty of booklists and booktalks on relevant books and support materials.  Keep in mind that it is a sensitive subject that might make the schools uncomfortable.

I can also see a library putting together a sort of teen discussion/debate panel (think a “Hot Topics” round table)  to talk about these type of serious issues that come up in the news.  I would invite local professionals – such as counselors for examples, and law enforcement – to help moderate and make sure that all the information discussed is spot on.
In the very least, you could also put together relevant “In the News” type of displays with both fiction and nonfiction titles that correspond to topics that come up in the news, including the Steubenville case.
I think these types of “hot button” issues would make for a great series of informative programs that you could couple with things like sexting and online safety, building healthy relationships, etc.
However you approach the programming or discussions, I would recommend a couple of things:
1) Write up a proposal/outline of what you are going to do before hand so that you can discuss it with your administration and get their full support for the program.  Although these issues are very relevant in the lives of teens, they do make some adults very uncomfortable.  You want to vet the legal and professional issues for the library before jumping in.
2) Because there are legal issues involved, I wouldn’t try and put a program together myself but ask a qualified individual to do it.  This will help on issues of liability and make sure teens are getting the most accurate information.  It will also help you build community networking relationships and you can use those relationships to refer in times of need.  Contact your local police and mental health agencies.
3)  Put a disclaimer on your publicity a promotional materials making sure that everyone understands that sensitive topics will be discussed.  Some people might even say you put age limits on it, but I don’t know if I would agree with that because it is such an important topic – let each individual (and their guardians) decide if it is right for them. 
4) Determine in advance what kind of guideline/rules you want to have and state them at the beginning of your program.  For example, you can have these types of delicate conversations while avoiding using offensive language, should that be a rule that is right for your library.  I would also make sure that no one in attendance overly shares, I would hate for a teen to reveal in a group setting that he/she had been raped while asking a question and then regret revealing that later.
5) Have follow up materials ready, including information on who teens can contact locally if they are in a bad situation, reading materials, etc.
Don’t forget to use your mad research skills to find contact organizations (like RAINN), PSAs, educational materials, Infographcs and more.  You can build online resource hubs with connections to it all on various important topics. This is a great PSA to share with teens on How to Handle a Drunk Girl Passed Out on Your Couch:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZxv5WCWivM]

Remember, these are HUGE issues with legal and emotional ramifications.  Create appropriate professional boundaries, check with your administration on what your limits and responsibilities are, and find ways to have informative programming without putting the library at risk for any bad publicity or legal recourse.  And you think it couldn’t happen, but I know a library that was demonstrated against for hosting a Teen Murder Mystery by a victims rights group, they claimed they were making light of crime.  You want to make sure you have your reasoning and talking points down so that you are not caught unsure what to say with the press.  The important thing is this: If we talk to teens about consent and help them understand what it means to respect others, we can help change the culture and prevent more Steubenvilles.  That’s a good and important goal.  

Some people might argue that it is not the library’s place but the parents, but I think libraries are important community and information hubs and, when done well, informational programming is 100% on target, even if they deal with such sensitive topics.

Am I forgetting anything? What are your thoughts, concerns, etc.? Please talk with us in the comments.More on Sexual Assualt: What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls
Check out this article about The Author Who’s Teaching Boys to Talk About Rape, and some of the internal links  Have a question for us? Email me at kjensenmls@yahoo.com and we’ll see if we can come up with an answer.  Between the 4 of us, we usually have something to say.

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