As a middle school teacher, one of my classroom management strategies is slinging one-liners at 12-year-olds in anticipation of their inevitable critiques about pretty much anything that we’re doing. One of my favorites when I’m putting students into groups is, “Don’t worry – you don’t have to marry each other.”  I used this line recently in anticipation of the upcoming middle school dance. A colleague recommended that we prepare students for situations when one student asks another to dance, emphasizing that it is polite and good to accept the offer unless they felt “at risk of physical harm.”

Thinking little of it, I relayed the message to my 7th graders. It didn’t take long for me to regret what I said.

Avoiding Hurt Feelings Isn't True Consent

Asking someone to dance is not a lifetime commitment. However, it is likely that some kids will ask other kids they “like” to dance, and the kids being asked might not “like” their asker. When we tell kids that the only thing to consider is whether they will be physically harmed, we teach a dangerous lesson: That the asker is owed a dance as long as they’re not physically hurting someone, and that the “askee” must only consider the feelings of the asker when making their decision.

Avoiding hurt feelings – whether related to dancing, holding hands, getting coffee, or having sex – is a not justifiable form of consent. The roots of the word “consent” are “feeling” (sent) and “together” (con); so, when you consent to something, both parties involved are feeling something together.

If, at a middle school dance, a student feels uncomfortable with or uninterested in dancing with someone, if she doesn’t want attention for dancing with someone, or if she likes the other student but prefers talking or just doesn’t like to dance, she should be encouraged to say “no” politely – without fear of being told that she “rejected him” or is “stuck-up.” My dance talk with my students suggested that their relationships, whether platonic or romantic, require elevating another’s desires or feelings above their own agency.

Especially when romantic intentions aren’t clear, it is crucial that all parties feel complete control over their choices. The ambiguity of being asked to dance, asked to go for coffee, asked for a phone number, or asked if you want a drink at a bar makes people (women and girls especially) feel like their only option is to say yes. If you say no, you will hurt the feelings of the person who asked or be seen as making assumptions about their intentions. If you say yes, even if you are not romantically interested, you might be accused of “leading them on” when you only intended to be polite.

Learning to Say No (and Yes)

The conversations around not hurting feelings, not leading people on, and apologizing for your lack of interest in someone have shaped my relationships with myself, with my husband, and with other men who I have encountered. I have said, “Sorry, I have a boyfriend” to men at bars, and then felt bad for hurting their feelings (despite the fact that, even if I didn’t have a boyfriend, I might not have been interested anyway). When catcalled, I have thought, “Weird, I’m wearing a frumpy outfit today,” turning someone else’s objectification of me into self-criticism.

The day after my first dance “talk,”, I had another “talk” in which I revised my original statement.

I told the kids to say what they really want to say when someone asks them to dance:

“Yes, thank you.”

“No, I would like to keep talking with my friends.”

“Yes, how about you join our group of friends?”

I don’t want my students to learn the things that I am still working to unlearn: that I shouldn’t apologize for feelings that I don’t have, that I can be compassionate without having to feel responsible for others’ happiness, and that when I consent to something, it is because I am feeling with them, not for them.

Laura Machado Browne

Laura Machado Browne teaches at a Catholic middle school in California. She likes to read, do puzzles, and play with her cat, Oscar.

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