Halloween celebrations may look different this year, with more physical distancing, less touching, and not just the employees wearing masks. There may not be creepy characters lurking around corners to touch you, but, the haunted house experience is one that can be a great launch pad for discussions with our families about consent.
Helping your family understand what consent means, whether you’re talking about sexual activity, boundaries with doctors, or screaming your way through a haunted house experience, is more important than ever. Here are five important principles of consent you can share with your family using the lens of a haunted house:
1. Consent to one thing doesn’t mean yes to everything
When you go to a haunted house with your friends, you have a basic idea what to expect: Actors in spooky costumes lurking in dark corners, hoping you enjoy the way they pop out to catch you by surprise. Some haunted houses (including ones intended for young teens!) have even started allowing physical contact between their staff and the public.
Here’s the important lesson: Saying yes to walking through a haunted house does not mean you said yes to being touched, grabbed, detained, or isolated from the rest of your group. Teach your family the same lesson when it comes to dating and relationships! Maybe kissing sounds like a good idea, but consenting to a kiss is not consenting to anything more than a kiss. Consenting to a kiss isn’t even consenting to a second kiss!
2. Consent is more than the absence of a NO.
For this one it might be helpful for your family to pretend they work at a haunted house and they’re not sure if someone wants to be grabbed or just startled. What’s the only way to be sure? Ask every time! That might make them lousy employees at some haunted houses, but can you think of anyone who wants a relationship to feel like Halloween?
I always say that consent is an enthusiastic yes! Be sure your family knows how to ask for consent. “Can I kiss you?” is simple enough to remember, and “I guess so” is NOT consent. Practice this at home by supporting your kids in relationships with family and friends. When grandma asks for a hug, let your child decide YES or NO. If they don’t give an enthusiastic yes, let them know that is okay and a high five is a perfectly acceptable alternative.
3. Consent must be fully informed
The first time I read the consent form for one haunted house experience, it left me with more questions than answers. The “consent” form said participants could be “touched, grabbed, or detained.” For my consent to be fully informed and appropriately given I would have to understand and negotiate a lot more than that!
How would you be touching me? What parts of my body? I know what I think grabbing means, but what does it mean to you? How long would I be detained? What do you mean by detained, anyway?
True consent is an ongoing conversation and cannot be given without complete information. We need to raise families who can talk confidently about their boundaries and negotiate their own terms, understanding it is always up to them to opt out – no matter what anyone else in the haunted house thinks.
4. You can’t really consent when power is out of balance
A haunted house is a good way to start a conversation, but It’s important to talk about the differences. I probably couldn’t sue a haunted house for grabbing my arm after I signed their waiver, even if I only signed it because all my friends were there. In any relationship, if someone is bullied or coerced into agreeing to something that isn’t true consent.
ChangeFromWithin.org says, “whenever one person holds power over another person (whether or not they acknowledge it), consent becomes tricky. Some argue that when structural power differences are at play, consent can never be given.” Teach your family that it is always better to stop than risk pressuring another person into something they aren’t choosing.
5. Consent can always be cancelled
Believe it or not, some haunted houses will not allow you to ask to leave once you start the experience. Crazy right?!?
Consent can be revoked at any time. There is no consent if you can’t say stop whenever you choose. If someone says “yes, I want to do xyz” and then changes their mind halfway into the experience, that is a-okay. Stop always means stop. This is especially important to discuss with your teens as they enter dating relationships. Your family needs to have the confidence to SAY no when they feel like it and to RESPECT no when they hear it. Every time.
Not just in haunted houses, or in relationships, but to our society as a whole. OnlyWithConsent.org is a great resource and teaches:
“Asking for consent should be an expected and continuously occurring step in any relationship whether the relationship lasts for a few minutes or for a lifetime. Accepting a culture that does not value consent is very dangerous and often leads to perpetuating different forms of sexual violence. We need to encourage dialogue about asking for consent because it will promote an understanding that each person knows what is best for themselves. This will empower children and adults alike to respect one another even if the end result is not what they had hoped. We must all recognize that we are not entitled to anyone else’s body under any circumstances.”
Every healthy relationship, sexual or not, is built on true consent. A haunted house that doesn’t allow for continuous, informed, and ongoing consent can help us talk about ways our culture perpetuates victim blaming, date rape, and power dynamics that leave one person vulnerable and exploited. Whether you like the haunted house experience or not, I hope that you can use these tips to talk to your teens and families about the importance of consent. Just like consent is ongoing in relationships, talking about it is an ongoing process in our homes and communities. Let’s keep the conversations going and create the empowerment and change we want to see.