'Before 'knowing' the human body, get to know the human being'

Understanding the other and sharing values

Disney should be applauded for embracing its responsibility to use the movie platform to educate for consent, but changing the lyrics of a key song is only the tip of the iceberg.

Photo: RDNE Stock project
Photo: RDNE Stock project

My daughter and I are really excited to see the new The Little Mermaid film that recently hit cinemas. Although she’s 19 and I’m certainly no longer a teenager, the magic of Disney still brings joy to both of us.

Aside from the obvious changes from cartoon to real people, there have also been some subtle changes made, including to the lyrics of songs. Aware that these movies are watched repeatedly by impressionable young children, the lyrics to Kiss the Girl were changed to ensure the message of consent was loud and clear. In a scene where Ariel cannot speak, the words of the prince change from “It don’t take a word, not a single word” to “‘use your words boy and ask her”.

This rewording reinforces the consent education done in schools, which starts in kindergarten with children learning the proper names for body parts, and culminates in repeated lessons and messaging, including the legal ramifications for non-consensual sexual interactions. The messages regarding consent are clear and unequivocal and our children are listening.

Disney should be applauded for embracing its responsibility to use the movie platform to educate for consent, but changing the lyrics of a key song is only the tip of the iceberg.

Consent in relationships is necessary. No one is arguing otherwise. But it is also not sufficient. The relationship between the prince and Ariel is so much more than a series of physical interactions that consent can provide. It is a story of a mutual crush borne from exploring nature together. It’s a tale of young love that grows into commitment, acknowledging and appreciating the sacrifices both make to share a life with someone they love, with whom they share deep and fundamental values.

Consent education is about legalities, not ethics; it is about values but not specifically about discovering deep, shared values. Consent as we define it doesn’t provide ongoing direction and guidance for a longer, enduring relationship. Like changing the lyrics of the song, it is a starting point only, albeit an essential one. If our education focuses on physical consent only, we are duping our children into believing that an enthusiastic “yes” is enough to protect them from the hurt that can emerge from physical intimacy. By focusing solely on physical consent, we neglect to discuss and educate about what good relationships should look like, feel like. We are teaching our children to be content with the floor of consensual relationships, rather than aspire to the ceiling of what relationships could and should be.

David French wrote in The Atlantic: “At the core of this cultural moment is the realisation that one of the more popular moral trends of the last 60 years, the notion that sex can be both casual and recreational so long as both parties enthusiastically consent, is fundamentally at odds with our human nature and our profound moral needs.”

At risk of sounding like a fuddy duddy, the biblical euphemism for sexual encounters of “knowing” the other is insightful and profound. Before “knowing” the human body, get to know the human being. Even with consent, casual sexual encounters may leave both parties feeling empty and used. But a physical relationship that stems from, or is at least coupled with, a relationship of real knowing and understanding the other and of sharing values, will move the dial from hedonistic pleasure to deep joy. While relationships should and must be built on mutual consent for physical intimacy, consent and agreement on a range of topics, most importantly how you want to live your life, will inform more of the dialogue as a relationship moves through its natural stages. Equipping young people with the language to provide this additional layer of consent; understanding what they want from a relationship and how to ask for and agree to it, is the essential other side of the consent education coin,

In changing the lyrics of Kiss the Girl and keeping the rest of the movie, The Little Mermaid does just that. It follows the blossoming relationship from crush, to angst, to sacrifice, to joy. And we can’t wait to see it!

Shula Lazar is principal of Leibler Yavneh College in Melbourne.

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