Empathy: A Key Skill for Preventing Gender Based Violence

By Desiree Caro, Consent Education Coordinator

From popular culture to politics to social movements, conversations about consent have gained traction and interest in communities and schools across the country.  In an attempt to make sense of this nuanced topic, many well-meaning adults focus on the legal definitions of consent and the potential consequences for when consent is violated as a primary strategy for preventing gender-based violence. This approach to conversations about consent, while at times useful in drawing interest from young people, only addresses the issue at a fear-based level and fails to create the societal changes we need to promote health and safety for everyone.  Preventing sexual violence is not just about knowing what to avoid, but rather shifting our lens to think how we value one another’s full humanity and autonomy. In this blog post, we want to highlight the crucial role that empathy plays in creating safer, healthier, and more enjoyable relationships.

Empathy is the ability to understand someone’s emotional state and react in a way that’s responsive to that person’s needs. Empathy is a key skill for building close and supportive relationships, and research has shown a strong relationship between empathy and positive outcomes like increased social competence and an increased ability to help and share. Hallways focuses on empathy as a foundational skill to increase many prosocial behaviors, especially in providing consent education to youth, faculty, and parents.

However, empathy is not a skill that is universally taught. Gender socialization plays a huge role in how we expect our youth to demonstrate empathy in their personal relationships.  The expectation for boys and men to be unemotional, stoic, and “strong” limits their experience in practicing and internalizing empathy, while expectations for girls and women to be nurturing, polite, and accommodating makes empathy a requirement.  Empathy is a skill that needs to be developed – and our ability to access our own empathy is strengthened or diminished over time by the cultural norms around us. If we continue to place the onus of empathy squarely on those we socialize to be more nurturing, namely women and girls, we create a culture that denies men and boys the opportunity to step into the full range of their humanity. These uneven expectations placed on boys and girls trickle into everyday interactions, including how we learn to relate to ideas of consent and violations thereof.

At Hallways, we define consent as the active, ongoing process of demonstrating care for another person by asking about their boundaries and desires. In order to practice this framework of consent, empathy has to be front and center.  Empathy helps us to have healthy and consensual relationships by asking us to think about what others’ needs are and how we might feel if put in a similar situation. It gives us the tools we need to be aware if someone is uncomfortable, or afraid, and to stop an encounter before someone’s consent has been violated. Leading with empathy not only leads to safer relationships, it also leads to more pleasurable ones.  Whether we are discussing platonic friendships or sexual relationships, relationships are happier and more enjoyable when everyone feels like their needs and wishes are being considered and respected.

For more strategies for approaching conversations about understanding consent with youth, as well as building empathy, check out the following resources:

http://www.acalltomen.org/news/2017/7/21/what-is-the-man-box 

https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-massachusetts/local-training-education/parent-buzz-newsletter/parent-buzz-e-newsletters/talking-our-children-about-sexual-harassment-and-consent

http://www.teachconsent.org/#respect#respect

https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/resources-by-topic/caring-empathy-concern-common-good

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