Teen librarians and library workers don’t shy away from the tough topics. We’ll learn coding and computer science alongside teens, or dive into K-pop or Doctor Who even if it’s not our personal favorite just to connect with the teens we serve and learn more about their interests. We reach out to homeless teens, we advocate for LGBTQ+ teens, and we educate ourselves on the mental illnesses that teens experience. No subject should be out of our comfort zone or off limits if it is relevant to the information needs of the teens we work for and with.
Not even sex.
The Need for Information on Healthy Relationships and Consent
Sexual assault and rape—sexual activity without consent—occurs at an alarming rate, especially on college campuses. Studies on the way college students conceptualize consent indicate that many find aggressive behavior or deception an acceptable way to obtain sexual consent (Jozkowski and Peterson, 2013). As many as one in five female students experience a sexual assault while in college according to a recent study that surveyed 150,000 students on college campuses across the United States commissioned by the Association of American Universities.
Most sexual education in schools is focused on preventing unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, while healthy sexual relationships and consent are not generally a part of the conversation. “Although sexual education programs are often offered in schools, they rarely address social factors, such as adherence to traditional gender roles and sexual scripts, that are empirically linked to negative sexual health outcomes.” (Grabe, et al., 2014, p. 742).
Of course, we’d hope that parents and guardians should be talking about sex with their teens. We’d never want to cross a professional boundary when connecting teens with information. But unfortunately, there’s a lack of education for teens on healthy relationships and sexual consent, which undoubtedly contributes to rape and sexual assault. Teen librarians can—and should—fill that gap by offering programs and collections to support the education of young adults with regards to healthy, consensual relationships.
Libraries as Connectors
Librarians and library workers don’t need to feel the pressure to tackle this issue alone, however. There may be other organizations in the community who specialize in providing this type of information—domestic violence shelters, nurses, social workers, or therapists, just to name a few. Libraries can offer a safe, neutral place to provide this type of information as well as help these professionals serving teens reach new audiences.
Partnering with other organizations within the community who serve teens is a priority of teen librarians and library workers, as outlined in the Futures Report. “Libraries are only one of many organizations with a vision to build better futures for teens. Too often, however, teens are unaware of the services offered in their communities. As leaders in youth development, school and public libraries need to serve as the connector between teens and other community agencies.” (The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action, p. 13). Librarians can serve as connectors between community organizations and the teens who need these services.
Library Programs to Support Teen Development
Additionally, programming that explores what healthy relationships look like and how consent is negotiated in relationships supports many of the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets. It empowers youth by helping facilitate an environment where all youth feel safe; it encourages the adoption of positive values such as responsibility, integrity, caring for others, and restraint; it promotes the development of a positive identity, including personal power and self-esteem; and it also supports interpersonal competence. Libraries can offer information on building healthy relationships to support the growth and development of teens.
Examples of Successful Partnerships between Libraries and Community Organizations
Lawrence (KS) Public Library, where I work, has held two recent programs aimed at serving this need. The first was a partnership between The Willow Domestic Violence Center and teen library staff. As a volunteer with the organization, I was able to connect our teen librarian with the coordinator for community education. They scheduled a program which brought one of the programs developed by Willow staff into the library. Willow staff led teens through a game, “Love ‘Em or Leave ‘Em”, in which participants draw cards representing attributes and behaviors of potential romantic partners, and then decide whether to end or continue a relationship. The role-playing prompts conversations about what is permissible or tolerable in relationships, and what are potential “deal-breakers.”
Lawrence Public Library has also invited a local psychologist, author, and columnist, Dr. Wes Crenshaw, who works with teens, to lead a discussion for parents and teens about consent, building healthy relationships, and sex education in the Internet age. With practical but professional advice, Dr. Crenshaw was able to give parents and teens the tools navigate the terrain of relationships during adolescence and beyond.
There are several more examples of libraries partnering with other organizations to provide community education on issues related to healthy relationships, teen dating violence, and consent and sex for teens.
Moline (IL) Public Library had held a class that parents and teens to learn about the dynamics of teen dating violence. The class was facilitated by a member of the Army Community Service and focused on the dynamics of teen dating violence as well as the components of healthy relationships.
The Santa Barbara (CA) Public Library held a program for teens and parents by a psychologist and founder of What is Love, which focused on identifying the patterns of teen dating violence warning signs, and what healthy relationships entail, which also served to connect attendees with community resources.
Depending on the potential partners available in your community, your program may take a different approach. These are just examples and ideas to inspire you to meet the unique needs of your community.
If community partnerships are not an option, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything regarding these issues. Educate yourself about the warning signs and characteristics of teen dating violence. Learn about the power and control wheel and understand how abusers manipulate and exert influence over partners. Ensure your collection has information to help teens understand these issues. Includes pamphlets or links on your website to local and national organizations that can assist teens if they are experiencing teen dating violence or sexual assault.
Young adult literature can also prompt conversations about healthy relationships and consent. This list contains YA fiction about teen dating violence, sexual assault, and rape, as well as healthy relationships. See these posts on The Hub for nonfiction resources and fiction that can prompt conversations about consent and healthy relationships.
Additional Resources on Teen Dating Violence, Rape, and Sexual Assault
Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health links and resources
Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships an online toolkit
Crime Victim’s Website Resources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Dating Matters: Strategies to Promote Healthy Teen Relationships
- Understating Teen Dating Violence Fact Sheet
Love is Respect Website Teen Handbook
Jozkowski KN, & Peterson ZD. (2013). College students and sexual consent: unique insights. Journal Of Sex Research, 50(6), 517-23. doi:10.1080/00224499.2012.700739
Grose, R. G., Grabe, S., & Kohfeldt, D. (2014). Sexual education, gender ideology, and youth sexual empowerment. Journal of Sex Research, 51(7), 742-753. doi:10.1080/00224499.2013.809511
Molly Wetta is the Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library and Member Manager of The Hub.