In March, Lucy Flores spoke up about her personal space. Flores, a former member of the Nevada State Assembly, spoke out about a time when she was standing in line to speak at a Democratic Rally, and former Vice President Joe Biden held her shoulders, smelled her hair and kissed the top of her head.

Flores spoke out about this, not to accuse Biden of sexual harassment, but to speak out about personal space and inequities of power. In an article on talking points memo (https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/flores-biden-personal-space-not-sexual-harassment), Flores states, “For the record, I don’t believe that it was a bad intention. I’m not in any way suggesting that I felt sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. I felt invaded. I felt there was a violation of my personal space.”

Personal space seems like a very simple concept, but it is highly nuanced. It is dependent on context, relationship, tone, social structure, and so many other factors. And we rarely talk how to understand it. We just expect that people will get it. Or have it. Or give it. But clearly that is not enough. We have to start talking overtly about it.

For the past 12 years I have been teaching personal space as an educator at Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services. In 2007, we began talking to children in early elementary about personal space and consent using a curriculum called Space Ships. With these lessons, we use very simple, concrete tools and examples to talk about the abstract workings of personal space. Dovetailed into the conversations about personal space are the inner workings of consent.

As one kindergarten student put it recently, “Consent helps you get personal space.”

In my head I see consent and personal space work as the essential foundation for violence prevention education.

But I sense people wincing when I mention that I talk to kindergarten-age students about consent. Let me explain.

Consent at its core means giving permission to … such as, permission to pat someone’s dog; to give someone a hug; to borrow someone’s car; to tell someone a joke; to take a bite of someone’s doughnut, etc. And I guess, if we are talking about my work as an educator at SAPARS, to engage in sexual activity. But that last example of consent is only an example in myriad ways in which we engage in consent. And it wouldn’t be appropriate topic for me to build the conversation about consent and personal space with young children.

This conversation needs to be built over the course of a child’s developmental lifespan — over the course of their education.

On April 1, I spent the day teaching several kindergarten classes about personal space and consent. In each class, I sat down on the floor of their classroom in their “meeting area” and asked the students what they know about personal space. The answer often flowed around the theme of “it’s an invisible bubble around your body that helps you be safe.”

Some children add in the seemingly finishing comment about “and no one can touch you.” These children are able to form most of the definition: “an invisible bubble around your body that helps you be safe and no one can touch you … ”

I love that definition, but there is a crucial piece missing — the piece about consent.

Personal space is an invisible bubble around your body that helps you be safe. No one can touch you without your consent or permission.

Those last four words are so important. They create a distinction between wanted and unwanted contact. They help us build power and safety. Consent builds equality.

When Lucy Flores spoke up in March, she was speaking with the amplification that has been building for a very long time. This desire for consent is not new. Nor is it gender-specific.

I was at a school about a month ago speaking with an 8-year-old boy who had gotten in trouble for punching another student. It was an informal conversation, but the boy said he needed more ways to make sure people can speak up and get personal space. He said he didn’t want to get in trouble for violating other people’s space. He also wanted to be able to keep his own space.

The act of engaging in conversations about personal space and consent helps all parties stay safer. Engaging in conversations about personal space and consent is primary violence prevention at its very core.

For more information, contact your local sexual assault agency or call SAPARS’ 24-hour helpline at 1-800-871-7741.

Bridget McAlonan is Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services educator/advocate, serving Androscoggin County.