These High School Football Players Are Getting a Crash Course in Sexual Consent

After #MeToo, an unprecedented number of states are considering policies to teach sexual consent in high school. But some coaches are bringing the conversation straight to the locker room.

[Photo: Garfield High School's football team]
Garfield High School Head Football Coach Joey Thomas uses the Coaching Boys Into Men curricula to talk to his athletes about respectful and healthy relationships. courtesy of CBIM/Futures Without Violence

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Early this year, a group of boys from Seattle’s Catholic, all-boys O’Dea High School attended a party. As football players from a team that would go on to win the state championship, they were influential among their friends. At the party, a couple of the players noticed an escalating sexual encounter involving another boy they knew that didn’t look quite right.

“It was a shady situation,” a group of girls who had been at the party latertold the O’Dea football coach, James Beck, who gathered that it had involved intense pressure, alcohol, or both. The girls remembered O’Dea players stepping in and saying, “Don’t do that,” to their friend. It worked—the friend listened.

The girls had been impressed, Beck said. Instead of shrugging it off or failing to notice at all, they said, the players had apparently decided to speak up. The girls wanted to know why.

After attending a 2015 training for a program called Coaching Boys Into Men (CBIM), which trains high school coaches, Beck had been leading the team through a series of 15-minute conversations that encouraged building respect for others, taking ownership of your behavior, and examining the question of consent: what it means, what it looks like, and how to intervene in situations that lack it. Beck tried to both clarify definitions (that once given, consent can always be revoked; that it’s not possible to obtain when someone is intoxicated), but also emphasize what honoring it says about one’s character. He told the team what they might encounter in college—meeting potential partners too drunk for sex or watching friends push others to go further than they wanted to—and asked, “Who do you want to be in that moment?”

Many students had never talked with an adult before about how to make those decisions. “I’ve had students actually come talk to me about: ‘This is something I really need,'” Beck told Rewire.News. “‘We’re already at parties, and there’s drinking.'”

They aren’t alone: By the time they reach college, many young people have never had substantial conversations with an adult at home or at school about the meaning and importance of consent. A survey conducted by Making Caring Common, an initiative of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, found that a majority of 18-to-25-year-olds had never discussed with parents how to make sure their partner wants to have sex, how to determine their own comfort levels, the importance of not pressuring or persisting when someone says no, how to know how drunk is “too drunk,” or even how to be a caring and respectful sexual partner. Most respondents said they wished they’d had more guidance as adolescents.

Such a failure in communication has consequences, especially in the years directly following high school. Many students find themselves far from their homes, families, and friends, navigating different social environments and more drinking than they have ever experienced. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center, one-fifth of women and one-sixteenth of men will be assaulted during their years on campus. Specifically, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network estimates that more than 23 percent of undergraduate women and more than 5 percent of undergraduate men experience “rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.” The figures for transgender and gender nonconforming students are even higher: In 2015, the Association of American Universities found that nearly 30 percent had experienced assault, depending on the type of school.

Many of these encounters happen between acquaintances and friends in situations where consent can be unclear—pressuring until someone’s too exhausted to resist, or having sex with someone who’s clearly drunk. The murkiness is unsurprising. Though many schools include the topic of consent in freshman orientation, research has found that such one-time exposure does little to change behavior. Doing so instead takes time and consistency , particularly before students get to college.

Few states, however, require that sex education include discussions about consent. In most states, sex education has either wholly focused on abstinence-only education, an approach that promotes abstinence as the only way to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pregnancy, and the stigma of premarital sex; or on emphasizing the use of contraceptives to ward off unplanned pregnancies and STIs. Both of these approaches fall short, says Chitra Panjabi, president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). She told Rewire.News that abstinence-only programs have been ineffective and even damaging by excluding information about safe sex and limiting sexuality to its expression within heterosexual marriage. And while STIs and pregnancy—and their prevention—are critical to cover, some approaches to sex education can overemphasize their centrality in sexuality, painting it as inherently dangerous without teaching kids about the role of sex in healthy relationships or how to communicate with your partner about what you want.

“We need to talk about sex in affirming ways, in terms of dignity and respect as opposed to this very fearmongering, very scary approach,” Panjabi said.

Instead, SIECUS advocates for evidence-based, comprehensive sex education that encompasses the many dimensions of sexuality, including a grounding in relationship skills and understanding consent as early as kindergarten. Last year, SIECUS launched the #TeachThem campaign with Tarana Burke, originator of the #MeToo hashtag. The campaign equips citizens to push for policies that support teaching young people about sexual violence and consent.

In conjunction with the campaign, this year has seen a record number of bills introduced at the state level aimed at improving the quality of sex education, with an emphasis on assault prevention. Panjabi’s organization began noticing a shift in this direction in 2015 in what she believes was a response to the crisis on college campuses. Panjabi believes the crimes and issues brought to light by #MeToo have only fueled that momentum: Nationwide, several of the 109 bills intended to enhance sex education this year have permitted or mandated consent to be included in school curricula. In May, Maryland joined California in requiring public school instruction on respecting boundaries and the meaning of consent. Other laws supporting consent education are being considered elsewhere, including in Missouri, Michigan, and Oklahoma, where a bill known as “Lauren’s Law,” after an 18-year-old rape survivor, would provide training and resources for teachers to talk about consent with their students.

While legislatures play catch-up, programs like CBIM, Mentors in Violence Prevention, A Call to Men, and others have long been trying to fill the gaps in schools and other venues, with a focus on lessons that deconstruct toxic masculinity.

CBIM was developed by Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit dedicated to sexual and domestic violence reduction. Since the 1980s, staff sought to involve men and boys in the movement. They found that the majority of the men they polled had witnessed or knew someone who experienced domestic violence. Most of these men themselves identified mentoring young men—helping them unpack and discard internalized messages about masculinity, aggression, and domination—as a primary way of addressing the problem.

“We decided to focus on athletes because they play such a critical role,” said Yesenia Gorbea, CBIM’s director, in an interview with Rewire.News. “If athletes are the ones who are standing up and saying things are not OK, then other people will follow.”

In 2008, CBIM introduced an updated curriculum as a card series that outlines talking points, discussion questions, and sample speeches. Coaches are trained and supported by designated community members to build a deep and consistent discussion over the course of 12 weeks. Consent is about “having an open and ongoing conversation,” Gorbea said. “The only way to convey that in a way that is tangible and understandable for young people is to have the conversation about consent be tangible and ongoing.”

Since the launch of the CBIM card series in 2008, the curriculum has been implemented in more than 100 communities, and thousands of coaches have been trained as facilitators. But in the past ten months, Gorbea has seen a surge in interest in the form of curriculum downloads, website visits, and new registrations.

“Many of those reaching out have mentioned they have been searching for potential solutions to the issues of sexual assault as part of the #MeToo movement,” Gorbea told Rewire.News. “I believe that the increased visibility of the prevalence and impacts of sexual violence have mobilized the public into action, and not only are we seeing survivors come forward and empowered to speak out, but we are also seeing an increased interest in finding solutions.”

Ward Urion has been training CBIM coaches for 13 years. Twenty years as a victims’ advocate in Seattle’s King County prosecutor’s office had shown him that violence against women was deep and systemic and had to be confronted at its roots. “The formula for patriarchy is doing everything you can do build a facade of invulnerability that hedges against all loss and shame,” he said. In trainings, he walks his coaches through strategies for unraveling that. Urion emphasizes that consent is the foundation of all relationships and one of the most basic social skills we can learn. Sex, he says, is possibly the hardest context of all to first practice asking each other honest questions about what we want. “If the first time we practice it is in the bedroom, then we’re in a world of hurt,” he said.

Two years ago, the principal of Seattle’s Garfield High School, less than two miles from O’Dea, committed every boys’ sports team to using the CBIM curriculum. Derek Lactaoen, who has been a cross-country coach for years, says the conversations started out slow; most were really just him talking to the boys, who weren’t sure why they were spending warm-up time talking about relationships. But a few weeks in, he started hearing from parents who had been impressed with what their sons had relayed. One week, the team learned about the damaging effects of sharing private sexual experiences with others—effects he said many came to grasp for the first time that day. He soon started overhearing students calling each other out on behavior. One told a friend, “That’s not very Boys to Men,” referencing the program’s nickname, when the friend showed him something on a cell phone.

“It’s important to have these conversations now in the high school setting as kids are starting to learn about consent and experience relationships for the first time and learning about how healthy relationships can be,” Lactaoen said. “Any time our boys can come together and do something together helps them.”

At O’Dea, Beck said the results he has observed have gone far beyond his expectations. The conversations he overhears between teammates on the bus have transformed; there’s little tolerance now for boasting about sexual exploits or using gendered words as insults. And as with the girls who asked Beck what had changed, secondhand stories suggest that the boys are improving their behavior outside of Beck’s presence too. Beck often emphasizes how objectification of people is a precursor to violence. He knew this message had hit home when a father asked to know more about what his son was learning—the dad had commented on a woman’s appearance, and his son had called him out on it. When the dad said it was just a joke, his son replied, “That’s where it starts.” The father was thrilled. Next year, a version of CBIM will be rolled out for all O’Dea students.

Despite students’ enthusiasm, it’s easy to wonder how far-reaching such changes go. In 2009, CBIM underwent a three-year evaluation funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine its impact in the context of intimate relationships. Sixteen high schools with more than 2,000 athletes participated, half of them as control groups. Researchers found that athletes reported less of their own perpetration of abusive behavior—such as dating violence—and more intervention in others’ behavior than boys who had not taken part. Today, the CDC recommends it as a promising program for reducing sexual violence more generally.

Still, programs like CBIM cannot stand alone in changing behavior. “To truly change the culture around consent, we need to reach as many young people as possible,” said Panjabi.

While nonprofit programs like CBIM are often effective at changing the behavior of some students, she said they will never match the reach of schools, where almost every adolescent between the ages of 7 through 17 is enrolled. Policies that promote institutional support for sex education that includes consent could help ensure that every young person learns about it. After high school, the CDC also recommends a range of approaches universities can take to create systems that better inform students about consent and support those who have been assaulted, from hiring and training designated assault prevention staff, to partnering with community resources like rape crisis centers, to adopting trauma-informed mental health care on campus.

But if these lessons learned in the locker room do in fact take root, it could mean sending more boys into adulthood with a firmer sense of what consent and healthy sexuality should look like, groundwork that could influence their own behavior and help them disrupt abuse wherever they see it, just as Beck’s team reportedly did at the party.

“It’s not necessarily about you yourself doing violence,” he said. “It’s about what can we do as a community to not create the conditions.”