Teaching About Affirmative Consent in High School Is a Good Place to Start

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Commentary Violence

Teaching About Affirmative Consent in High School Is a Good Place to Start

Martha Kempner

Some California lawmakers want to make sure that students learn about sexual assault before they graduate high school. At the least, affirmative-consent education can be a good catalyst for making people think about the way rape culture permeates our daily lives.

Throughout the country, our most recent conversations about consent have largely focused on higher education. However, sexual assault is a problem among high school students too. Now, some California lawmakers want to make sure that students learn about sexual assault before they ever arrive on a college campus for their freshman year. Last week, two state senators introduced a bill that would require some high schools to teach about affirmative consent. In other words, these programs will teach young people that consent is not about whether or not someone said “no”; it requires both parties to explicitly agree on what they are doing.  

This legislation is bound to have opponents on many sides of the issue: those who think sexual assault is not an appropriate topic for high school students; those who think affirmative consent laws will be used to blame the victim; and those who think “yes means yes” is an untenable standard for intimate relationships.

I still have doubts about whether affirmative consent standards can work in the real world, but as I said last year when California was set to adopt it as a requirement for sexual relations on state-run college campuses, it is a good catalyst, at the least, for making people think about the way rape culture permeates our daily lives. Laws requiring education around affirmative consent will hopefully start many much-needed conversations, including when kids are still in high school.

This Problem Starts Before College

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We only need to look at research and media reports to know that sexual assault happens in high school.

The most recent study, which was published in JAMA Pediatric this month, had some pretty startling results. For this, researchers analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk and Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), which investigated all kinds of potentially risky behaviors—including sex, drinking, and drug use. It also asked adolescent respondents, “How many times in the last 12 months did somebody you were dating or going out with force you to do something sexually that you did not want to do?”

The results found that among high school students who had dated, around 6 percent of girls and 3 percent of boys reported experiencing both physical and sexual dating violence in the last 12 months. In addition, 8 percent of girls and 3 percent of boys reported experiencing sexual violence only in the last year.

Of course, teens may not be dating the people who assault them. In addition to such research, there have also been some highly publicized cases of rape among high school students in recent years. In Steubenville, Ohio, two teens were convicted of raping an intoxicated girl at a party while classmates looked on and recorded the incident on video. Daisy Coleman, a young woman from Missouri, has also spoken out publicly about being raped by a classmate at 14. She, too, said she was assaulted at a party, and an onlooker also captured the incident on a cell-phone video. A similar case that occurred in 2012 is being tried now in Hendersonville, North Carolina. A young woman there says she was raped by four young men at a party while she was fading in and out of consciousness. The young men admit to having sex with her, but say it was consensual.

Sexual violence can have a negative impact on young people’s lives moving forward, which further reinforces the idea that we do need to address the issue early on. The JAMA Pediatric research found that students who reported both physical and sexual violence were most likely to engage in health risk behaviors such as eating disorders, risky sexual behaviors, and drug and alcohol use. They were also more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms and report suicidal thoughts. Students who had not experienced any kind of dating violence were the least likely to engage in these risky behaviors or exhibit these symptoms.

Learning About Consent Is a Good Place to Start

Too often, as seen in the Coleman and Steubenville cases, the survivors of assaults were intoxicated at the time of their attacks and could not give consent. As I said in an article for Rewire when the details of Coleman’s rape first came out:

Too many boys think it is OK to have sex with girls who have not consented. They think it is OK to have sex with girls who are so drunk they could not possibly consent. They think it is OK to have sex with girls who are completely unconscious. They are so convinced that this behavior is OK that they record the behavior and release it for all the world to see.

Indeed, the other thing that many of these cases have in common is witnesses who did nothing but cheer or take pictures, which suggests that too many teens share the opinion that sex with an unconscious person is acceptable.

I have hopes that discussions around affirmative consent that aim to set a community standard in which both parties have to say yes rather than one having to say no will make it very clear that sex with someone who cannot give consent is unacceptable. It is always rape. This may not be enough to stop someone intent on committing a violent act, but at the very least maybe it will spur their peers to step in and take a stand.

Of course, sexual assaults can occur in a variety of situations. Some say no and are assaulted anyhow; some may be too afraid to refuse; and some may be coerced into saying yes. Again, affirmative consent won’t prevent any of the scenarios from occurring, but it could establish a community standard that gives both parties the vocabulary and the right to say no.

Discussions of affirmative consent—if done well—have the potential to make young people think critically about the ways in which we set adolescents up to fail when it comes to sexual relations. The message we too often send boys and young men is this: Boys are supposed to be the sexual aggressors. They must always want sex. It is their job to try to get girls to say yes, even if that means ignoring what she’s saying or getting her drunk. Watch any number of movies and you’ll learn that if boys try hard enough, girls will probably give in and like it.

This is, obviously, not an accurate or well-rounded portrayal of healthy sexual relationships. Still, it sets girls up to be the “gatekeepers” of sorts—as if all sexual decision-making is their responsibility in the eyes of the public. Girls, meanwhile, are frequently struggling with the internalized misogyny of balancing being perceived as a “prude” (who doesn’t have sex enough) with being perceived as a “slut” (who has sex too much). This, in turn, creates a harmful dynamic: When girls say no, boys think that they should keep pushing until they say yes. That’s not consensual; it’s coercive.

Under a community standard of “only yes mean yes,” partners would have to communicate. They would learn that silence is not consent; that checking in with each other every now and then should be the norm, even with a simple “Are you OK?”; and that speaking up about what they want is healthy, not shameful.

California’s New Bill

Combating harmful dynamics seems to be what the president of the California senate, Kevin de León, had in mind when he and his colleague, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, put forth the bill to teach affirmative consent in high school. de León (D-Los Angeles) explained to the Associated Press: “I’d like to decrease the amount of misogyny that’s taking place. We’ve created a culture that’s become so normalized, that’s so anti-young woman. It has gotten to the point where young men are going to have to stand up…. They can’t remain voiceless on this issue, and it’s going to have to start in high school.”

California schools are not required to teach health education, but the standard for schools that do take on the topic say students should learn to “recognize potentially harmful or abusive relationships, including dangerous dating situations,” “describe California laws regarding bullying, sexual violence, and sexual harassment,” and “use effective communication skills for preventing and reporting sexual assault and molestation.” The new bill, SB 695, would add discussions of affirmative consent in the schools that require health education credits for graduation.

Co-sponsor Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) told the Associated Press, “This bill will ensure that discussions about healthy relationships and consent are taking place in high school, with young women and young men, so we can help establish boundaries of acceptable behavior.”

I think this is a good start precisely because it sets up discussions about healthy relationships. We can tell young people that sexual assault is wrong until we’re blue in the face, but I don’t think we can change the cultural norms until we tell them what’s right.

And that’s what this law does. It explains to young people that a healthy sexual encounter involves discussions and negotiations. It is not about one partner convincing the other to do something, but about both coming to a mutual agreement about what’s going to happen. And it explains it early, which both research and experience tells us is necessary.

Will laws like this one solve the issue of sexual assault? Of course not. Rape culture is deeply ingrained in our society, and many acts of sexual assault are not about sex at all but about violence. But teaching young people that the healthiest relationships and sexual experiences are the ones in which both people actively engage in deciding what to do—in which they are not adversaries trying to get their way but partners figuring it out together—just might whittle away at the attitudes that make rape and sexual assault so very prevalent in our society.