Olivia Shaffett, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
With one in three women and one in six men projected to experience some form of contact sexual abuse in their lifetimes, sexual violence remains a prevalent issue in American society. Recent cultural events like the #MeToo movement have brought further attention to the issue and have created a national narrative around sexual assault. The spotlight on the prevalence of sexual violence has allowed for the rise of preventative proposals, such as consent education programs.
While traditional sexual education programs focus more on decreasing rates of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the aim of consent education programs emphasizes what defines healthy relationships and interactions between people. The concept of “consent” remains ambiguous in both the American educational and legal systems. In response, many activists and educators advocate that requiring consent education in the American public school system can aid in creating an accepted narrative on how we collectively define “consent” and subsequently lead students to more empathetic methods of thinking and interacting with one another.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Consent
Consent remains an abstract concept to the public. Legally, what is permitted under the rules of consent differs between states. The general definition, however, affirms that consent is “a voluntary, enthusiastic, and clear agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity.”
This lack of cohesion in defining consent remains a significant issue for educators and activists to tackle. One method of dealing with this ambiguity focuses on the expansion of consent education programs in the public school system. In 2018, only eight states and the District of Columbia mandated consent education as a required component of their sexual education curriculums. However, within the past year, the number of states requiring consent education increased by almost 40 percent in response to the public’s growing concern over sexual assault rates.
What Does Consent Education Look Like?
Similar to sex education programs, consent education programs vary by state. Under one newly mandated program, Oregon now requires educators to foster a dialogue around consent by going from lessons on “Safe Touch, Unsafe Touch” in elementary school to discussing what consent looks like in interpersonal relationships by the 11th grade.
Oregon leads by example regarding structuring age-appropriate consent education programs. For elementary students, the term “consent” does not need to be used to begin teaching its importance. Instead, Oregon’s program focuses on introducing the concept of boundaries and reinforcing notions of personal space and respect in interpersonal relations and interactions. Children learn that when another child refuses a hug or any form of physical contact, the appropriate response is to respect this rejection. It’s equivalent to the lesson of “sharing,” where educators teach children that tangible objects, such as toys, must be shared with other children. A child that monopolizes a classroom’s toys is not behaving “appropriately” in this scenario. This mindset mirrors the lesson of boundaries as the aim is to condition children to understand what is considered a healthy interaction and what is not.
As kids enter middle school, consent education focuses more on direct and healthy communication. Middle school often marks the beginning of puberty, where feelings and desires complicate this period of growth for most teenagers. Proposed consent education focuses on addressing these complications by determining how best to navigate nuances in social interactions in order to maintain appropriate and safe relations.
By high school, the content of consent education evolves as policies and procedures associated with sexual violence are emphasized and discussed with more depth and transparency. This includes the disclosure of a range of informational resources from the legal procedure of reporting a sex crime to responsive healthcare practices. There is also an added element that emphasizes the obligation of bystanders and the deconstruction of the common shame and guilt that many survivors of sexual assault report experiencing.
Backlash and Public Response
Consent education remains controversial. The primary concern of mandated consent education programs is the potential for introducing mature conversations, such as sexual relationships, to children too soon. Concerned parents argue that it remains a parent’s responsibility to teach their children about all acts associated with sex, including consent.
Other opponents fear that imagined scenarios used in consent education workshops incites more fear than confidence in students. When students are asked to consider different sexual situations, they learn that these complicated sexual situations can and do happen. To critics, this is an unnecessary exercise that only adds to a student’s anxieties.
Further, state and local legislators currently determine the content and curriculum of school-based sex education programs. In states with a conservative majority legislature, the backbone of sex education focuses on abstinence-based curriculum. Abstinence education does not include instruction on consent since abstinence-based education stresses a prohibition of all forms of sexual activity. Thus, consent is often an irrelevant topic within these programs.
The Future of Consent Education
Despite the backlash, activists for in-school programming maintain that proposed education initiatives where “consent” and “boundaries” are introduced to students can only aid in diminishing high rates of sexual violence and coercion. Current statistics indicate that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Advocates continue to argue that the benefits of introducing consent education curriculum outweigh any discomfort in its presentation.
Legislators and educators continue to push for mandated consent education to address the epidemic of sexual assault within America. States, such as Colorado, plan on re-evaluating current sex education programs this year to determine if they adequately incorporate lessons on consent. At the federal level, bills like the Real Education of Healthy Youth Act of 2019 (REHYA) face future decisions. REHYA intends to establish federal funding for comprehensive sex education programs, which rely upon evidence-based, medically accurate teachings that remain age-appropriate. In theory, comprehensive sex education programs should include information on consent, decision-making, and healthy relationships.
Consent education remains a relatively new addition to the national debate on sexual education programs, but in a post #MeToo world where activists and policymakers aim to diminish the prevalence of sexual assault, the creation and adoption of consent programs remain a likely outcome for the future.