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If College Students Can't Say What 'Consent' Is, Then We Should Teach It Sooner

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

What I remember most about freshman orientation at Tufts is meeting friends, getting absurdly lost on campus, and purchasing an enormous “Starry Night” poster for my basement dorm room. The more “serious” and official parts of the week are less clear. I vaguely recall a workshop on academic integrity and an icebreaker game that involved M&Ms. I also remember bits and pieces of the “In the Sack” consent education program, as well as the overdone film on campus shootings. In the rush of the week and my own naïveté, I conflated the two safety awareness presentations as equal threats, failing to realize that, while there would be no campus shootings over the next four years, a number of the friends I was making would be victims of sexual assault.

The lessons on consent, sexual assault, and healthy relationships that colleges offer during orientation programs are notoriously campy, to the point where many students regard them as humorous entertainment. Earlier this year, a succession of scandals revealed a deeply entrenched problem with the way colleges across the country deal with cases of sexual assault. Officials at different schools routinely failed to investigate sexual assault cases, offer support to survivors, and prosecute perpetrators. In a case at University of Southern California that was dismissed in May, the school’s student affairs office wrote a letter to the victim—who earlier presented authorities with four recordings of what she said are confessions by her attacker—explaining that she and her attacker “agreed they had sexual intercourse together. This office acknowledges that their perspectives on the sexual intercourse differ.”

In response to the bad publicity, colleges have rushed to amend both their punishment guidelines and their consent and sexual assault education programs. However, some efforts, like Yale’s mass email laying out eight hypothetical scenarios that might fall under the university’s punishable definition of “nonconsensual sex,” struck some students as a continuation of insufficient—and unintentionally comical—teaching on consent and sexual assault.

“[Consent education] can’t be something colleges are checking off,” said Alexandra Brodsky, a student at Yale Law School and founding co-organizer of Know Your IX. “There is an important difference between being blurry and being complex. Sexual violence is certainly complex, but it’s not blurry. I think that in the attempt to acknowledge the nuances, schools sometimes end up presenting consent as a debatable issue.”

Significant changes need to be made to college’s consent education programs. But it also seems like more can be done to teach students about sexual assault and consent before they arrive on campus. Consent education is rarely a component of high school sex education curriculum. “Due to the limits on time imposed on teachers, they end up needing to make some really tough choices about what topics they can cram into very limited amounts of time with their students,” said Nora Gelperin, director of training at Answer, the national sexuality education organization based at Rutgers University. “Unfortunately, it tends to be that teachers focus on what they see as the core content, which is generally pregnancy prevention and STD/HIV prevention. What suffers is all the other very important topics, like teen dating violence, issues around consent, body image, healthy relationships.”

Statistics on which states require consent and sexual assault education do not currently exist. The next closest measure is examining individual state laws on teen dating violence. Twenty states currently have such legislation in place. Of those, 13 require public schools to develop a dating violence or healthy relationships component for health classes or comprehensive sex-ed programming. Similar legislation was recently enacted in Colorado, but failed in Oregon and Kentucky. When consent and sexual assault are addressed, current curricula typically eschew complicated conversations in favor of an unfortunate message that has lately been the subject of massive debate: Don’t get raped. “Dating violence [in sex-ed] tends to be much more about what girls should do to stay safe when they’re at parties,” Gelperin told me. “‘Go with a friend, don’t drink too much, look out for each other’—and not exploring issues of consent between genders and around relationships.”

“Consent is an issue I think teens are especially misinformed about,” Nick Meduski, a staff writer for Sex, Etc., Answer’s peer-to-peer publication for teens, said in an email. “I think my friends have a skewed or single dimensional view of what rape is.”

Gelperin helped develop the National Sexuality Education Standards, which aim to provide guidance on the essential minimum core content for sex-ed that is developmentally appropriate for students in grades K-12. So far, Connecticut has developed state guidelines that are based on the national standards, and Chicago is set to implement them in 2016. The standards inform educators that by the time students finish twelfth grade, they should be able to define sexual consent and explain its implications, analyze factors like how alcohol can affect one’s ability to give it, and demonstrate both effective ways to communicate personal boundaries and respect for the boundaries of others as they relate to intimacy.

That may sound straightforward, but in reality, this is a lesson young people are not learning elsewhere, in part because of the gender norms with which they grow up. “A piece of the way that we teach gender in this country is how we still encourage boys to be outspoken, aggressive, and forceful in making their way in the world,” Monica Rodriguez, President of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, and who also helped develop the standards, told me, “and that often translates into other areas.”

“[Sexuality education typically does not] actively look at what does it mean when someone gives consent, how would you know that, how would you seek that from someone, and particularly the role boys and young men play in this equation,” said Gelperin. “Boys are part of the missing equation of sex education. We tend to really focus only on girls.”

So, where to begin? Gelperin described the importance of engaging young people in updating conversations to reflect current debate and using scenarios that are more realistic than the ones offered by more antiquated sex-ed material. Certainly, the appalling cases of Steubenville and Maryville can serve as extreme but instructive examples of what non-consensual sexual assault looks like and provide opportunity for discussion and learning. Other subjects include video games that treat women like disposable sex objects, songs about blurred lines, movies and TV shows that portray the pursuit of sexual pleasure as more important than mutual comfort, and pornography.

Rape and sexual assault can be just as devastating as HIV and unwanted pregnancies, and they deserve an equally prominent role on high school curriculums. Sexuality may be a subject where most important lessons are learned outside the classroom, but consent is one that won’t be.