Say Yes: Teach Affirmative Consent

Observer Opinion

Recently, Montgomery County made headlines for a rape that occurred at Rockville High School.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), one out of every five American women have been victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Furthermore, on college campuses, one in every five women are victims of reported sexually assault as well. As high as these numbers seem, they are most likely lower than the true number, as more than 90 percent of college campus rape victims don’t report their assault, according to the NSVRC.

This is unacceptable. Rape is not just an epidemic; it is an ugly stain on the fabric of America, and it can no longer be ignored. It is vital that as a society, we work to eradicate the culture of victim blaming, and stop turning a blind eye to sexual violence. The fight against rape culture has to start right here, in the way that schools teach consent.

The most widespread understanding of consent, and the way that consent is defined in most high school sexual education classrooms, is that unless one hears a verbal “no,” – it is okay to imply consent to the situation and proceed accordingly.

However, this teaching is not only incorrect, but extremely dangerous. This “implied” consent is present when a partner is silent, unconsciousness or even to the fact that their potential sexual partner is not fighting back or physically and verbally protesting.

This definition of consent becomes even more dangerous when one takes into account the socialization of male and female sexuality. According to research conducted by the University of Michigan, women are taught to be passive receivers of sexual activity, while men are taught through gender roles, patriarchal socialization and mainstream media that they are entitled to the service, attention and the consent of their partners.

It is easy to imagine situations in which men, who have been socialized to feel entitled to women’s bodies, end up implying consent to a situation where it is not actually there. It is similarly easy to imagine situations in which women, who have been socialized to be passive in sexual activity, refrain from speaking up when they are uncomfortable with whatever is happening to them.

An alternative to the definition of “implied consent” is affirmative consent. Teaching affirmative consent rather than implied consent would be the greatest weapon in reducing the sexual violence epidemic.

The State Institute of New York (SUNY) defines affirmative consent as a voluntary decision among all participants to engage in a sexual activity.

According to SUNY, prior consensual activity does not constitute consent for future acts. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Consent cannot be given under the threat of intimidation or harm, and a person unconscious or heavily under the influence of drugs or alcohol can not give consent.

The distinctions made by SUNY are important, but they are not emphasized in sexual education classes.
By instilling vague and interpretative ideas of consent into high schooler’s minds, millions of students will enter college with a mindset that only adds to the number of rape cases and sexual assaults that occur on campuses. It is imperative that affirmative consent is incorporated into the common core curriculums, and the curriculums of high school sex ed courses all around the country.

According to Feb. 2017 Washington Post article, two Maryland delegates are currently pushing legislation that would require schools to teach affirmative consent.

If this bill passes, MCPS would be required to define consent as a clear, informed and voluntary agreement between both parties, in all health classes.

This bill is an excellent first step that has the power dismantle institutions that uphold rape culture and significantly reduce incidents like the Rockville High School rape. If MCPS chooses to teach affirmative consent, sexual education courses will have the ability to instill permanent seeds of equality and respect in young people’s minds, so future generations will engage in healthy and consensual relationships at a higher rate than they do now.

There are many arguments against teaching affirmative consent in schools. Many people believe that it is unrealistic to act on the notion that only a yes means yes, as there are many other verbal cues that may mean yes as well.

However, even if one does receive nonverbal cues indicating consent, it is still crucial that clear verbal permission is given. This tiny action gives both people involved a chance to ensure that they’re truly comfortable with the situation.

Schools have a duty to not only protect their students from these incidents, but also to teach them not to commit acts of sexual violence in the first place. A change must be made and it starts right here, in the classroom.