We Must Teach Consent in Schools

Teaching Consent in School
Teaching Consent in School

Consent education is not about bringing the government into the sex lives of Americans, but it is about protecting our citizens from sexual assault and equipping our youth with knowledge. On campuses across the country, some students cannot define sexual assault and profoundly misunderstand consent.

Contrary to what many may believe, most survivors experience assault from friends, peers, and acquaintances. In fact, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in 8 out of 10 rape cases, the survivor knew the person who sexually assaulted them.

Sexual assault is far too common. This crisis has been called an epidemic by filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering,​ who are two-time Emmy and Academy Award-nominees for the documentary film ​The Hunting Ground​, which was a deep exposé into sexual assault on America’s top college campuses.​ ​

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that one in five women will experience sexual assault in their lives, along with one in 71 men. In college, a time when students should be focusing on self-exploration and professional development, one in five female students experience sexual assault and 1​ one in 16 college men experience rape.

The disturbingly high statistics pose many questions for legal, health, and educational professionals alike. What is the cause of this epidemic and how can it be addressed? Like many problems our country is facing, the answer is complex and multifaceted. But one thing is clear: a lack of comprehensive sex education that appropriately addresses consent and sexual assault contributes to our failure of addressing this crisis.

In Pennsylvania, for example, public schools are not required by law to discuss consent and the consequences of sexual assault–both in terms of criminality for perpetrators and life long consequences for survivors. The PA Department of Education requires that students in 12th grade “analyze the impact of the violence on the victim and the surrounding community” but does not specify “sexual” act of violence. The vague statement, unfortunately, leads recommendations to be interpreted in many ways and applied to any “impact of violence.”

Studies show that men will self-report raping a woman when they failed to realize their actions criminally constitute as such. A study published in Violence and Gender found that 31.7% of men had “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” while only 13.6% had “any intentions to rape a woman”. We know that forcing anyone to have sexual intercourse is indeed rape.

As we work to solve this crisis, we must require education about consent and sexual assault in public schools. As an institution, a school is tasked with preparing students for their future. The data is clear, we are failing in the area of consent education.

“Increased visibility and attention about the prevalence of campus sexual assaults is really critical,” says Heather Boonstra, Director of Public Policy at the Guttmacher Institute, “The first step towards solving a problem is identifying it in the first place. Through these stories, we are learning how truly common an experience this is. Providing comprehensive sex education will not only better serve women in the long run, but will also help to make relationships between men and women more equal.”

Some dispute the idea of teaching consent through workshop-type settings by minimizing the crisis. George Lawlor, a student from Warwick University, once penned an essay that gained tons of traffic on social media. Saying, “To be invited to such a waste of time was the biggest insult I’ve received in a good few years. It implies I have an insufficient understanding of what does and does not constitute consent and that’s incredibly hurtful.”

What Lawlor misunderstands is how students across the nation do not have sufficient education on consent. If everyone understood consent, ​we would not see a situation described above where men self-report rape when the question’s wording slightly shifts. If anyone was born with a sufficient understanding of consent, then 32% of men would not be openly admitting to sexually assaulting a woman.

It’s not George Lawlor who should be complaining about hurt feelings on the internet. The real issue here is the legitimate danger sexual assault poses on college campuses. The proper call to action is for states to require consent education in public schools. If we set a baseline of understanding early on in a student’s career, we could improve outcomes.

I’m not saying this is the only answer. Solving the rape epidemic needs to be a multi-pronged approach. We owe it to each other to try everything in our toolbox. Even if we can prevent one assault from happening, consent education is worth it.

Philly-based LGBTQ+ activist focusing on sexual health & health care access. Founder of Keystone CASE and University of Pennsylvania nursing student.

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