Commentary Sexuality

High School Is Too Late to Start Teaching Consent to Kids

Haylin Belay

By 12th grade, many students have already been victims and/or perpetrators of sexual assault and other forms of sexual coercion.

Over the hundreds of hours of sexuality and health education workshops that I’ve taught, I noticed a pattern. Usually, teaching a workshop left me feeling airy, light, and accomplished—like I had made a difference for my students. But when it came to teaching consent education workshops, my middle school classes were challenging yet productive … and my high school classes left my chest tight and my head swimming.

Just a few months ago, a tweet appeared on my timeline concerning consent education in college that suddenly put to words what my body had been trying to tell me: “It’s way harder to educate rapists about consent than it is to educate children.”

It was an uncomfortable truth that I’d avoided consciously acknowledging. Speaking to a room of 6th graders who were just beginning to develop their understandings of sexuality was fundamentally different from speaking to a room full of 12th gradersbecause by 12th grade, many students have already been victims and/or perpetrators of sexual assault and other forms of sexual coercion.

The uncomfortable truth is that much of what is considered “normal” sexual behavior, especially among young heterosexual people, is glorified violence. That’s what feminists mean when they refer to “rape culture”: the normalization of sexual boundary crossing, often along gendered lines. I’ve seen children as young as age 10 sexually harass their classmates, often because they’re imitating TV, music videos, or the adults around them. And it’s not just the influence of popular culture; in fact, it’s developmentally typical for children to have their first sexual or intimate experiences, like kissing, hugging, fondling, or dating, between the ages of 10 and 14. For young boys, sexually predatory behavior can be part of their adolescent identity development as they learn what it means to “be a man.”

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With 10-year-olds, addressing that problematic behavior is challenging, but not excruciating. Students may struggle to wrap their minds around hypothetical sexual scenarios when they’ve yet to confidently hold someone’s hand, but for the most part, messages like “you should verbally ask for permission” and “you shouldn’t pressure someone after they say ‘no'” get minimal pushback. At the middle school level, students’ mental models for sexual intimacy are still pliable; as educators, we can challenge some of the toxic norms that are tragically common in our culture by comparing sex to things middle-schoolers understand, like cupcakes, pizza, or tea. And while our culture at large still struggles with understanding that sex is about pleasure and consent is necessary for pleasurable experiences, we tend to easily accept those concepts when applied to sharing and enjoying food.

So, when we explore scenarios involving alcohol, covert condom removal, or sexual violations other than so-called “forcible rape,” students who struggle to understand the risks of sexual coercion can be swayed with age-appropriate metaphors: “If someone offers me cake, and I say no, and they keep asking, how would that make me feel? If I eventually give in and eat the cake, how would that make me feel?” The same goes for presenting positive consent models. One of my favorite sexual communication metaphors to use with middle schoolers goes something like this: “If your favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate, and the ice cream scooper’s favorite flavor is strawberry, how would you get the kind of ice cream you want?” Answer: By explaining what you like and asking for it. “And if the ice cream scooper insists on giving you strawberry, even though you don’t want it?” Answer: That’s probably not somebody I want to eat ice cream with.

For students without much real-world sexual experience, these metaphors help to clarify healthy boundaries, norms, and communication strategies—and help students see violations of consent more clearly. Just as food loses its yummy flavor when we don’t really want it, mutually pleasurable sex is impossible if the people involved don’t want (i.e., consent to) sex.

And yet, for many teenage boys that I’ve encountered, things like plying a shy female classmate with alcohol, or misleading her about his romantic interest, or shaming her for saying “no” (or “yes”), or tricking her into condomless sex, or pressuring her into sexual acts she’s said no to in the past, or engaging in exploitative “hook-up games”—these are not examples of sexual violations, but illustrations of “how hook-up culture works.” Because they have sexual experience or friends with sexual experience, they tend to be more heavily invested in what’s already socially expected of them. And what’s socially expected of them is, as sexuality educator Al Vernacchio described in his viral 2013 TED Talk about sexual slang, is to treat sex and “hooking up” as a competition with winners, losers, scores, and plays.

Though not universal among teens and young adults, the attitude that sex—especially heterosexual sex—is a game, and that girls are goalies whose defenses must be lowered in order for boys to “score,” seems to grow distressingly more prevalent as those girls and boys grow older. Without quality consent education, this predator/prey mindset can end up laying the groundwork for teenagers’ formative sexual experiences.

It can even be codified into a literal game, with boys competing to increase their “body count” (in other words, the number of sexual partners they’ve had), or even the infamous Senior Salute sexual assault case, in which a male student’s pursuit of “winning the game” resulted in sexual violence at a prep school in New Hampshire. But while the survivor in that case was able to pursue justice, we all know how unfortunately rare it is for young victims of sexual violence to report their assaults. Furthermore, as in that case, it’s rare for perpetrators to experience true consequences; the seriousness of the violation is often understated as a youthful indiscretion. And still, despite the public and legal repercussions, at that prep school and others, the cycle of exploitative games of sexual conquest continues.

When we as a society expect and allow boys to behave in predatory ways, predatory behavior is often brushed off as “boys will be boys.” And once teen boys have experienced the “rewards” of sexual conquests—namely, elevated social status in their peer group—with few repercussions, it becomes more and more difficult to engage them from a positive consent framework. For boys who have already been trained to think of sex as a zero-sum game, it’s challenging to convince them that the safety and comfort that positive consent provides is a requirement for mutual pleasure and good sex. They’ve already internalized ideas like “You can’t turn a hoe into a housewife” (translation: girls who enjoy sex don’t deserve love or respect) and “Moaning? That’s gay” (translation: men should never be vulnerable, even during sex). It’s no wonder that many young boys prioritize their “body count” over their partner’s pleasure—or even their own.

It’s not only the boys; young girls, too, enforce the rules and regulations of rape culture from an early age, often before they themselves have experience with sexual intimacy. Indeed, young girls can be some of the most vicious critics of their female peers, especially those who have been labelled “slutty” or “easy.” This internalized misogyny leaves young women exceptionally vulnerable to abuse and victim blaming. During a conversation I had on predatory relationships between senior boys and freshman girls, one female high school student insisted that if someone was pressured into sexual activity they didn’t want to do, it was their fault for being too “weak” to withstand their partner’s “game.”

Frequently when discussing scenarios of positive, affirmative consent, older teen students respond with “that’s not realistic” or “that’s just not how sex works,” or, most alarmingly of all, “if I actually asked, she might say no”: a tacit acknowledgment that, for some, the act of “scoring” is more important than acknowledging their partner’s sexual boundaries. At the high school level, these aren’t theoretical conversations—not when one in ten boys and one in five girls in the United States report experiencing dating violence before the age of 18.

I don’t mean to paint this generation’s teenagers as sexually dysfunctional lost causes—far from it. Many teens do have healthy attitudes and behaviors around sexual activity; when problematic comments arise in class, it’s often fellow students who call out their peers’ toxic and victim-blaming language before I have the chance to. But my experience as an educator suggests that the percentage of students who regurgitate these rape culture maxims increases with every year that students don’t receive quality consent education. That means that waiting until college is far too late, especially considering the notoriously poor quality of college sexual consent programming.

The solution is twofold. First, and most obvious: Conversations about consent must start earlier. I fantasize about comprehensive K-12 sexuality education—but barring that, educators and parents should be engaging children in conversations about boundaries and sexual respect well before puberty. As critics of abstinence-only education models point out ad nauseum: Not telling teens about sex won’t keep them from having it. Similarly, saving conversations about sex until after most young people have had their first experiences leaves them vulnerable to sexual coercion and poor decision making.

And just as importantly, these conversations must be just that: conversations, not lectures. As feminists have bemoaned for decades, we often think of “consent education” as explaining to women and girls how to avoid sexual violations. Indeed, at the high school and college level, that often feels far less daunting than trying to explain to a budding predator why the “pump and dump” hookup strategy his friends joke about might be harming his sexual partners.

Instead, engaging children of all genders and sexual orientations in positive models of consent—that is, talking about consent from the perspective of intimacy and mutual pleasure—can not only empower students to assert their sexual boundaries, but teach them a deep and meaningful respect for the boundaries of others.

As a survivor of campus sexual violence, I’m all too familiar with the risks of leaving adolescents in the dark about healthy sexual decision making. And as a long-time educator, I relish the opportunity to give young people the knowledge I wish I’d received before I went to college: Yes means yes, no means no, and everyone deserves respect. Not only can 10-year-olds handle hearing those messages—if anything, they’re the ones who need to hear it most.

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