How Sex-Ed Is Changing Post-#MeToo
In the early 1990s, in response to reports of rape on campus, a group of students at Ohio’s Antioch College gathered to write a new policy governing sexual conduct. The policy mandated ongoing verbal consent during every stage of a sexual encounter, which was highly unusual at the time — so novel that its implementation ignited an unexpected wave of national scrutiny. As some of the former students involved in the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy’s creation told The New York Times in 2018, they became a laughingstock — to critics, they were trying to take the fun and romance out of sex. In 1993, Saturday Night Live lampooned Antioch’s policy in a sketch about a game show called Is It Date Rape? that featured actors role-playing affirmative consent in a stilted, almost robotic fashion.
“May I elevate the level of sexual intimacy by feeling your buttocks?” asked Mike Myers, in character as a member of the “Antioch College Date Rape Players.” He broke into a grin.
On one hand, we have come a long way since then. Policies on college campuses today often resonate more with Antioch’s model than with SNL’s parody of it. But on the other, sex education is counterproductive or nonexistent in many regions of the U.S., a man accused of sexual assault sits in the White House, and the #MeToo movement has prompted a national crisis around sexual ethics.
In response, however, a cohort of teachers and organizations is implementing a more holistic way to teach high school sex education, looking to go beyond putting condoms on bananas.
“Freud said there are two things that are most important in life: One is work and the other is love,” said Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of the Human Development and Psychology master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “We have huge schools at every level, huge industries, that are focused on preparing people for work. We do almost nothing to prepare them for love.”
This new vanguard of educators is trying to do just that. They aren’t just teaching the importance of planning pregnancy or helping students to decipher whether or not they got a “yes” in the moments before clothes start coming off. Instead, they are emphasizing the importance of healthy relationships and teaching their students strategies to cultivate them.
How can you teach consent?
Nothing about sex education in the U.S. is straightforward. The way that it is taught is incredibly fractured, making it possible for students in neighboring school districts to receive very different information about sex and relationships. But in recent years, consent has become one of the most talked-about sex-ed concepts in high schools around the country.
Zoë Peterson, director of the Kinsey Institute’s Sexual Assault Research Initiative and an associate professor of counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University, says that in the 20 years she has been studying consent and sexual assault, she has seen a clear movement away from a “no means no” understanding of consent and toward the affirmative “yes means yes” model. In the past nine years especially, Peterson has seen interest in her work on consent steadily grow — a product of the #MeToo movement and, before that, campus sexual assault and a 2011 letter from the Obama administration’s Office for Civil Rights emphasizing that sexual harassment and assault interferes with students’ right to an education free from sex discrimination.
As a result, Peterson says, there has been this sudden attention on consent as a possible way to address the problem of sexual assault.
Young people know that navigating consent isn’t easy, Peterson said, and telling them that a yes or no should make things crystal clear does a disservice to them. While sex is frequently framed as either wanted or unwanted, people might feel ambivalent about having sex at a given time, or they may be waiting to see how an interaction plays out before deciding whether or not they want to have sex. And wanting sex isn’t the same thing as agreeing to have sex: Someone might feel aroused but may not agree to have sex at that time, perhaps because they want to get to know their partner better or because they would be cheating on someone else by doing so. On the flip side, someone might not be entirely in the mood for sex but, for instance, say yes to please their partner.
Peterson believes that it is important to tease apart the distinction between wanting and agreeing to sex. When the two are taken to be the same thing, someone might look for signs of enjoyment from their partner as proof of consent, when in fact that person hasn’t agreed to it. Alternately, if a rape survivor was aroused at any point during the interaction that led to their assault, they might blame themselves, reasoning that they wanted it to some degree and therefore were “asking for it.”
Increasingly, high schools are incorporating consent programming into their classes. In 2015, California became the first state to mandate that schools with sex-ed programs teach consent, following the affirmative “yes means yes” model. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization focused on sexual and reproductive rights and health, the list of states that require consent to be covered now includes Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. At least six more states have legislation pending.
“It really took off last year,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute. “The idea of putting consent education into sex education hasn’t been around that long. I think it’s been a part of sex education in terms of talking about healthy relationships, but having an explicit definition of consent or explicit requirements around it wasn’t a thing until very recently.”
Because sex education varies dramatically from school to school, there is no one way that consent is taught in U.S. high schools. While funding for sex-education programs is partly allocated on a federal level — the Trump administration’s grant rules have specifically benefited abstinence-only programs, despite evidence that they don’t work — states make their own laws about sex-ed requirements. Not all states mandate that students learn about topics like contraception, HIV and healthy relationships; some don’t even stipulate that the information taught be medically accurate. Many states don’t require sex education in the first place, leaving that decision up to each school district, which then must contend with the realities of budgets, busy class schedules and often strenuous input from parents. Ultimately, sex education comes down to the teacher standing at the front of the classroom — and their level of training and comfort with the subject.
Sex education beyond sex
At Urban School, a private high school in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, health education teacher Shafia Zaloom teaches consent to sophomores as part of a six-week curriculum on human sexuality and personal integrity. The course broadly follows the development of a budding relationship, looking at topics like how to ask someone out on a date, how to engage in what she calls “authentic connection,” how to build trust over time and, when there is the potential for sexual exploration, what factors into an individual’s sense of readiness and the role of pleasure in sex. The more standard parts of sex ed, like anatomy, STIs and contraceptives are also covered throughout, along with gender and sexual identity. In the final week, students learn how to break up with someone and how to survive a breakup themselves.
When it comes to learning about consent — not just what it means and when it can be given, but how to really listen to what a partner is saying — students have to cultivate what Zaloom calls “the courage to connect,” which she believes is fundamental to being able to put information about consent into practice. She tries to impart to them that vulnerability is strength, not weakness.
“Right now kids are bombarded with a culture that’s messaging them very strongly to disconnect and dehumanize sexuality,” Zaloom says. And that, she said, gets in the way of our ability to do right by our partners.
Zaloom also works as a sex-ed consultant and regularly leads workshops on consent at other schools; after creating a curriculum to be taught in tandem with The Hunting Ground, a 2015 documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, she said she became known as “the consent lady.” In class, she has students deconstruct real-life scenarios and clips from movies and shows like American Pie, Superbad, Skins and Sex Education to identify whether they show consensual sex, and discusses how factors like substance use, social power dynamics and coercive context and language impact consent. Zaloom also likes to use metaphors to get students thinking about consent and the communication that underpins it. She will ask everyone in the room to think of a bear, and when they begin describing their bears, it becomes clear that everyone’s bear is unique: There are polar bears, black bears, brown bears, bears sleeping in caves, bears hunting for fish. The point is that when you are getting intimate with someone, it is important to take the time to understand what kinds of activities your partner has in mind, because it might be very different from what you are picturing.
Reese, a senior at Urban, says that the bear activity upended her understanding of consent. Before sophomore year sex ed, she thought of consent as a binary, but, she said, “it was during the bear activity that I realized that consent is this fluid and ever-changing thing that’s really dependent on the internal and external circumstances of a given moment.”
Reese said that the idea of becoming intimate with a partner used to seem like a ladder: Once you engaged in one type of activity, you had to move up to the next rung. She took away from Zaloom’s class a new sense that having a certain relationship with one person doesn’t entitle subsequent partners to the same, nor does it mean you can’t dial things back within a relationship.
Riley, another senior at Urban, feels that the emphasis Zaloom places on connecting with others has even affected his non-romantic relationships. He is more attuned to listening to friends and partners, more conscious of his own feelings and theirs.
Volunteers are picking up the slack
It is perhaps unsurprising that a private school in San Francisco is taking a progressive approach to sex ed, but even in cities and towns with bare-bones sex ed, passionate individuals are filling in the gaps.
Dara, a high school senior in Indianapolis, has been teaching sex ed to students at other high schools since her sophomore year, through Planned Parenthood’s Teen Council program. A self-described activist, she had gone to reproductive-rights rallies as a freshman and wanted to find a way to volunteer with Planned Parenthood. Dara’s peer-educator group meets weekly at a local church to learn the lesson content from a Planned Parenthood facilitator, and once a month she goes into schools — mostly public and charter — to teach topics like healthy relationships, reproductive justice and dating violence. This is often the first time that students are learning about these topics, Dara said: Sex education is not mandatory in Indiana.
Leslie Montgomery, the regional education and outreach manager at Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, said that the organization takes pains to present consent as something that is freely given with enthusiasm and that is mutual, reversible and specific — meaning saying yes to one sexual activity doesn’t translate to consent to another act. In Teen Council, Dara’s class on consent includes a series of activities, including one in which she presents students with cards showing three possible definitions of consent — “a verbal yes,” “positive body language” and “consent to one thing is not consent to another” — and asks them to stand next to the one that they think is the best description and explain why they chose it. In another, she places three cards that read “consent,” “not consent” and “unsure” at the front of the room and asks students to categorize a handful of scenarios into one of the three buckets. For example, is the use of affirmative language consent? Yes. If a 19-year-old has sex with a 15-year-old? By law, no. Afterward, they discuss each unique scenario.
The question of whether wearing revealing clothing indicates consent is a frequently controversial one, Dara says, particularly among male students. In past classes, students have expressed the feeling that if someone is wearing a skimpy outfit, they “know what’s going on.” Dara will make a counterargument: If you are wearing a bathing suit at a swimming pool, does it mean you want to have sex with everyone there? Or what if they just think the outfit is cute?
What really changes students’ minds is debate with their classmates. “That’s the biggest thing that convinces people,” Dara said. “Other kids will jump in and be like, ‘She’s right. Sometimes I just want to wear short shorts!’ ”
At her own school, Dara finds the sex-education program deeply lacking. It takes place over two days — two days out of four years — and doesn’t cover condoms or contraceptives but does include many frightening descriptions of STI symptoms. The “very basic facts” of sex are covered, Dara says, but abstinence is the bottom line. “In Indiana, if sex education is taught in schools, it has to be mentioned and emphasized that sex outside of marriage is unhealthy and likely to cause things like pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections,” said Montgomery.
The other students at Dara’s school know that she teaches classes through Teen Council, and they will ask her questions that aren’t covered in their school’s short sex-ed course, like what side effects they can expect from birth-control pills. Dara often winds up giving out the condoms that she receives through Teen Council.
“I’m like a condom dealer at my school,” she said.
Teen Council educators can lead classes in a group, but at this point Dara usually handles them on her own, with a facilitator in the room to jump in if the students get rowdy or if she forgets to mention something. She gets a little nervous when she is teaching at a school where she knows some of the students and feels more confident facing a room full of strangers.
Ultimately, though, because conversations are more comfortable with someone you can relate to, Dara feels that being a teenager works to her advantage as an educator: “They’re listening to me more than if I was 10 years older.”