We Need to Talk About Sexual Consent in Schools

My family and I know an adorable toddler who loves to chase other children and kiss them. My soon-to-be 5-year-old daughter is mortified by him. When he comes to lay one on her, she screams “No!” Other adults watching have responded with approximations of, “Aw, come on. He just wants to give you a kiss. He loves you. Let him give you a kiss.”

At this point, I intervene, look my daughter in the eye, and say, “You do not need to kiss or get kisses from anyone who you don’t want to. Ever.”

Call me a buzz kill. Tell me that I’m overreacting. The sweet, kissing monster obviously has no nefarious intent. He’s just a baby. Regardless, my child needs to know she is in control of her own body. She has every right to say “no.”

This is called teaching consent. I believe her K-12 education should impart similar lessons.

No Ones Likes to Think about Their Kids and Sex

An elephant in the room for many of us is our kids and sex. This combination makes us feel about as comfortable as wearing a down parka in 130-degree heat. No one likes to think about their children as sexual beings, especially before they reach the legal age of adulthood.

I’m in the same boat. I want to believe my child will wait until she’s deeply in love and at least 20 years old before she has sexual intercourse (or rounds any of the bases prior). I also know I’m in deep denial—and a hypocrite—if I believe that’s likely.

The fact is 62 percent of U.S. high school seniors have had sexual intercourse. You can wag your finger, cluck your tongue, and say, “not my baby,” but there’s a more than 6-in-10 shot you’re wrong.

I patently reject abstinence-only education or bypassing sexual education in public schools for this very reason. If you think abstinence-only is the way to go, consider this: A recent study reports that the entire 36 percent decrease in the national teen pregnancy rate between 2007 and 2013 is due to increased usage of contraception and more effective birth control among teenagers.

The bottom line is that my daughter may have sexual experiences before I would like them to happen. I won’t be able to decide the time and place of my child’s sexual practices, but I can ensure she has all the facts to make informed choices.

My daughter has ownership over her body. She is going to make sexual choices for herself.

Right? Not necessarily.

One in six women are victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime; young teenage woman (age 16 to 19) are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault, according to RAINN.

Sexual assaults on college campuses are especially prevalent. Twenty-three percent of female and 5 percent of male undergraduates report that they have experienced rape or sexual assault. Additionally, our prosecution rates and sentencing lengths are woefully inappropriate. RAINN states that only three of 100 rapists will ever serve a day in prison.

We Need to Teach Sexual Consent in K-12 Schools

We need to do something more. We as parents need to ask ourselves if we are avoiding uncomfortable conversations at the expense of our children’s safety. Do we erroneously believe we don’t need to have these talks because “our son would never do that” or “something like that would never happen to my daughter?”

We, as a society, need to raise kinder, gentler, more conscious young men who respect and love women (and other men). We certainly need to start that education earlier than college orientations (for those who are fortunate enough to attend them).

Teaching sexual consent and mutual respect for one another’s bodies needs to start early. I support middle school as the time to begin discussing consent explicitly as it relates to sexual interactions (Six percent of all high school students report having sexual intercourse before age 13).

That said, we can and should begin these discussions even earlier— at home and in schools. There is an excellent article on Rewire about how “to teach kids consent without bringing sex into the conversation.” It also links to the National Sexuality Education Standards, a roadmap for approaching consent at every age.

The idea of discussing sex and consent in our schools may make us uneasy as parents, but it’s necessary. According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, almost half of college students do not know the definition of consent and the potential ramifications of not receiving consent. Forty-six percent said it’s “unclear whether sexual activity when both people have not given clear agreement is sexual assault.”

California has come to a similar conclusion about the need for instilling sexual conduct values in K-12. Starting next year, all California high schools that teach health as a graduation requirement must teach lessons on sexual assault prevention.

When I heard this, I experienced a mental ticker-tape parade. The co-sponsor of the bill, State Senator Kevin de León said this:

“I firmly believe that by instilling in young minds the importance of affirmative consent and relationships built on love and respect, that we can reduce the sexual violence inflicted on young women.”

Teaching these values in school is not nearly enough. Nevertheless, it’s a progressive start.

We desperately need appropriate sentencing for sexual assault. However, when we arrive at sentencing, it’s already too late for the mind, body, and soul of a violated woman. We need to rewind to before these events ever take place and instill values, conduct, and respect that puts the brakes on even imagining dragging an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.

We can find a million reasons why we are too uncomfortable to face this head on in our schools, but know it is to the detriment of our children—male and female. The lessons of mutual respect, empathy, and yes, sexual consent, begins at home.

However, for when that fails or is not enough, our schools must reinforce these crucial life lessons.

What do you think?
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Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva is mom to a preschooler, wife to a teacher, and a social justice seeker in Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the Chief Communications Officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the Communications Director at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

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