Amid confusion over sexual consent, advocates calling for increase in sex education

Last modified: 9/6/2015 11:40:51 PM
When incoming freshmen arrive at the University of New Hampshire, Maggie Wells, who works at the university’s Sexual Health and Rape Prevention Program, has a few questions for them.

“What is sexual consent?” “Can a person consent to sexual activity if they’ve had too much to drink?”

Often, the students are stumped.

“When you ask the question of what consent is, they fumble all over it, they don’t have a concise answer,” she said. “This might be the first time they’re being asked about sexual consent.”

Many students don’t even know what the age of consent is in New Hampshire: 16 years old.

“There are a lot of students that are not getting that information at all, they’re not getting it from their parents, they’re not getting it from their schools,” Wells said. What education they do receive, “they’re getting it from the media.”

Advocates say with hyper-sexualized pop culture in America the issue can be especially difficult to navigate for teenagers and young adults.

“If you watch TV or movies or listen to the radio, consent feels like a very different thing,” said violence prevention advocate Kate Rohdenburg, the program director for the Lebanon-based domestic violence crisis center WISE. “If ‘Blurred Lines’ is the song of the summer and you don’t have accurate information . . . why wouldn’t you not know what consent is?”

National research suggest the fumbling answers from UNH students are common. A recent poll done by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that when college students were asked if someone undressing, getting a condom or nodding in agreement meant consent for more sexual activity, about 40 percent said yes and another 40 percent said no.

The issue of consent was brought up most recently with the St. Paul’s School rape trial where graduate Owen Labrie was found guilty of having sex with an underage student and convicted on five counts, for which he could face jail time and a lifetime sex offender status. On the stand, the now 16-year-old victim testified that Labrie kept going, even when she signaled “no” multiple times.

Labrie is just the latest example of students pushing beyond sexual boundaries. A slew of high-profile sex assaults on college campuses and high schools in recent years has brought renewed focus on the issue of on-campus rape. Last year, the White House created a task force to address assault on college campuses amid multiple stories of young women being assaulted and accusations of schools not doing enough to prevent it.

The new message for young men and women from sexual assault prevention advocates: don’t let it get to the point where your partner has to say “no.” Instead, you should be asking the other person for a clear, emphatic “yes.”

In New Hampshire, members of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence are pushing for comprehensive education on consent and sexual assault in schools. They argue it should start with age-appropriate lessons when kids are in elementary schools, with things as simple as respecting each other’s boundaries.

And advocates such as Wells say parents and schools need to get better at talking to teenagers about sex.

“Sex does happen; we need to have that conversation about consent,” Wells said. “We’re not giving students the skills for having the conversation.”

Defining sexual assault

Teacher Les Lawrence has taught health class at Lebanon High School for about 16 years. When it comes time to talk about sex, Lawrence always tries to have a matter-of-fact conversation with his students and make sure all their questions get answered.

“We talk about all of it,” he says. Birth control, STDs, sexual assault and consent are all covered in Lawrence’s class.

Each year, the students spend time learning about consent from WISE, which also works with sexual assault victims in the Upper Valley.

The conversation with WISE staff is often “eye-opening” for his students, Lawrence said.

“They understand the word rape, but what they may not know are all the pieces of it, all the things that are considered sexual assault,” he said.

Rohdenburg, the director of WISE, works with students in Lebanon and many other schools in the Upper Valley.

Often, students have “such a sense of relief that we’ll just level with them with what is going on,” Rohdenburg said.

She said she sees a lot of anxiety from male students that if they’re having sexual contact, “girls will change their mind, she’s going to call him a rapist . . . there’s a fear that could happen to anyone.”

For the girls, there are even more questions.

“I think girls worry a lot about how to navigate” sexual contact, Rohdenburg said. “You can’t say no, you can’t say yes, how do I say no without being mean.”

Rohdenburg said her goal in talking to students is not to scare them into asking for consent, but instead giving them context and reminding them that having open communication with any partner is key to building a healthy relationship.

“It’s not fair that we’re putting people in a position to mind-read,” she said.

No clear standard

Across the country and the state, the kind of sex education a student receives in school varies widely depending on where you live.

The New Hampshire Department of Education’s minimum standards for public school approval include teaching students “family life and comprehensive sexuality education, including instruction relative to abstinence and sexually transmitted infections.”

There is no standard relating to consent or sexual assault, and individual districts and schools have a lot of leeway to decide what they want to teach students.

“People don’t like us to get in their business that much,” said Heather Gage, director of the Division of Educational Improvement for the N.H. Department of Education. “We have a lot of local governance in that concern.”

Nationally, the numbers of states mandating comprehensive sex ed for students varies widely: 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach the topic, and 19 require that information students are taught is “medically or factually accurate.”

Still, the topic of consent is clearly on the minds of some legislators.

Recently, a number of states have introduced legislation that, if passed, would incorporate education about sexual assault and healthy relationships into the state’s health curriculum.

Advocates in New Hampshire say more of these lessons need to be taught to young students, but say there is not enough funding for prevention programs like the one at Lebanon High School.

“It has been a woefully underfunded area of education,” said Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Schollett and others are adamant that one of the main ways to prevent sexual assault is to educate more students about how to have healthy relationships, so that when relationships may turn romantic when students are older, sexual violence is minimized.

“It’s critical the education be age appropriate,” Schollett said. “Elementary school is not too early to talk about body safety and respectful relationships.”

A state commission on increased education on consent in New Hampshire’s elementary and secondary schools still has yet to release its final recommendations, but should be doing so soon, Schollett said.

With the renewed attention being put on sexual assault, Wells at UNH says the fight to end sexual assault is still an uphill battle.

“This work has been going on for decades,” she said. “We’re just now seeing that tide start to turn.”

When people tell her they are skeptical that organizations such as SHARPP and WISE can reduce the instances of sexual assault, she disagrees.

“I don’t believe that,” she said. “There was a time in our society where we said, ‘You’re never going to be able to get people to stop smoking.’ ”

At Lebanon High School, Lawerence says he is glad to be educating kids and giving them the opportunity to talk about these issues in a safe environment.

“I think it’s incredibly important,” Lawrence said. “This is real, it does happen, and it happens to people who are your peers.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen)

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