Teach Consent: Better sexual education in high school will lead to safer college campuses

By Kirsten Wong / Columnist

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Do college students know the meaning of consent? Did they learn this vocabulary lesson in sexual conduct in high school?

Studies have revealed that college students do not know what constitutes consent and what does not. According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey on college students’ perceptions of sexual assault, 83 percent of students agreed that a clear “yes” from both parties is consent, but when given different scenarios, the answer was not as clear.

Forty seven percent of college students said when both people have not given clear consent it is sexual assault, while 6 percent said it is not and 46 percent saying it is unclear.

For instance, students aren’t sure if a partner nodding in agreement, taking off their own clothes or getting a condom is consent or not. Similarly, when both parties are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, 59 percent stated consent was unclear.

Only both parties making clear and aware verbal agreements is a sign of affirmative consent — any other form would be sexual assault.

The mixed results of the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey exemplify the ambiguous understanding of consent among college students. At its root, this unclear idea of consent stems from a poor sexual education curriculum in high school.

Many states don’t require schools to teach any sexual education at all. And even if there is a sexual education curriculum, only 33 states mandate that sexual education in primary schools at least teach students about STD/STIs — specifically HIV/AIDs. Methods for prevention can include anything from condoms to abstinence-only programs in many schools — which aren’t sexual education. On average, students are not receiving sexual education that includes essential factors about having sex itself — sexual education, it seems, focuses more on the consequences of poor sexual education.  There is no standardized teaching of the definition of consent, issues of sexual assault and sexual violence and resources on how to report them.

To better combat sexual violence in college, we must teach consent in high school.

While Pitt declared November as Sexual Violence Awareness Month, many other colleges and universities are also taking action to create safer environments on campuses. But as a nation, we can fight the problem of sexual assault at its root — we should emphasize the importance of safe, consensual sex as early as possible to prevent sexual assaults later.

Pitt students should know what kind of sexual conduct the University expects of them before they even arrive on campus. Pitt’s own definition of consent is “an informed, affirmative decision made freely and actively by all parties to engage in mutually acceptable sexual activity … given by clear words or actions.” It also states that someone who is unconscious, asleep or otherwise mentally or physically incapacitated, whether due to alcohol, drugs or some other condition, cannot give consent.

Pitt’s definition of consent outlines its “yes means yes” policy, which is stronger than the former “no means no” idea of consent. In that, “no means no” implies that consent may mean simply not saying no at all. More than 300 universities have also adopted this policy — meaning that most institutions of higher learning agree that consent must be an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement.

Consent between both parties is the difference between a safe, positive experience and being traumatized for life. It is crucial for students to know what consent is in all its forms. Sexual assault is a rampant problem among colleges and universities — mainly because students are not learning enough about the issues of sexual violence and consent in high school.

That there is no comprehensive, medically accurate high school sexual education programs in many states, and no sexual education at all in others, demonstrates the inconsistency, unreliability and the lack of prudence when it comes to sexual education. This fails to prepare students for the expectations universities have of them.

Implementing sexual education models in high schools similar to those of colleges, such as sexual assault prevention programs, bystander training, resources on reporting assault and lessons on consent, could help students understand these issues well before they enter college. 

California is already instituting such a program for its public high schools. Last month, the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, approved legislation that will require high schools to teach sexual consent and sexual violence prevention starting next year — the first state in the nation to take this measure.

As a leading example for the country, this legislation is a huge step to making this a nationwide trend.

The Association of American Universities’ recent Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct showed that 23.1 percent of female undergraduates experienced sexual assault since they enrolled in college — that number was 16.3 percent for Pitt.

These results should be a wake-up call for policymakers — too many students aren’t mature or aware enough to engage in sexual activity in college.

Kirsten Wong primarily writes on social justice issues and education for The Pitt News

Write to her at kew101@pitt.edu

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