Inside a Catholic school in Portland, Oregon, high school sophomores break into groups to discuss some once-taboo topics: abusive relationships and consent.
At one desk, a girl with banana-colored fingernails begins jotting down some of the hallmarks of abuse: Physically hurting you, verbally abusive, can be one-sided. She pauses to seek input from her classmates, boys and girls alike, before continuing: “It messes up your mentality and your, like, confidence.”
For the first time this year, Central Catholic High School, like public schools in the city, is using educators from a domestic violence shelter to teach kids about what it means to consent. The goal is to reduce sexual violence and harassment and help teens understand what behavior is acceptable — and what’s not — before reaching adulthood.
“We’re talking about dating violence, sexual assault, relationships, #MeToo — all of those things. I think you have to be intentional about bringing this program into our classrooms,” said David Blue, the school’s director of diversity and inclusion.
What’s happening at this school in liberal Portland points to a larger debate unfolding in blue states and red, as lawmakers, educators and teens themselves re-examine whether sex education needs to evolve in the #MeToo era. Central to the conversation is whether schools should expand curriculums to help kids understand consent — a concept often defined differently from state to state.
“#MeToo has brought the issue of consent into the national spotlight, but it’s abundantly clear that people still struggle with the culture shift that’s happening,” said Jennifer Driver, state policy director of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which favors liberal sex ed policies.
Since January, dozens of new sex ed bills have been floated in statehouses; five have passed — two requiring specific instruction about consent, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks sexuality and reproductive health issues. In all, 10 states and the District of Columbia require that consent be part of the sex ed curriculum, while 32 states require that abstinence be stressed in schools that teach sex education. Most federal funding for sex ed goes to abstinence programs.
Sex ed in the classroom has shifted from the explicit information on sex, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases taught amid the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s to the abstinence-focused agenda that followed the rise of conservative politics. With the #MeToo movement, things may be changing again, but local school districts often have the final say in shaping the curriculum.
A few abstinence-focused states, such as Virginia and South Carolina, have added consent to the curriculum. And Oklahoma lawmakers this year considered a bill that would have forced high schools to teach consent. The Legislature eventually passed a narrower measure requiring that schools with a sex ed curriculum incorporate teaching about consent. It leaves other districts of the hook, but state Sen. Carol Bush, the Republican sponsor, called it “baby steps.”
In Cadillac, Michigan, a reliably Republican small town, educators teach consent after the school board voted more than a decade ago to change its sex ed curriculum from “abstinence only” to “abstinence based.” These days county prosecutor Jason Elmore regularly visits the high school to tell students what it means for sexual contact to be given “freely and honestly” and how alcohol and marijuana undermine that. In the past year alone, he’s prosecuted a half-dozen Cadillac students for sex crimes.
“In this school?!” one boy exclaimed at a program last month.
In Tennessee, where the state mandates an abstinence-based curriculum, some teenagers are leading their own discussions about consent off-campus.
“There’s this thing in the South that you just don’t talk about things — provocative things,” said Savanah Thompson, 15, of Memphis. “That’s where our school system — and school systems nationwide — have failed us. In middle and elementary school, I didn’t know I could say no.”
Thompson is part of Memphis Against Sexual Harassment and Assault, a youth advocacy group that has lobbied the school district to fill its Title IX director’s job, conducted peer training on consent and organized “Survivor Power Coffee Hours.”
The issue is personal to Thompson. She said she was catcalled, groped, pinned against a locker by another student — and later blamed for it — in eighth grade.
“We’re being taught all of these things preparing us for college,” Thompson said. “But they’re not teaching you how to cope with things that can derail your life.”
Some who oppose teaching consent in favor of abstinence programs — or what’s now called “sexual risk aversion” — believe the consent curriculum signals an approval of teen sexual activity. Mary Anne Mosack, who runs the abstinence-focused group Ascend, said some “safe-sex” programs had gone too far, promoting activities such as “naked cuddling.”
Her critics call it unreasonable to tell students to delay sex until marriage, when half of all Americans have sex before leaving high school and only 3 percent wait until marriage, according to Dr. John Santilli, a Columbia University researcher.
“Abstinence until marriage in America in 2019? It’s an impossible goal,” said Santilli. “On the other hand, I think we ought to tell young people if they’re not ready to have sex with people, if they’ve had too much to drink, if they somehow feel uncomfortable with somebody, they can say no. To me, that’s feminism in action.”
Contributing were AP reporter Gillian Flaccus from Portland, Oregon, and AP National Writer Martha Irvine from Cadillac, Michigan. Dale, who reported from Philadelphia, writes about gender issues and #MeToo for The Associated Press. Follow her at https://twitter.com/Maryclairedale