To prevent sexual violence, educators and activists say students need to look at root causes — and that sometimes means having uncomfortable classroom conversations about consent.
At a sexual-assault awareness seminar at Issaquah High School last month, Meggan Atkins asked an audience of mostly teen girls to raise their hands if they knew someone who had been sexually assaulted.
Some of the girls’ arms shot up, others raised them slowly, but eventually almost everyone’s hand was in the air.
Atkins nodded. In meetings with about 3,000 students throughout King County this year, that’s the response she often gets.
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For years, sex-education classes in Seattle-area schools have focused on navigating puberty and preventing pregnancy. But recently — especially with the #metoo movement — educators like Atkins are putting more focus on consent and sexual assault.
“What we are witnessing now in our culture and communities didn’t just start with adults,” said Lisa Love, Seattle Public Schools’ health-education manager.
They are tough issues — ones that adults struggle with — like what consent looks or sounds like, and whether consent is possible if someone is intoxicated.
But educators and activists say teenagers, and even younger students, need to grapple with those issues, too. And discussions about them are happening more and more in King County public high schools, especially where health teachers use a locally developed curriculum that has become a national model for how to teach about healthy relationships.
Talking about consent early, Love said, may help prevent sexual assault so that fewer people in the future will say “me too.”
King County has been a leader in sex education for decades, with many schools using a curriculum developed by county public-health officials in the 1980s. It’s called FLASH, for Family Life and Sexual Health, and every year, teachers nationwide download tens of thousands of its lesson plans.
Now FLASH is helping lead the effort to teach more about consent. Lessons on that subject were first added to FLASH in 2011 and expanded in 2015 in the curriculum’s last major overhaul.
To prevent sexual violence, educators and activists say, students need to learn about its root causes — like social norms, gender stereotypes and misinformation. That could mean lessons about right and wrong touches in first grade, or a discussion with high-school sophomores about how to say, and acknowledge, the word “no.”
They also want to put more focus on how everyone can prevent sexual violence, rather than just how an individual can avoid becoming a victim.
That’s difficult for some teachers, said Kari Kesler, one of the lead authors of FLASH. It’s easier, she said, to say “don’t leave your drink unattended” than to look into how gender stereotypes and social norms might contribute to sexual violence.
At the Issaquah seminar, Atkins, a program director for the WAVE (Women Against Violence Everywhere) Foundation, asked the students to name stereotypes of men and women. The teenagers said men are stereotyped as aggressors who take what they want without asking, while society expects women to do what men tell them to do.
Those norms, she said, contribute to a culture where sexual assault is prevalent.
“One thing I like to mention is that social norms can change,” Atkins said. “I really think that for them (young women), this is their time to stand up and to know that they can stand up.”
More and more, educators are addressing the issues in more than a single class.
“If prevention is what we are trying to do, we need to move past simply raising awareness,” said Rebecca Milliman, prevention and education coordinator at the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress.
Through a state grant, Milliman is now focused on Seattle’s Garfield High School. At Garfield, she teaches sexual-health units in health classes, trains coaches to talk to their athletes about sexual violence, and helps guide a newly formed sexual-assault awareness club, which is led by students. She also organized an event in early December for parents of Garfield athletes called “Locker Room Talk,” about how to empower student athletes to prevent sexual assault and relationship abuse.
The work can be daunting for health teachers when they’re first starting out, in part because talking about sexual violence is still considered taboo, said Kesler.
Milliman said students also sometimes ask detailed or personal questions that teachers may not be prepared to answer.
Questions about drugs or alcohol come up often, she said. She tells students that if one person is physically or mentally incapacitated then they can’t give consent. But, students ask, what about if both people have been drinking or using drugs? Does that change things? (If both people are intoxicated, she tells students, neither can legally consent to sex, so it’s possible that either could be charged with rape.)
Milliman also says she guides the discussions beyond the legal aspects of consent.
“It’s not just the fact that someone didn’t say ‘no,’ but are you engaging in behavior that truly feels respectful, and safe and consensual to both people?” Milliman said.
To foster those discussions, Milliman and others often lead students through scenarios, like one Atkins used at the recent Issaquah seminar.
At a party, you see a male friend trying to get an obviously drunk girl to leave with him or go upstairs. What are your options? Is consent possible in this scenario?
Atkins’ goal is to show that no, consent wasn’t possible, and to have the teenagers consider the three “D’s” of bystander intervention. To prevent the assault, they could “direct,” meaningly directly intervene; “delegate,” or seek help from someone else; and/or “distract,” interrupt the situation in some other way.
The teenagers came up with several ideas, like going directly to the male friend and telling him the girl is too drunk, getting someone who is a closer friend to intervene, or, as one girl said to knowing giggles: “Distract him with a pizza!”
Beyond “no means no”
The FLASH curriculum also has scenarios to show that sexual aggression isn’t limited to males.
In districts that use other curricula, that’s not always the case. When Miles Yurk, 16, took a health class at Bellingham High School, the lessons on sexual assault always presented a woman as the victim. And his class never specifically addressed consent, he said.
“I’m pretty positive that most kids know that no means no, but I’m not sure that every one of my peers will follow those rules, just because they don’t understand the topic completely,” he said.
That’s one of the reasons some educators and activists, including the authors of the new FLASH curriculum, have moved toward a “yes means yes” model, also called affirmative consent. That puts the onus on the person asking, they say, rather than the person being asked.
Miles’ mother, Amy Hatvany, emphasized that he needs to hear a verbal “yes” while the two had a conversation about consent, which Hatvany recounted in an essay titled “I Taught My Son How Not to Be a Rapist,” published by Harper’s Bazaar.
“You can Google how to protect your daughter from getting raped,” she said. “but there’s very little about how to talk to your son about consent.”
California was the first state to pass a law requiring that high-school health classes teach affirmative consent. Washington hasn’t passed a similar “yes means yes” law, but FLASH lessons emphasize that a lack of a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean consent.
Educators use role-playing for that issue, too, to get students used to asking for a “yes” and also hearing and respecting the word “no.” In some classes, students get the chance to practice how to ask someone on a date. It’s not necessarily about sex, but it strengthens communication skills.
One thing that has already changed, educators say: Victims of harassment and assault are less afraid to come forward.
And Liberty High senior Hannah Norton, 17, who attended the Issaquah seminar, said consent is something that comes up more often in conversations among students.
“There’s more focus,” she said. “Hopefully more people will stand up now.”
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