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US State Lawmakers Debate Teaching Consent to Students

Sophomore Ramaya Wright, 15, second from left, leads a group making a list of the characteristics of an abusive relationship, during a class at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Ore., on April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)
US State Lawmakers Debate Teaching Consent to Students
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At a Roman Catholic high school in the United States, students divide into groups to discuss once-restricted issues: abusive relationships and consent.

Central Catholic High School recently began using educators from a domestic violence shelter to teach students about what it means to give consent to sexual activity. The goal is to reduce sexual violence and abuse among young people and help them understand what behavior is acceptable -- and what is not -- before they become adults.

Central Catholic High is in the western U.S. city of Portland, Oregon. David Blue is the school’s director of diversity and inclusion. He said, “We’re talking about dating violence, sexual assault, relationships, #MeToo - all of those things.” Blue spoke to The Associated Press (AP).

What is taking place at his school represents a larger debate. Lawmakers, educators and teens are asking themselves whether sex education should be changed to better deal with some of the issues raised by the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse.


At the center of the debate is whether schools should expand their programs to help students understand consent – something that is defined differently from state to state.

Jennifer Driver is state policy director of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which supports liberal sex education policies. Driver says the #MeToo movement “has brought the issue of consent into the “national spotlight.” She added that it is clear some people still struggle with the cultural change that is happening.

Driver said, “When done right, sex education can serve as violence prevention. But first, we have to get these policies (enacted).”

Already this year, lawmakers in many state legislatures have considered sex education bills. But only five states have passed such measures. And just two require clearly defined directives about consent. That information comes from the Guttmacher Institute, which studies sexuality and reproductive health issues.

In all, 10 states and the District of Columbia require that consent be part of the sex education program.

More than 30 states require that teachers talk about abstinence in sex ed programs. Abstinence in this case is the practice or custom of avoiding or not having sex. In recent years, most federal money for sex education has gone to abstinence programs.

The divide over how to teach sex education has long split on the question of whether children are “sexual beings,” said Jonathan Zimmerman. He serves as Professor of History of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

At times, sex education classes have taught students clear and detailed information about sex, as well as birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. At other times, the classes are almost entirely abstinence-centered.

With the #MeToo movement, some Americans see sex education classes as a way to reduce sexual violence.

This year, lawmakers in Oklahoma considered a bill that would have required state high schools to teach consent. The measure is called “Lauren’s Law.” It is named for a student who said she was raped at a high school party. The Oklahoma Legislature went on to pass a narrower measure requiring that schools with a sex ed program teach students about consent. It does not require the same from schools that do not offer sex education classes.

Abstinence-based sex education

As with most issues in education, local school officials play a big part in shaping sex education curriculum. Many state laws on sex education are written in an unclear way on purpose.

The southern state of Tennessee requires an abstinence-based curriculum. But some students there are leading their own discussions about consent.

In the city of Memphis, students are active with an organization called Memphis Against Sexual Harassment and Assault. As part of the group, they have taken part in a campaign designed to spread recognition of sexual abuse and violence. They also have held training events that teach about consent.

These issues are personal to Devin Dearmore and Savanah Thompson. Dearmore, who is 18, said she was sexually harassed by a worker at her school. Fifteen-year-old Thompson said she was groped and held against a wall by another student when she was in 8th grade. She later was blamed for the incident.

Thompson told the AP, “We’re being taught all of these things preparing us for college. But they’re not teaching you how to cope with things that can derail your life. ... 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.”

Some who oppose teaching consent believe it signals an approval of teen sexual activity.

Mary Anne Mosack heads an abstinence education group called Ascend. She said it has been talking about consent for years but with the idea that “avoiding sex is your best” choice. Ascend has trained about 1,500 educators in public and private schools, as well as other places.

Critics of abstinence-based programs say they close down urgently needed discussions. And they say if their goal is to reduce sexual activity, their results appear questionable.

A study published last month found that Memphis was first among 17 areas named in the study in the rate of boys who had sex before they were teenagers. The study found 1 in 4 boys have sex before their 13th birthday. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported the findings.

As for teaching students to delay sex until marriage, Columbia University researcher John Santilli considers that unreasonable in a country where just 3 percent of people do so.

“Abstinence until marriage in America in 2019? It’s an impossible goal,” said Santilli, who studies child health and population health. He added that more than half of Americans have sex before leaving high school.

“…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," he said. "To me, that’s feminism in action.”

Santilli led a study that found teaching “refusal skills” in high school can cut in half the chances someone is raped in college.

'It...opened my eyes'

Back in Oregon, Central Catholic High Principal John Garrow hoped to balance students’ need for information with Catholic teachings on abstinence before marriage.

Garrow examined several programs before choosing Raphael House, whose program includes work with sexual and domestic assault survivors.

Garrow said, “We’re trying to do our best to follow the teachings and at the same time be realistic, because as a school you lose your relevance real quickly if you’re not real.”

A list of the characteristics of an abusive relationship is made by students in small groups during a lesson by teachers from the nonprofit Raphael House, at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Ore., on April 15, 2019.
A list of the characteristics of an abusive relationship is made by students in small groups during a lesson by teachers from the nonprofit Raphael House, at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Ore., on April 15, 2019.

In a wellness class last month, two Raphael House trainers asked students to consider signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships. Does your partner make you feel valued? Stupid? Afraid?

“It, like, opened my eyes,” said Ramaya Wright, who is 15. “I didn’t know those are a lot of the signs of an abusive relationship.”

I'm Ashley Thompson.

And I'm Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

consent - n. permission for something to happen or be done

domestic violence - n. physical harm done to a member of a family or household by another member of the same family or household

diversity - n. ​the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc.​

abstinence - n. ​the practice of not doing or having something that is wanted or enjoyable​

curriculum - n. the courses that are taught by a school, college, etc.

harass - v.​ to make unwanted sexual comments ​

grope - v. to touch (someone) in an unwanted and unexpected sexual way​

cope - v. to deal with problems and difficult situations and try to come up with solutions​

derail - v. to reduce or delay the chances for success or development​

uncomfortable - adj.​ causing a feeling of being embarrassed or uneasy

relevance - n. the quality or state of being closely connected​ to a subject