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Brock Turner, shown in a January 2015 booking photo released by the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office. (Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office via AP)

Brock Turner, shown in a January 2015 booking photo released by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office. (Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

By Grace Adee, Jones

He strolled into my freshman health class swinging a briefcase full of condoms and a Powerpoint we wouldn’t soon forget. A representative of Rush Center for Family Health, this man had a commanding voice used like a blunt instrument to force sex education into our malleable minds.

Over two class periods, we saw examples of birth control, enjoyed a slideshow of STD pictures, and heard several anecdotes in which the moral was always the value of abstinence. “Healthy relationships” were discussed only briefly; the instructor had a quick message reminding us that “no means no.”

As I glimpsed in this hasty seminar, sex education falls short in the United States in a variety of ways. The chief failing, perhaps, is that it completely misses the opportunity to thoroughly address sexual assault, a public health and safety crisis that looms, whispered and omnipresent, over our schools, workplaces, and sidewalks.

While sexual violence has too often remained in the shadows of national conversation, a number of high-profile cases on college campuses have brought the issue to the forefront. One is of Brock Turner, a Stanford student accused of raping an unconscious woman outside of a fraternity party. A poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation last year found that one in five women say they were assaulted during their college years. The issue extends to a younger crowd as well; almost 100 elementary and secondary schools are currently under investigation for mishandling sexual assault allegations.

Sexual violence is more common than anyone would like to admit. But there’s a lingering puritanical stigma that permeates the conversation around sex, a stigma that is even harder to overcome when it comes to discussing sexual violence. The result is a sex education curriculum that does not address what it means to consent to a sexual act – and what it means to commit a sexual crime.

While most people know that consent means both partners are willing participants in any sexual act, college students arrive on campus with widely varying ideas of how this idea applies practically. Half of boys and one-third of girls think it’s OK to sometimes hit a woman or force her to have sex. 54 percent of students think that nodding in agreement establishes consent, 47 percent say consent is gained if the person takes off his or her clothes, and 40 percent say getting a condom is the equivalent of a resounding “yes.”

Obviously, consent is more complicated than sex education classes imply. And it should alarm all of us that college students are confused and misinformed on this topic, as many experts consider consent education crucial to addressing sexual violence. Experts say the earlier students receive education, the more effective it can be.

Paul Schewe, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies violence prevention, stresses the importance of teaching healthy relationships before students reach adulthood. “It just makes sense when kids go through puberty. That’s when their ideas about sex and beliefs and behaviors are forming, so that’s really a critical period.”

We are missing an opportunity in our high school sex education classes to address the issue of consent as a method for sexual assault prevention. “There has to be a specific focus on K-12 if you’re ever going to address the problem in colleges,” said Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center.

A growing number of sexuality educators and activists are suggesting “affirmative consent” be taught in high schools. Affirmative consent is the idea that people must have explicit, enthusiastic permission from the object of their affection before engaging in any kissing, touching, or sexual activity. It’s changing the conversation around sexual assault prevention from “no means no” to “yes means yes,” as students are encouraged to seek positive affirmation from their partners at every stage of sexual interaction.

This is difficult to promote in high schools where educators are still skeptical about whether teens should be taught explicitly about sex at all. While 93.9 percent of high school sex education classes are covering the benefits of being sexually abstinent, only 53.7 percent are teaching students how to correctly use a condom. Consent education is considered by some to be too close to condoning casual sex, even though nearly half of teens are already engaging in sex.

“I think there are many school districts in the country where a teacher would get fired for having a frank discussion [about sexual consent],” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an NYU historian and author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.”

But in some classrooms, we are starting to say the ways this can change.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, the sex education curriculum in high schools has been updated to include affirmative consent education. One video they show begins with a young woman who is a survivor of sexual assault, debunking one of the common misconceptions people having about sexual assault.

“My idea of rape was someone snatching me up in an alley, a dark alley, a stranger, not someone that I date, not someone that I trust,” she said.

Another video features interviews with both sexual assault survivors and experts. A psychologists, a social workers, and a nurse all stress that silence is not the same as consent, and that someone who is intoxicated, unconscious or sleeping cannot give consent. In other words, consent means that someone volunteers an explicit “yes.”

In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown made California the first state to require all high schools to teach students affirmative consent. Several other places are considering similar statewide or citywide policies. At the Urban School of San Francisco, health educator Shafia Zaloom helped students grapple with their preconceived notions of sexual assault and what it means to give positive, enthusiastic consent.

California is the only state that requires affirmative consent to be taught in public high schools.

“What does that mean– you have to say ‘yes’ every 10 minutes?” asked Aidan Ryan, 16, revealing some of his confusion and disbelief.

“Pretty much,” Ms. Zaloom replied. “It’s not a timing thing, but whoever initiates things to another level has to ask.”

Ryan wasn’t the only one who was skeptical. Affirmative consent standards are considered by some to be unnecessary, awkward, or even unreasonable.

Joe Cohn of the advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education suggests that this policy attempts to restrict human sexuality unnecessarily, saying that “It’s just not consistent with how adults act,” Cohn said.

But the point of affirmative consent education is not to create more hard-and-fast rules around sexual conduct.

The point is to encourage communication between sexual partners. The point is to open up a dialogue around healthy sexual behavior. The point is to break down the culture of victim-blaming. The point is that sexual consent education can and should recognize that young people are capable of understanding the nuance of sexual behavior.

Shafia Zaloom asked the 10th-graders at the Urban School to brainstorm ways to ask for consent and clarify their confusions about healthy relationships. “We’re trying to show [students] that sex has to include a dialogue, that they have to talk about it each step of the way,” said Ms. Zaloom.

The kind of straightforward conversation at The Urban School and in Fairfax County should be happening all across America. It’s the conversation my freshman health class needed that day when the teacher defined consent dismissively, as if it weren’t directly relevant to my future safety, and the safety of my community. The battle against sexual assault starts when we bring the conversation out of the shadows, and into the fluorescent glow of the high school classroom.

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