Like many teens, Montgomery County teenager Maeve Kelly was appalled by the 2016 election, especially by then-candidate Donald Trump’s sexist remarks and sexual assault allegations. So her mom, Maryland delegate Ariana Kelly, proposed a bill in 2016 that would bolster consent education in MCPS. The bill, which the Maryland State Senate passed last May, will add age-appropriate lessons on the meaning of consent to all public, middle and high schools.
Some republicans and conservative democrats in the State Senate opposed the bill, which frustrated Kelly, she said
“To me, it’s common sense,” she said. “We are already teaching pregnancy prevention and STI prevention. That’s the more controversial stuff. This is just, ‘don’t do it if they’re not interested.’ It’s basic dignity and respect.”
Basic it is—so basic that Kleinrock’s third graders can grasp it. I like to think students understand the concept of “don’t do it if they’re not interested,” but understanding doesn’t necessarily translate to actions. After all, one in five women are victims of sexual assault while in college, according to a 2007 Department of Justice study, and I don’t think 20-year-old Stanford swimmer Brock Turner raped Emily Doe in 2015 because he didn’t know the definition of consent—he just chose to ignore it.
What’s more important than learning definitions is a moral education: teaching young people to respect their partners and giving them the tools they need to feel comfortable saying “no”.
At Whitman, the health course includes lessons on personal boundaries, healthy communication in relationships and how to define consent, health teacher Nikki Marafatsos said. Along with these lessons, Marafatsos brings in guest speakers to talk to students during the Family Life and Human Sexuality unit.
Junior Gabby Kisslinger took health last year. But she doesn’t think students learned enough about consent, she said.
“We mostly just talked about condoms and ways to not get pregnant,” Kisslinger said. “They touched on consent but not enough.”
But what would have been enough? A few more examples of what consent doesn’t look like? A larger emphasis on the importance of personal boundaries?
I’m not saying these lessons aren’t important—they’re definitely a step in the right direction. But people will still ignore consent. If everyone had perfect morals, the #MeToo movement wouldn’t exist.
The way we’re thinking and talking about these issues as a whole has changed; me writing this story is proof of that. When Kelly was growing up, the common perception was that girls never want to have sex and that it’s up to boys to convince girls to, she said. Now, she thinks and hopes this culture has changed.
“I’m the parent of a teenage daughter and an elementary school son, and I want both of them to know the importance of consent,” Kelly said. “The way we think about these issues has changed so much.”
But the crescendo of consent awareness also makes the issue more confusing, with mixed messages coming from an onslaught of campaigns, from “Yes Means Yes” to “Time’s Up.”
Consent should be simple, and Kleinrock’s lessons show that. Her third graders probably couldn’t tell you the textbook definition of consent. But they know to ask their teacher for permission before they give her a hug. They know that they always have the power to say “no” if they aren’t comfortable with someone touching them or taking their things without asking. And they know that if someone says “stop” or “I don’t like that,” they always have to respect that without second thought.
They have years to practice those skills before they have to apply them to sexual consent. Hopefully, by the time they get there, they won’t feel like they have to spend the night of a school dance avoiding a boy or go along with their partners’ wishes because they would feel guilty otherwise. Hopefully, their partners will accept and respect a “no” in any situation.
“You can’t go back in time to change things that have happened,” Kleinrock said. “But students can learn social and emotional skills now to prevent them from getting in those situations later on.”