Changing the Consent Conversation in Middle and High School

When we think of consent in a middle school or high school context, it’s typically parental consent for sexuality education. The scary consent conversation is the one happening on college campuses across the country and, increasingly, in state legislatures as incidences of sexual violence on campus are in the news with appalling regularity.

Maybe we’re seeing so much bad behavior – running the gamut from foolish to predatory – because we failed to prepare our kids in middle and high school. In August, the New York Times reported on a young man at an exclusive private high school in New England, already accepted at Harvard to study theology (irony anyone?), accused of raping a 15-year-old girl.

A university of Michigan professor quoted in in the story said, “This is not filtering down from college to high school. It’s always been there in high school.” In this instance, the girl was a 9th grader, the boy a senior. Among the many heartbreaking elements of this encounter, after being assaulted, she was purportedly worried about offending him. The Boston Globe recently reported that the defendant in this case was acquitted of rape, but convicted on several lesser counts.

This story is at least as old as I am, and I’m a grandmother. Older boys flattering younger girls, girls looking for love, boys looking to score. Completely different agendas, huge power imbalances. There are many variants on this story and I’m not suggesting girls are the only victims.

The point, however, is consent and, as the story above illustrates, 9th grade can be too late. Personally, I think we’re abdicating our responsibility as adults by not preparing kids – starting in middle school – for the challenges of sexually-charged situations. We worry way too much about encouraging sex and way too little about protecting our kids. Our priorities are backwards.

Nothing, not a single study, not a shred of evidence, suggests that teaching kids about sex, love, relationships, and contraception encourages kids to have sex. Just the opposite is true. And conversations about consent are pointless in the absence of conversations about these topics. Why? Because without these predicates, it is almost impossible for young people to develop the competence and confidence to set sexual boundaries, and the self-confidence to speak up when those boundaries are being crossed.

Wondering where to start? Perhaps a good first step is this charming Vimeo video: https://vimeo.com/128105683.

By: Cindy Sesler Ballard, Board Member, Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy