sex re-ed

Consent Needs To Be Sex Education 101

Trigger warning: This story references sexual assault.
The first time Elena realized what consent was, it was too late. "I was assaulted in high school publicly at a party and it was filmed and shared, but I had no recollection until someone showed me and I realized I was watching myself," the 28-year-old, who asked that we only use her first name, tells Refinery29. "I had blacked out for the first time and didn’t remember anything." When she first saw the video, Elena says she told herself, I don't know [who] that is, but it's not me. "I would have remembered doing that," she says. "And all I remember is falling asleep."
Elena describes her view of consent at the time as warped, mainly due to the fact that she and her peers were never taught what it actually means (ongoing physical and verbal communication that’s agreed upon between parties and can be withdrawn at any time, in any situation). "We had an understanding that you can say no, but sometimes that's not going to work and we didn’t know what to do next. That's where the education was lacking," she says. Elena says she knew what "serious rape" was (although she recognizes that all forms are serious): the attack from a stranger in an alley, the abuse from a family member, being drugged and taken advantage of at a party or bar. "It was always about avoiding situations, not what to do when you're in those situations or where those lines start to cross," she says.
It’s a familiar pattern. We grow up, we enter school and we’re forced to learn some form of insufficient sex education that preaches abstinence, focuses solely on heterosexual relationships and teaches us the functions of our reproductive organs. We learn nothing about the nuances of gender identity, sexuality, pleasure and, of course, consent, which in turn leads to a closed-minded, shameful view of sex and sex ed in general, and in the case of the latter, increased violence towards women and non-binary people. This is true for the vast majority of our country — only 13 states are required to teach about any kind of consent, according to SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change’s 2021 Policy Chart. In Refinery29’s 2021 Sex Re-Education survey, only 52% of respondents reported learning about consent in any capacity in their school curriculum. And just because it’s taught doesn’t mean it’s necessarily comprehensive — according to the Guttmacher Institute, just 18 states require that the sex education taught be "medically accurate," which should tell you all that you need to know about the value our country places on this information.

Since consent isn't exactly prioritized in the conversation about sex — and we're not learning about it in the classroom — our first forays into what consent means and how it affects us are often presented in scary, traumatic ways.

"[Sex education] is always taught from a fear-based space and what we have to understand is that something like comprehensive sex education, when we teach it K-through-12, gives young people an opportunity to learn how to discuss consent, to understand what their boundaries are and give them an opportunity to practice conversations like this prior to the heat of the moment," says Michelle Slaybaugh, director of social impact and strategic communications at SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change
Although it makes up just a small piece of our formal education, learning about sex and relationships can greatly affect how we live our lives. Someone who has grown up with a culture of sexual shame or embarrassment around sex education could see that manifest in a number of ways, according to Lexx Brown-James, LMFT, CSE, CSES, owner of The Institute for Sexuality & Intimacy. "They could suppress themselves, they might self-sacrifice their own needs for the sake of others, they might not ever be able to establish true intimate relationships and might not ever have sexual pleasure," she says. "Further, there might be severe gaps in their knowledge regarding their own bodies and how they function or how the bodies they engage with function." Their lack of education about sex, boundaries and intimacy could also cause them to harm others, both physically and emotionally.
The consequences of insufficient sex and consent education are heavy. And since consent isn’t exactly prioritized in the conversation about sex — and we’re not learning about it in the classroom — our first forays into what consent means and how it affects us are often presented in scary, traumatic ways. It could be firsthand experiences like Elena’s, warnings from our teachers or parents about what happens when we don’t say no clearly and forcefully, and stories from the everyday news cycle about assault on college campuses, in the home, and everywhere in between. This framing of education is akin to disaster planning and preparing for the worst, and the consent conversation is often a dark one that distracts and confuses us with the what-ifs instead of centering the helpful practices that help us build a foundation of boundaries.
Many are trying to change the consent conversation from fearful to, well, fun. When we make sex education more accessible, joyful and celebratory of our boundaries and our bodies, we then in turn create a safer, more inclusive world around us. Speak About It, a consent education and sexual assault prevention nonprofit, is on a mission to do just that. Right now, they’re traveling to college campuses across the country, teaching their flagship program about consent that includes a five-person performance and an hour-long open discussion. "It’s similar in style to The Vagina Monologues," says Oronde Cruger, the program director at Speak About It. "It’s 13 true monologues from college students across the country, stitched together with little acting scenes to help illustrate the points."
It’s funny, it’s relatable, it’s inclusive and, overall, it approaches consent and sex in an entertaining yet informative way. "Consent can be sexy," Cruger says. "This doesn't have to be a big, awkward, formal thing."
The program’s teaching goes beyond the expected "no means no" approach, which Cruger describes as basically going until someone tells you to stop — that same important but often limiting model that Elena’s and most of our schooling focuses on. "It just makes everything kind of a downer," Cruger says. "If you're just focusing on, how do I not get hurt and how do I not hurt someone else?, you're missing all of the ways in which sex and intimacy can be a beautiful, empowering and enjoyable thing."
Instead, Speak About It follows a "yes means yes" model — this means that you ask yourself, "Am I and all the people involved, are we all saying an enthusiastic and genuine yes?" according to Cruger. "And it has to be a yes to something that you are actually being given the right information for." Framing it this way can help provide a more positive experience for those partaking in any kind of intimacy.
There are more educators out there trying to make learning about consent and sex a more positive experience. "Consent really can be a joyful thing," says Willow Rosen, education and care support specialist on the Transgender Care Team at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. "There's this beautiful thing that happens where you realize you don't have to be a mind reader and actually, you can't be. Ask for the information you need and expect that it's the responsibility of someone else to tell you what they need, and then know that it's your responsibility to communicate what you need."
Consent isn’t all about sex, either. It can look like asking for a pencil from your classmate, getting permission before you hug your friend or being able to give someone the go-ahead to sit next to you. Rosen has created a six-session sex education series specifically for trans adults, and consent is taught in each and every session because it touches almost every aspect of our lives. "There are so many situations that are not necessarily sexual that help us build a really strong toolbox of respect and consent so that when it does come to those spaces, we are better equipped both to give consent and to receive boundaries," says Rosen.
In their program, Rosen brings a little bit of silliness and joy to the consent conversation in a lesson that involves practicing saying no. To start, those in the program pair off and just say the word 'no' to one another. Then things get creative. "We look at a really unlikely scenario," Rosen says. For example, you might ask your partner, "Would you like to go bake waffles with me in the space station tomorrow at four?" And then your partner says no. "Then we think about something a little more feasible," Rosen says, "like, 'Do you want to go grocery shopping with me tomorrow?' And then we ask something that they probably want to say yes to — 'Do you want $1,000 right now?' And you say no."
"We know through education that practice, whether it's verbal or intellectual or physical, helps with the actual utilization of any technique," Rosen says.
That practice should start with children before they’re even verbal. Brown-James says that sex education and consent should be taught from "womb to tomb." "When we're talking about when we're going to go see healthcare providers about our sexual health, we need to talk about consent in medical spaces," Rosen says. "When we're talking about having sex with people, we need to talk about consent. When we're talking about how we talk about our bodies and what language is used in any space, we need to talk about consent." Speak About It even has programs about consent and sex that they teach in nursing homes because, really, we’re always evolving and changing, and our education should reflect that.
Teaching young students how to say no also helps them understand and acknowledge that they have the ability to say yes. Pleasure — whether it comes from a hug, nonsexual intimacy or, yes, sex — is something we all deserve to experience and enjoy. Learning personal boundaries creates a healthier, more welcoming environment where someone can communicate their wants and needs clearly, sexual or not.

Pleasure — whether it comes from a hug, nonsexual intimacy or, yes, sex — is something we all deserve to experience and enjoy. Learning personal boundaries creates a healthier, more welcoming environment.

Research backs that up: Teaching sex ed and consent at a young age reduces sexual violence and helps prevent unwanted pregnancies. In the Netherlands, the law requires sexuality education to be taught as early as kindergarten and many studies out of the country have found positive outcomes to this, including that Dutch teenagers utilize contraceptives the most and have also described their first sexual experience as "wanted and fun." If we can get this kind of pro-comprehensive sex ed legislation passed in the U.S., it’s likely that our citizens would have the same outcomes.
For years, the abstinence-only agenda of our nation’s sex education has pushed consent — and any other relevant and necessary sex education, to be frank — out of the picture. But that doesn’t mean important work isn’t getting done. Slaybaugh says that her eyes are on the Real Education And Access For Healthy Youth Act (REAHYA). "That is a piece of federal legislation that would really help to fund sex education training and would really provide a pathway forward for all young people to get comprehensive sex education," she tells Refinery29.
Supporting this monumental legislation is as easy as calling your congressperson and saying, I support REAHYA and I want to see it passed. "We need to continue to have people educate themselves to what REAHYA is, as well as continuing to advocate by calling their senators, sending their emails, sending a tweet, sending a TikTok talking about REAHYA to your friends so you can educate them so that they can do the same," says Slaybaugh.
And, as always, mobilizing on a local level is key. "One of the ways you can get active is by knowing what the laws are in your state, because sex ed is actually decided upon at the most local of levels, like the school board," says Slaybaugh. "People can be active in their school board even if they're not parents, because that is what we have seen the regressive minority do. They are sending people to all kinds of states where they don't have kids in the district, and then they're showing up to these school board meetings and they're doing everything they can to try to get sex ed taken out by using negative language — language that vilifies comprehensive sex education and quality sex education."
It’s something Elena’s been thinking about, too. "I'm about to be a mom and I'm thinking about what I need to be teaching," she says. "Kids need to know those kinds of things early on, even if it's that they don't want to sit on someone's lap at family reunions or they don't want to kiss someone every time they say goodbye."
Brown-James says pleasure is integral in learning about consent. "Talking about consent, getting consent for hugs, validating a person's needs, showing gratitude for closeness, and validating someone's no are all filled with joy," she says. "The power of choice in these consensual acts creates empowered children who will become empowered adults."
"Life is neither all levity or all gravity — it’s some combination of that," says Cruger. "Sometimes there are deep, serious, scary conversations to have, and sometimes those same topics can be funny, they can be silly, they can be lighthearted, and I think it’s really important for people to see the full spectrum. Humor sometimes breaks the tension and I think frankly it gives people a moment just to do something else, to give their brains a rest."
There are a lot of things sex education should be: affirming, medically accurate and all-encompassing. Making sure that our young people are learning about the nuances of consent in an approachable, easily digestible way is only the beginning in our fight to make our world a safer place.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). 

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