When the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump, along with sexual assault stories involving Brock Turner and Bill Cosby, hit the news back in 2016, a middle school student in Maryland named Maeve Sanford-Kelly was listening.
“I was frankly really distraught,” she recalls. “I felt powerless. I assumed that this was what happened, that sexual harassment and sexual assault was a thing in our society and it wasn’t going to change because it was part of the power structure.”
Her mother had an idea that might help. Ariana Kelly, a Democrat, is a delegate in the Maryland state legislature, and she introduced a bill that would require the state to include consent in sex ed classes. Maeve and her friends, as well as student groups across the state, campaigned and testified for the bill.
It defines consent as “the unambiguous and voluntary agreement between all participants in each physical act within the course of interpersonal relationships.”
Before they turn 18, about 8 percent of girls and 0.7 percent of boys experience rape or attempted rape, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the majority of these reported cases, the CDC says, the perpetrator is a peer: either an acquaintance or a current or former intimate partner.
And yet few schools across the country are required to teach about consent or healthy relationships in sex ed classes.
Currently, according to a report in May by the Center for American Progress, under a dozen states mention the terms “healthy relationships,” “sexual assault” or “consent” in their sex education programs.
But with the #MeToo movement, that might be changing. Since the beginning of 2018, five states besides Maryland have introduced bills to require the teaching of consent in sex ed.
Amy Tiemann is a neuroscientist and educator and co-author of a new book on child safety, Doing Right By Our Kids. She works with KidPower, a child safety education group. She says the message of respect for others and your own body can be made simple and empowering even for young children.
“They can be 3 years old, they can be 15 years old, they can be in college, and we don’t know who might be a potential perpetrator or who might be a potential victim someday,” she says. “And people can be both.”
In KidPower’s training and materials, Tiemann adds, they emphasize a few key messages:
- Touch is the choice of both people.
- It needs to be safe and it needs to not be against the rules or against the law.
- If you have a problem you should speak up — problems should not be secrets.
- It’s never too late to tell and you should keep telling until you get help.
Alan Berkowitz is a psychologist and expert on sexual assault prevention. He said that one approach to consent education, backed by a lot of research, is to use positive social norms.
“One of the most powerful ways of encouraging young people to make healthy decisions is to know the truth about their friends, because in fact most of their friends are healthy.”
He says that, for example, “Boys may think their friends enjoy hearing about sexual exploits and talking about girls and women’s bodies,” but research shows, in most peer groups, a silent majority disapproves and is uncomfortable. For that reason, he says, effective consent education also focuses on the role of bystanders in speaking up.
Kelly’s bill failed the first time it was submitted. Similar bills have faltered recently in Massachusetts, Mississippi, Utah, and Virginia, with opposing voices, both Democrats and Republicans, arguing that explaining consent is tantamount to condoning sex, while others say the topic should be the province of families, not schools.
But the Maryland law passed on a second try. Schools in Montgomery County, where Maeve is now in ninth grade, are now using resources like a viral video that compares consent to a cup of tea.
Maeve and her mother Ariana Kelly both see reasons to hope for change in this generation — not just because of what teachers will be teaching, but what students themselves are saying. Kelly says she’s found it especially heartwarming to see teenage boys speak up “passionately” about this issue.
Teenagers like Matt Post, who at age 16 campaigned for the bill, and recruited friends to do so as well. “Guys cannot relegate themselves to the sidelines on this issue,” he says. “Ending misogyny starts with us.”
Today, Post is a first-year at Yale University, Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s alma mater — a place that’s been under the microscope recently for the behavior of its male students. He says that while things seem to have improved somewhat from decades ago, what he calls rape culture is still around, and many of his peers have gaps in their understanding of healthy relationships.
“They don’t understand the ongoing nature of consent. They don’t understand that a incapacitated yes is not really a yes,” he says. “I think it’s still sort of a mixed bag and I think it’s because of when we were respectively taught these lessons.”
He hopes more education, starting as young as kindergarten, can help.
So does Maeve Sanford-Kelly. Sexual assault is once again in the news, and it hits her close to home, with the Kavanaugh allegations set in suburban Maryland. She’s seen many friends posting on social media about affirmative consent and with messages of support for survivors.
“It brings me joy to see that all of the kids who are my age, even the ones who could be seen as comparable to [Kavanaugh], go to the same schools, living in the same environment, are different. And I think that is positive change that we have seen.”