We Can’t End Sexual Assault Without Consent Education

The fight for comprehensive sex education is more urgent than ever, and the data is as depressing.

Across the country, 37 states require that information on abstinence be provided in sex education curricula, and 27 require that it be stressed. The Trump administration has directed federal sex education funding away from comprehensive sex education and toward abstinence-only programs; the federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which has a budget of over $100 million annually, will now provide funding only to organizations promoting those approaches. Congress’ 2018 budget also sets aside another $75 million for what they now call “sexual risk avoidance” education.

And despite a recent study by researchers from Columbia University which found that early sex education covering consent decreased rates of sexual assault, whereas abstinence-only instruction did not, only nine of the 24 states that mandate sex education in public schools require teaching about consent.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, however, some states are passing laws to change these numbers—and combat epidemic rates of sexual violence.

New research shows that consent education is a necessary intervention in the sexual assault epidemic. (Studio5Graphics / Creative Commons)

Missouri recently passed a law that requires sex education to include lessons about sexual harassment, sexual violence and consent. The law defines consent as “a freely given agreement to the conduct at issue by a competent person,” declaring that:

…An expression of lack of consent through words or conduct means there is no consent. Lack of verbal or physical resistance or submission resulting from the use of force, threat of force, or placing another person in fear does not constitute consent. A current or previous dating or social or sexual relationship by itself or the manner of dress of the person involved with the accused in the conduct at issue shall not constitute consent.

Rhode Island similarly passed a law requiring sex education curricula “that increases student awareness of the fact that consent is required before sexual activity.” Maryland adopted a law requiring age-appropriate instruction on the meaning of consent as an “unambiguous and voluntary agreement.” Advocates have also had success in convincing some states to adopt affirmative consent standards in higher education. California, New York and Illinois now require universities and colleges to teach students about affirmative consent.

But in other states, bills have failed because of fears that explaining consent implies condoning sex or beliefs that families should discuss these issues, not schools. (We know that many families won’t do this, making many youth more vulnerable to sexual assault.) And while anti-violence organization End Rape on Campus supports affirmative consent standards, the similarly-minded group Know Your IX supports a broader welcomeness standard of consent that underscores power disparities, civil rights and equality—requiring not just consent, but welcomeness to sexual behavior.

One in four female college students experience sexual assault in the United States. Pornography is shaping adolescents ideas about pleasure, power and intimacy to a greater extent than ever before. Meanwhile, popular culture spreads dangerous myths about romance, glorifying or excusing predatory male behavior in music videos, television program and movies—like Edward Cullen stalking Bella Swan on Twilight, and the frequent narrative that “stalking is love,” which research shows can lead to an increase in stalking-supportive beliefs in viewers.

To counterbalance these influences, comprehensive sex education including information about consent starting in middle school is a critical strategy to prevent sexual assault. While feminists are rightly fighting Betsy DeVos’ rollback of Title IX protections for sexual assault survivors, we need to do more to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the first place.


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.