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Why Should We Teach Consent?

It’s a classic scene: on the front porch after a date. Boy gets fresh. Girl slaps boy. Refusal.

The Texas State Board of Education is preparing to revise the minimum curriculum standards that guide sex education for the first time in two decades. The current standards, written back in the 1990s, keep a laser focus on refusal. In refusal, all the onus is on the person (stereotypically the girl) doing the refusing. However, we don’t say anything about hearing or respecting the boundaries of others. As we write standards for the 21st century, it’s time to shift that framework to consent.

So what does consent mean, anyway? A simple dictionary definition can be permission. But it means much more. While there are many definitions of “consent,” (including some with legal meaning in specific situations) it may generally be thought of as “the notion that we should respect one another’s boundaries in order to be safe, preserve dignity, and build healthy relationships.”

Consent means:

  • Formulating your boundaries, so you know what they are. Maybe as a 17 year-old you aren’t ready to have sex, but you are interested in going a date, kissing, or flirting on social media. In the context of non-sexual situations, you might consent to a hug from a friend, but not from your boss or a stranger. You need to know what your boundaries are in order to be able to express them.

  • Communicating your boundaries clearly. That other person isn’t a mind reader, and setting healthy boundaries is a skill that takes practice. Refusal is still important here, but it’s one piece of a larger picture.

  • Respecting the boundaries of others, and having the expectation that your boundaries will be respected. We aren’t born knowing how to respect other people’s boundaries -- this is also a learned skill.

The good news is that the most recent draft of the Health Education curriculum standards, which the SBOE is slated to debate in September and vote on in November, include age-appropriate standards that introduce concepts around consent.

Why would anybody be opposed to this? The main argument that surfaces against teaching consent is that it means telling kids that they can say yes to sex. But this is short-sighted.

First off, consent isn’t just about sex, or even mostly about sex -- it’s about how humans physically interact with each other in respectful and emotionally intelligent ways. Children can and should learn the fundamental concepts of consent from preschool age: they need to know how to express boundaries about their own body, and respect the limits of other people. When a friend is playing too rough and the game stops being fun, the other child knows how to express that they need some space -- and the friend listens. That’s a building block of consent. An early component of consent education is learning medically accurate terms for body parts such as penis, vulva, and vagina, just as children learn terms like nose or elbow. Teaching these words is viewed as an important protective factor against sexual abuse.

Secondly, we’re teaching skills for a lifetime. And even if the answer is currently “no,” at some point in late adolescence or adulthood, the answer will likely, eventually, be “yes”. Unlike harmful behaviors such as smoking, doing hard drugs, or driving without a seatbelt, we assume that the vast majority of people eventually will become sexually active. Consent is a skill we all need to understand. Students taking sex education in high school will soon head off to the largely unsupervised world of college, the military, or the adult workforce. They’re likely to face factors like alcohol use at parties that may make it difficult to understand and respect boundaries set by others, or communicate their own boundaries. We can prepare them better.

Finally, public opinion research shows Texas voters agree: 88% of respondents, including 86% of Republicans, agreed with the statement, “It’s important for students to learn about consent, including respecting the boundaries set by other people about their bodies.”

Consent is a foundational topic for healthy and safe relationships. Let’s make sure Texas students have the information they need.

Jen Biundo is the Director of Policy and Data for the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She loves a good data visualization, evidence-based public health priorities, and analyzing ballot returns by precinct. She’s the proud mother of two kids who are enrolled in Texas public schools, including a middle schooler who kind of wishes his mom had a normal job that didn’t involve sex education.

Healthy Futures of Texas, The Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and the North Texas Alliance to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy in Teens (Ntarupt) have teamed up to form Texas Is Ready, a movement advocating for improved sex education curriculum standards for Texas youth. In November 2020, the State Board of Education will update the basics of sexual health education in Texas, and leading up to that decision, representatives from each of the organizations making up Texas Is Ready will release regular blogs explaining the broad range of issues related to sexual health education in Texas.

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