As the #MeToo movement has unearthed myriad accounts of sexual assaults and unwanted advances, several of the accused—from Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose—have said they believed the encounters were consensual.
False accusations of sexual assault are statistically rare. But putting that aside, saying these acts were consensual is a convenient defense that overlooks what could have been a simple solution: If unsure whether someone wants to engage in sexual activity, just ask.
Putting this into practice may be awkward for some. But that is exactly why young people need to learn how to communicate about sexual consent earlier in life—at home and in the classroom.
Public schools in King County, in Washington state, are on the right track by incorporating lessons about affirmative sexual consent into their curricula, as reported in a recent Seattle Times article. By emphasizing that students should ask for and receive a “yes” before proceeding with sex, rather than stopping only if their partner says “no,” schools can combat cultural influences that contribute to sexual assaults. These include gender norms that encourage men to be sexual “conquerors” while discouraging women from speaking up.
This “yes means yes” model also teaches students that if someone is too intoxicated to say yes, they cannot consent to sex—a point that cannot be emphasized enough.
Studies have found that a person’s understanding of consent relates to how likely they are to commit sexually aggressive acts. Addressing the topic in school not only makes sense, it is long overdue.
Parents should be having these conversations with their children, too. Given how much confusion still seems to surround the concept of sexual consent, discussing it more—and earlier—can only make things clearer.
“No” always means “no.” But we must also teach our young people to check in with their partners to ensure they are actually saying “yes.”