Recent years have seen 38 states and the District of Columbia enact new laws on sex education, notably strengthening requirements for inclusion of LGBTQ+ students and instruction on dating and sexual violence prevention and healthy relationships. Requiring consent education has been one top trend, spurred by growing cultural awareness of the importance of sexual consent. The goal of this education is to promote healthy sexuality for young people by helping them understand consent as affirmative and truly voluntary.
Lawmakers in eight states and the District of Columbia have promoted this goal by requiring school-based sex education to cover consent. Seven of these requirements were passed in 2016 or later, including four in 2019. This momentum does not appear to be slowing: In 2019, similar bills were introduced in nine additional states and passed a chamber in Arkansas and Washington.
Consent on Legislators’ Minds
State mandates vary considerably in whether and how they define consent. California, Delaware, Oregon and South Carolina name either consent or affirmative consent as part of their sex education requirements, but offer limited detail. By contrast, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and the District of Columbia provide more detailed definitions of consent for schools to teach. Illinois enacted a particularly strong measure this year that requires age-appropriate consent education and clarifies that consent must be freely given and can be withdrawn, is not implied by consent to a previous activity or with a different person, and cannot be given by a person who is intoxicated or asleep.
Lawmakers caught onto the trend of consent education from a growing public conversation on gender-based violence, including the Me Too movement and student advocates’ advancement of an affirmative consent standard on college campuses. Experts agree: Professional organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics support inclusion of consent in comprehensive sex education. Consent is covered in the National Sexuality Education Standards, developed by Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change to guide teaching of essential content and skills in sex education.
The Role of K–12 Schools
Consent conversations matter in K–12 education because schools can reach young people broadly and at a formative stage of development, before students begin to have sex or form beliefs about sex. Schools plant the seeds of understanding about consent when teaching young children the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch,” and may raise the idea of consent when covering topics like relationship and communication skills.
According to experts, sexual consent education should be a natural continuation of these early lessons, helping students gain tools to explore their growing sexuality in a healthy and respectful way. For example, the National Sexuality Education Standards cover refusal skills in elementary school, add personal boundaries and sexual violence prevention in middle school, and discuss sexual consent and respect of sexual boundaries in high school. Most states that require sex education to cover consent only refer to middle and high school grades. However, Oregon’s standards begin in elementary school with personal boundaries, then progress over middle and high school to emphasize affirmative consent and teach skills to practice consent and respect the boundaries of others.
Countering the Abstinence-only Agenda
The movement toward consent education contrasts sharply with what is taught under abstinence-only programs, which have received more than two billion federal dollars since the 1990s and are predicated on controlling young people’s behavior. Opponents of abstinence-only programs stress that they are ineffective at empowering young people with skills for safer sex. Moreover, these programs often promote rigid gender stereotypes, violate the human right to health information, and exclude consideration of LGBTQ+ students and those who have survived sexual violence.
Teaching about consent is key to pushing back against abstinence-only messages and is an important part of comprehensive sex education. When schools teach students about how to say no to sex, they are also acknowledging young people’s ability to say yes. Education on consent can signal to young people that sexuality is a normal part of life and dispel misconceptions about sexual violence and gender stereotypes. Consent education is one step that legislators, schools and communities can take to respect young people’s right to sexual agency and self-determination.