Is Consent Part of What We Teach Children?

We’ll get a verdict in the Steubenville rape case on St. Patrick’s Day, in just two hours. The defense attorneys have provided their clients’ a robust defense, which is their constitutional right. That defense has been downright disgusting.

The attorney attempted to persuade the judge to let the boys off the hook because the victim “didn’t affirmatively say no,” and therefore, they could safely assume her consent.

If we applied this logic to any other aspect of our lives, it would be incumbent upon us to affirmatively tell the waiter we didn’t want dessert, because otherwise, the fact that we “didn’t affirmatively say no” to the tiramisu and carrot cake listed on the menu would obligate us to eat them and pay up at the end of the meal.


Maybe doesn’t mean yes, and most assuredly doesn’t mean yes. This is easy stuff,  y’all. You can teach it to your kindergarteners and they’ll get it.

Here’s a description of part of the trial today, March 16th:

The 16-year-old girl at the center of the rape trial of two Steubenville High School football stars said in court today that she has almost no memory of the events until she woke up on a basement couch – naked, scared and embarrassed.

She told the court it didn’t take long though to grow concerned about what happened to her as she became the topic of discussion on social media.

She also testified that she did not want to go to police. She said it was her parents’ idea. She sent a text to one defendant, 17, saying, “We know you didn’t rape me.”

Prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter asked her that when she sent the text, did she know that digital penetration was also rape. The girl said she didn’t know that. She also said she didn’t know she had been digitally penetrated. (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

When I read about the prosecutors asking this question about digital penetration, I had a hunch. In Ohio, the sex education curriculum is decided district by district:

In Ohio, state law and guidelines from the Ohio Department of Health say schools should teach about venereal disease and drug-abuse prevention during health education, but they do not specify what should be learned and when.

“It’s really a local decision on what (schools) do in terms of health education,” said Patrick Gallaway, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.

Ohio has more-specific guidelines for academic subjects such as math and reading because it gives standardized tests on those subjects, he said. But the state does not have a proficiency test in health.

Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman Tessie Pollock also cited local control. “It’s up to the individual districts to decide what they want to do for a curriculum,” she said, “and they can adapt it to what their community needs.”

Whichever curriculum they pick, however, must be abstinence-only or abstinence-based, which creates a whole set of problems because of the things that aren’t addressed.

Rape is rape. It doesn’t matter if you call the police or don’t call them. It doesn’t matter what you say, or what you text, after the fact. It doesn’t matter if you really liked the boys who assaulted you, if they were your friends, if you went to the party because you wanted to see them. It doesn’t matter if it is a penis in a vagina, or a finger, or a broomstick. It is a crime of power, privilege, and entitlement. It is never about sex or love.

If a person does not consent to sexual contact, and you proceed anyway, that is rape. Period.

There’s so much in this case. Football culture. Underage drinking and how people assume it applies consent—which it does not. The confusion and harm that social media brings to the situation. Small-town rumor mills and fear. Bloggers and reporters have written some great stuff about all of those things. Google away.

What I’d like to raise is the question of whether sex education has any role to play in teaching people not to rape.

What if the students in this town had been participating in age-appropriate, medically accurate, comprehensive sex education since elementary school? What if they started in kindergarten with what I learned in kindergarten, which was keep your whole self to your whole self? That concept stuck with me, and helped me learn more difficult concepts about good and bad touching as I got a little older, and my own right to bodily integrity as I got older still. Thanks, Mrs. Richards!

What if teachers were allowed to talk about when it is OK to have sex, which is an important part of understanding when it is NOT OK to have sex? What if teachers were allowed to explain that sex isn’t just a penis in a vagina, but about multiple ways of touching and sharing your body in a consensual way.

What if kids role-played consent? What if they learned to ask for affirmative consent?

Why is it a radical notion that we might try to teach children not to rape? Why does it make people angry to consider it?

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that but for comprehensive, reality-based sex ed, these boys wouldn’t have behaved the way they did. I’m certainly not excusing them for their behavior by suggesting they hadn’t been taught what was wrong. They knew. That is clear. Their coach knew, too.

I’m just saying that we can’t continue to set our kids up for failure like this. We have to do everything within our power to teach children not to rape, and one thing that means is talking frankly from a very young age about what is and is not OK so that the concept of consent will be crystal clear.

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