February 17, 2016

Yes means yes: Teaching teens about affirmative consent

Valentine's day evokes images of hearts, cupids, and romantic grand gestures. Along with the romance, however, it's also a time to consider healthy communication around relationships and sexual activity, as February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness month.

Teen dating violence comes in many forms, but today we'll focus on sexual violence and consent. In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion around sexual safety on college campus. Recognition of high rates of sexual assault and mishandling of reports made to campus administration has led the federal government's Department of Education to investigate at least 55 campuses for their handling of sexual violence cases. This has led to a conversation around what constitutes consent to sexual activity, as it has become clear that the historical "no means no," standard does not provide enough guidance to demonstrate that both people engaged willingly in sexual activity.

In 2014, California became the first state to adopt a standard of what has been labeled "yes means yes" to define what constitutes consent to sexual activity. In addition to requiring campuses to have policies to address sexual violence to receive state funds (for things like student financial aid), the law requires that all people engaged in a sexual act give their consent for that activity.

Here's how the law specifically describes affirmative consent:

"Affirmative consent" means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.

In particular, this law addresses the idea that people that are asleep or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot give consent, and that both parties have to vocalize their agreement to engage in sexual activities.

In October 2015, California also became the first state to require that affirmative consent be taught as part of high school health education. While several other states are considering "yes means yes" legislation, what is not clear yet is exactly how this standard will be interpreted by the courts or how to teach "yes means yes" to teens and young adults when there are still a lot of legal grey areas. It's important to recognize, however, that this is not a new problem: the "no means no" standard was replaced in part because it was similarly grey.

Understanding consent with 'yes means yes'

It's important that everyone — guys and girls alike — understand consent and what it means. These conversations can and should start young, with talking about how kids should respect other people's bodies and how they get to make decisions about their own bodies (when a parent should stop tickling them, for example). These conversations should also include understanding what kinds of touches are OK (like checks at the doctor's office) and what kinds are not, as well as conversations about privacy and respecting the choices that other people make about their own bodies.

When talking to preteens and teens, "yes means yes" means teaching that consent is an ongoing conversation and that a respectful sexual partner will be a good listener in that conversation. While people often ask the question of how often a person needs to say yes, there's no specific timeline, but often it is helpful to think about affirming consent out loud when the activity starts or changes (like moving from kissing to touching breasts or genitals). If a person is not sure whether their partner wants to do what they're doing, they should always ask.

While it might be hard for parents or guardians to talk about romantic or sexual activities, it can be helpful to suggest that teens consider what they would want to do romantically or sexually before they do it, and talking about this with their partners before they're in the heat of the moment is an important practice to emphasize as well. Parents can and should frame discussions in a way that meets the child or teen at their level and can use TV shows or movies to start the conversation as well ("How do you think that person feels about being kissed like that? How do you know that she feels that way?")

Lastly, many parents and guardians are hesitant to talk about drinking or drugs with their kids, but this topic is important for many reasons, including consent. Centering the discussion around when a person can't say "yes" is one place to start: the teen or preteen can help think of situations where a person would not be able to say "yes" in a meaningful way. Discussions about affirmative consent can be hard, because no one has all of the answers about what "perfect" consent looks like beyond making sure that it's an ongoing conversation where everyone's voice is heard. In its best form, however, these conversations can help teens define their boundaries and take part in conversations that helps others respect those boundaries in the context of healthy romantic relationships.