Why Aren’t Students Learning About Consent Before College?

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OPINION

California is an ideal location for a college student. At least that’s what one would think. But in recent weeks, sexual assault allegations have cast a shadow over sun-soaked campuses throughout the state.

The grounds of my college are some of the most picture-perfect around. Still, exciting nights too often coincide with terrifying ones. When out on the town, I’ve been grabbed by men without my permission. When I object, I’ve been cursed at and, on top of that, blamed for wearing a low-cut shirt.

This isn't the worst I've experienced and these frustrations pale in comparison to the experiences of countless other women on college campuses across the country. It’s completely unacceptable -- yet so prevalent that it should concern us all.

It should also raise questions about where these inappropriate behaviors come from. I don’t have all the answers, but I know that attitudes about consensual sex in college are molded before the acceptance letter comes in the mail.

It’s time to take a closer look at what’s being taught – and just as importantly, not being taught – in secondary schools.

Before I got to college, I had disappointing experiences with sexual health education. I attended a California public high school, and every year the dean would gather the students in the auditorium for a discussion about sexual assault. Year after year, he warned the young women in the room to “not make ourselves objects.”

We heard a lot about these “objects,” but nothing about consent, defined as a firm and sober “yes” from all parties before (and while) engaging in a sexual act. The dean never reinforced the idea that people give consent, outfits don’t – a lesson that could have empowered us as we embarked on the long and often uncertain journey of becoming young adults.

Unfortunately, inadequate sexual health education was not just confined to my school.

As it turns out, there is shockingly little that California requires high school health teachers to teach about sexual assault. Sure, they have the option to expand on the subject, and a few districts actually do require slightly more comprehensive education about sexual assault. But there’s still no emphasis on consent. Instead, sexual assault education today is often spun to warn young women against dressing a certain way or putting themselves in “compromising situations.”

This helps create several major problems. It teaches young women that they hold the power over whether they’re sexually assaulted; it removes blame from the attacker and places it on the victim; and it fails to teach anyone, boys or girls, about the importance of consent.

Consent education is not a luxury -- it is required for my own safety, health and peace of mind. And I am just one of many stories. When one in four college women is a survivor of rape or attempted rape, the chances are that you know someone who’s been affected.

With the current survivors of sexual assault and future generations of young people in mind, I’ve been reading and writing curricula, and meeting with school administrators across California, as part of a commitment to action for the Clinton Global Initiative University. While institutionalizing consent is a slow process, it’s a necessary one, and I hope to implement a more comprehensive health curriculum for sexual assault in California that can be replicated throughout the country.

Sexual assault is a national problem, a scourge that requires a consent revolution in every single state.

I can’t think of a more appropriate place to start than in every high school auditorium.

Hannah Brown is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a participant at Clinton Global Initiative University 2014.

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