The first time many young people will hear about consent is their freshman year of college. Sitting in a large, over air-conditioned auditorium, students may watch the “Tea Consent” video or a skit that involves drinking and saying no to sex. There are small group discussions about “Yes Means Yes” and the now outdated “No Means No” slogan. There is talk about active bystanders, and interventions. Broader initiatives that stretch beyond orientation weekend have been springing up across college campuses like the Green Dot Program, which works to prevent violence by mobilizing community members. Other organizations like One Less and Cultures of Consent are working to educate students and support survivors of sexual assault.
The issue of college rape has been thrust into the national spotlight over the past several years, with the Stanford ruling serving as the most recent and horrific example in the mainstream media. The mishandling of rape cases among universities and colleges is a complex and undeniable problem. However, viewing cases of campus rape in isolation is perhaps even more dangerous. Sexual assault does not exist in a vacuum, and college is not a pre-requisite for sexual activity.
According to the CDC, the average age of first intercourse in the US is approximately 17 years old. In Washington, DC 11% of high school students report having sex before the age of 13. So why is college the first time we are talking about consent? Sexual health education is still a political battleground in the United States. Only 24 states and DC mandate that sex education be provided in public schools, and 30 states do not require that sex education be medically, technically, or factually correct.
In 2009, The Grassroot Project (TGP) was founded to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington, DC. With a unique student-athlete model, and dynamic, interactive curriculum TGP has demonstrated statistically significant increases in general HIV knowledge, understanding about fluids that transmit HIV and awareness that HIV cannot be transmitted casually. Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of TGP is that our programming is directed at 7th grade students, the majority of whom are not yet sexually active. Students are taught that they have ability to make decisions about avoiding HIV and ultimately about their own sexual health before they become sexually active.
We are excited to share that TGP will be rolling out a comprehensive sexual health pilot program that will include discussions and activities related to consent. At TGP we recognize that the conversation surrounding consent is about changing attitudes and subsequently, behavior. We have worked to deconstruct the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and correct misperceptions about the disease. Continuing our work and incorporating other topics like consent is another powerful step in the direction of a sexually healthier, safer generation.
Author: Jacquelyn Katuin is an intern with The Grassroot Project and is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Virginia.