In 2018, the Maryland legislature passed a bill requiring that sex education classes—those taught to thirteen-year-olds—include lessons on the meaning of consent. The results have been unsurprising. A January article in the Washington Post reports on seventh graders at Hallie Wells Middle School “huddled around a table in their second-period health class,” debating a scenario about consent. The scenario involves a boy and girl, presumably also thirteen-year-olds, doing Spanish homework in the library. The boy starts kissing the girl. She likes the boy, but is concerned about being caught. “So be quiet,” the boy responds. Has the girl given consent?
“The students at this suburban Maryland middle school were stumped,” WaPo observes. Well, go figure.
A faithful Catholic can appreciate that the provided consent scenario involves members of the opposite sex—as opposed to the same sex, or one being transgender, or both being transgender, or one being non-binary, etc. But that’s about all there is to praise with this latest addition to sexual education for minors in the 21st century. In Montgomery County, the Post tells us, class discussions on consent can begin as early as fifth grade, “before they become sexually active.” My knowledge on the matter is somewhat dated, but this is lamentably true. In 1996, when I was a seventh-grader at my suburban Virginia middle school, several of my classmates were already sexually active.
It’s not that kids don’t need to know about boundaries when it comes to their bodies and romantic relationships. They most certainly do. Yet it’s more than a little ironic that adults in our hyper-sexualized culture would deign to teach consent as it relates to sex. They can’t even agree among themselves about its definition and parameters.
One school of thought, which enjoys legislative approbation from states like California and New York, promotes the “affirmative consent standard.” This precept requires sexual partners to obtain explicit consent before proceeding, rather than assuming consent is given unless the other person explicitly communicates, “No.” Detractors have mocked affirmative consent for making the emotionally charged, enigmatic realm of sex into a tightly-scripted, sterile affair (no pun intended). Others argue that the presence of alcohol eliminates agency. Some would retort that it’s often alcohol—“liquid courage”—that stimulates this part of the human person, especially when anxiety, self-doubt, and bashfulness are in the mix.
What constitutes consent? Despite much sociological and psychological inquiry, the question remains deeply amorphous. This is especially the case when so many sexual encounters occur outside the confines of committed relationships like marriage. What a single person agrees to in the heat of the moment, when lonely and looking for comfort after a long week, might be regretted either during the act, shortly thereafter, or the next morning (à la the “walk of shame”). Does one give consent once, or consistently throughout a sexual encounter? Moreover, our society’s bizarre fascination with sexuality of the type found in the repulsive Fifty Shades of Grey—involving a girl whose sexual partner asks her to sign a non-disclosure agreement—has only further aggravated and confused Americans about sex and consent.
And yet public schools are trying to teach consent to fifth-graders. One of the paragraph headers of the Washington Post article is “A Gray Area.” No kidding. As kids mature, they begin to recognize the many ambiguities of life: authors can be interpreted in different, sometimes contradictory ways; sometimes determining the “right thing to do” is not clear-cut; and sometimes people’s problems are difficult, if not impossible, to fix.
These are confusing, difficult lessons to learn. They often require full development of the frontal lobe, which takes place in one’s early twenties. If kids get confused by the ambiguities of Steinbeck or Orwell, is there much hope for clarity when it comes to sexual consent?
For that matter, why are schools even in the business of having an official curriculum regarding consent? Are parents not providing any guidance to children in this matter? In this sad day and age, when there are so many cases of sexual abuse of minors, what parents are not hyper-vigilant in teaching their children about appropriate and inappropriate touching as well as how to say no? An old friend of mine who was once my Protestant seminary professor, Justin Holcomb, published a book with his wife entitled God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies. Every parent should have this book or one like it, in order to help children understand their bodies and what to do when they receive unwanted touching by other people.
If parents are failing, however, in their mission to educate their children regarding how to protect themselves, this must become yet one more ridiculous obligation placed upon public educators. The problem is that the public school curriculum presumes that kids, apparently as early as fifth grade, will be engaging in sexual acts. And by presuming this, it implicitly encourages it—if not then, then not much later. “If you and your fellow thirteen-year-old boyfriend agree to have sex, as long as it’s consensual, go for it,” we might imagine such teachers declaring. This is madness.
For all the mockery of “virginity pledges,” they at least aimed for and encouraged chastity. Such programs, whatever their flaws or silliness, teach children, rightly, to understand that sex is a gift from God, and that it is properly intended not simply for personal pleasure but for the good of the other, the creation of new life, and the glory of God.
As it is, we’ve simply raised the white flag to porn culture. This capitulation certainly hasn’t been working for many adults—such as the millions of American addicted to porn, which in its frequently violent portrayals of sex engenders precisely a “greyer” conception of consent. Nor has it been working for those who suffer sexual assault or abuse from those who are confused about consent, seem to think they can persuade their victims into consent, or frankly don’t care one way or the other.
Yes, kids need to understand consent—that is, how to say no. But not because they should be trying to navigate the ambiguous areas of sexual practice that even adults are struggling to understand and articulate. Rather, it should be No to adults touching them inappropriate or unwanted ways; No to other kids whose overtures complicate an already confusing time in adolescent development; No to a broader secular culture that elevates consent, rather than chastity and self-gift, as the gold standard for sexual behavior.
Kids should be warned about the damages wrought by all manner of deviant sexual behavior, including pre-marital sex. Unfortunately, for many of the young educated in the public school system, they won’t know until too late.
Photo credit: Shutterstock.com