Late last year, California became the first state to require affirmative-consent education—education about consent that teaches “yes means yes” versus “no means no”—for public high schools that require a health class before graduation. Advocates applauded the move as a huge step in the right direction. Such education, they hoped, would help reduce the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and elsewhere.
But education initiatives that home in on issues of consent in high school or college may not be enough—and may be coming too late in teenagers’ lives. A recent analysis shows that, while teen dating-violence prevention programs have been shown to increase knowledge and change student attitudes, they do not actually reduce dating violence.
Many sexuality educators thus feel conflicted about the focus in the media and in the public conversation in general on affirmative consent. “I think it's a positive step. It's acknowledging that young people might want to say yes [to sex], and it's giving them more space to say yes,” said Eva Goldfarb, a sexuality educator and public-health professor at Montclair State University. “But what do parents and administrators expect to happen afterward if consent is all children know and are prepared for? We're spending so much time on the conversation of gatekeeping,” Goldfarb continued. “It still sets a sexual dynamic that's adversarial. Everyone wants to keep people safe, but it's still about avoiding danger rather than exploring positive aspects of sexuality.”