Clarifying 'Consent' In The Era Of #MeToo

Oct 9, 2018
Originally published on October 8, 2018 5:09 pm
In the wake of the #metoo movement and the spotlight on assault allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, more states — including Illinois — are rethinking how sex education should be taught in public schools. 

This summer, Illinois joined several other states in making “sexual consent” and “sexual assault” part of the curriculum in middle school and high school.  

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, an Aurora Democrat, said the addition to the sex education curriculum could help young people change toxic workplace and college cultures. “So that high schoolers, if they graduate and go to college, are more prepared to identify and to be able to define what consent is," she said. 

Kifowit said she was approached by several high school students in her district who were concerned about the ambiguity of the term "consent", despite it being a constant word in the news. In response, Kifowit worked to make the additions to the state's sex education guidelines, which already includes instruction on how to avoid making unwanted physical and verbal sexual advances.

She said she encourages students to speak out and reach out to their state representatives to fuel changes such as this one.

Dorothy Espelage, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida and an expert on sexual violence and bullying, spent several years researching sexual harassment and sexual violence among middle school youth in Illinois. She said some of the observations from the 2013 report showed the importance of discussing the topics as early as 6th grade.

“When kids [at that age] bully and are mean and cruel to one another, they may then start using homophobic language — which is a gender-based form of harassment. That then leads, by 7th and 8th grade, to the sexual harassment of unwanted sexual commentary," she said. 

Illinois schools have full autonomy on how they teach this curriculum. Espelage said she suggests teachers ask their principals for training on the subject.

According to a report released in May by the Center for American Progress -- a nonpartisan policy institute -- only 9 other states mandate the teaching of consent in their sex education instruction. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have guidelines in place mandating a sex education curriculum. 

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