Op-Ed

Waiting until college to teach about affirmative consent is too late

California's affirmative-consent law is too little, too late

California's new affirmative-consent law has garnered national attention this fall, and for good reason. The first-of-its-kind “yes means yes” statute requires
all public and private colleges that receive state money for student financial aid to incorporate affirmative-consent language into their sexual-assault policies.

The only problem? It may be too little, too late.

Affirmative consent hits all the right buttons. It requires lockstep consent at every phase of a sexual encounter between college students, thereby eliminating the defenses of intoxication, the absence of overt resistance and other excuses for nonconsensual sex. Supported by victim advocacy groups and UC President Janet Napolitano, the bill passed unanimously in the state Senate, shepherded through by new Senate President Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).

But what the bill ignores is that a person's approach to sexual behavior and relationships is often already firmly established by the time he or she reaches college. With dating and sexual activity increasingly starting in junior high or high school, ameliorative measures at the college level might come years too late. And by then, attempts to reprogram views on sex and relationship dynamics could prove difficult.

If we really want college students to get it right, we must begin educating them in junior high school about the necessity of affirmative consent. The most logical and cost-effective way to do that is to make it part of the mandatory sex education curriculum laid out in the state's Education Code.

This approach has several advantages. First, although the focus has been on sexual assault on college campuses, a disturbingly high number of young people are victimized in high school and junior high. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42% of all female rape victims were first assaulted before they turned 18. Waiting until college to address affirmative consent does little to protect these young victims.

Second, earlier education has a greater chance of not only preventing abuse from occurring in the first place but also of increasing the rate of reporting when it does happen. Sadly, known assailants — friends, boyfriends, extended family members and so forth — commit most sexual assaults, and perpetrators are likely to abuse multiple victims before they are caught. Early education and training can empower potential victims to resist or report abuse, which in turn will discourage possible perpetrators from striking.

As a practical matter, the training can be easily tailored to young audiences. Age-appropriate role-playing exercises could illustrate how affirmative consent operates in the context of, for example, hand-holding or kissing. Training would also include modeling strategies to deny consent and education on the importance of reporting sexual abuse to authorities. These exercises could then be extended to progressively ordered intimate steps for older students.

Finally, advocates and policymakers should leverage social media to raise awareness about affirmative consent and reduce the stigma that prevents many sexual-assault victims from reporting abuse. This serves the ultimate goal of creating an empowered and informed corps of young people, male and female, that understands both the mechanics and the importance of affirmative consent.

Although incorporating the “yes means yes” standard into college sexual-assault policies is a good first step, the best way to address the scourge of sexual violence is to educate students about affirmative consent in junior high school. Developing healthy approaches to sexual activity and preventing sexual assault should be top priorities for all of us.

Paul R. Abramson is a professor of psychology at UCLA. Leif Dautch is a deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice.

Paul R. Abramson is a professor of psychology at UCLA. Leif Dautch is a deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice.

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