Teen Council talks consent education in #MeToo era
Political events in recent years have called attention to the U.S.’s perception of sexual assault, victimhood and accountability.
“With the culture that is in America right now, this is the most important extracurricular I could be part of,” said Mary Laudon, a two-year member of the Teen Council.
Laudon, 18, attends Mayo High School. In the last year or so, she helped teach lessons about birth control, STIs, teen pregnancy, and healthy relationships to high schools around town.
Lately, though, members of the Teen Council have focused more on consent education in schools. And they’re realizing that there are still a lot of questions to answer.
The Teen Council, which is made up of high school students, gets expanded lessons that they then teach to their peers — either in a classroom setting, when Planned Parenthood is invited to schools to give presentations on STI prevention and sexual health, or when other students approach them with questions.
The classes are usually in grades 10 through 12, Laudon said.
“The culture of the Me Too movement has made people want to raise their hands and ask questions,” she said. “In high school, at this age, there’s a lot of factors.”
Those include substance use, understanding the age of consent (the period between age 16 and 18 confuses many), and what to do if someone learns that an encounter may not have been consensual on both sides.
Young people want to make healthy, responsible decisions, Laudon said. They’re just not always told how to do that.
Talking it out
At a Teen Council meeting last week, the eight members of the group reviewed consent and discussed ways to talk to their peers about it.
Nicholas Erickson, an 11th grader at Century High School, agreed that many high-schoolers are still a little uncertain about consent, because it hasn’t been clearly explained to them.
Eleanore Sutherland, an education specialist at Planned Parenthood, ran the meeting.
Teen Council has always talked about consent as part of their training, she said. But last year, Planned Parenthood saw an uptick in questions about sexual consent and assault.
This year, they started training the council to speak about consent much earlier than in previous years, and they’re stressing a multifaceted definition of the term — enthusiastic, ongoing, voluntary, and non-coerced — that goes beyond merely obtaining a “yes” from a partner.
“It’s something we weave into every lesson we do,” she said. “The first step isn’t open the condom, it’s ask about consent.”
The conversation quickly turned to sexual assault, which is sexual activity without consent, against someone’s will.
Each of the members studied fact sheets on sexual assault and the ramifications thereof, and returned to the group with several facts they learned.
Fifty-four percent of sexual assault victims are between ages 18 and 34, Laudon told the group — a sobering statistic for the teens, many of whom will enter college in the next year or two.
“As you look at colleges, you see things about campus safety,” Laudon, said. “It’s scary to think about when you’re trying to make this decision.”
Erickson chose to focus on the big picture.
According to RAINN, as of 1998, an estimated 17.7 million American women had been victims of attempted or completed rape, he told the group.
Seeing that large number and knowing it was an incomplete total affected him.
“If you change your percentage to real numbers, it hits harder,” he said. “And that’s just 1998.”
“I knew it was bad,” Laudon said. “It’s come out in the news and things. But I didn’t know it was this bad. I didn’t know it was this extensive.”
‘Yes’ is mandatory
Part of the Teen Council’s mission is to help guide peers to resources. And last week, they confronted the possibility of being approached by a rape victim.
The consensus was that the teens would do their best to help and offer support.
“It takes a lot of courage to tell your truth, especially if society tells you not to,” Erickson said.
But what if the person approaching told them they thought they may have assaulted someone without knowing?
Although “No Means No” has been part of sex education for many years, there are still people who don’t understand that asking for and receiving a “Yes” is mandatory for consent, Sutherland said, or that a person under the influence of alcohol can’t give consent.
If society is going to end sexual assault and rape in the future, though, Laudon thinks consent needs to be stressed long before people enter sexual situations, so they have a definition to work with. “I think what happened is that consent wasn’t defined, or that it wasn’t broadcasted in the past,” Laudon said. “It’s extra important because in order to hold people accountable for their actions, they have to know what is right or wrong.”