Instructors from Raphael House lead a classroom discussion about consent and healthy relationships with a class of sophomores at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Oregon, April 15, 2019. Credit: Gillian Flaccus | AP

Yes means yes.

That’s the message that Maine secondary students will learn in health classes as a result of legislation passed earlier this year. The legislation mandates that health curriculum must now include “instruction on affirmative consent, communication and decision making regarding sexual activity and the effects of alcoholic drinks, stimulants and narcotics on the ability to give affirmative consent, communicate and make appropriate decisions.”

Regardless of school budgets or cultural stigmas, all students will now learn these important lessons.

While this particular education has long been at the forefront of discussion for sexual health professionals, violence prevention organizations and educators, the law underscores the importance and brings a renewed focus to affirmative consent in school curriculum.

While working on an act to address campus sexual assault in 2015, state Rep. Mattie Daughtry of Brunswick realized that Maine students needed to learn about affirmative consent much earlier in school and thus started a movement toward legislation. Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill, An Act Regarding Secondary School Education Concerning Sexual Activity and Sexual Assault, into law on June 5.

While 29 states and Washington, D.C., mandate that sex education is taught, a May 2018 report from the Center for American Progress revealed that only eight states were teaching consent as part of their sex education curricula. A year later, the same organization published an updated list of the 22 states that had either already adopted or were in the process of enacting laws to include consent or sexual assault education as part of their sex ed curricula.

Maine, which enacted the law a month after the updated list was released, was not included but now joins the collection of states teaching some variation of consent in schools.

“We need to make sure that students are having this education before stepping foot on college campuses,” Daughtry said. “It’s absolutely and utterly necessary.”

What is affirmative consent?

The new law defines affirmative consent as “consent to sexual activity that can be revoked at any time and does not include silence, lack of resistance or consent given while intoxicated.” According to Daughtry, it will ensure that all parties are “on board” when it comes to consent. “It allows you to advocate for what you believe in,” she said.

But it won’t only teach kids how to give consent — it’s also aimed at empowering students to acquire skills to communicate effectively and create healthy relationships with their peers, Daughtry said.

While instruction on consent may vary between states, Maine’s law “highlights the need to acknowledge that the world is changing in different dynamics,” she said.

Jean Zimmerman, a health and physical education consultant for the Maine Department of Education, said that teaching consent is a “key criteria” of education which needs to be taught over time through foundational learning approaches.

“Affirmative consent is a really important thing to teach because people might think, ‘well, what is a “yes?”’” Zimmerman said.

Early teaching is key

According to Dr. Elizabeth Schroeder, a New Jersey-based sexuality education expert, teaching consent needs to happen early and parents and educators can work together to successfully teach affirmative consent.

“We are a culture that is so obsessed with getting it ‘right’ but this isn’t linear,” she said.

The lessons also need to be reinforced through the years, Schroeder said, and an important piece of teaching consent is allowing kids to be “the experts of their own lives,” by giving them opportunities to express what they like and what they don’t like.

If children don’t learn these lessons early enough, then educators must overcompensate later on to “unlearn” some of the misconceptions students have subconsciously consumed about sexual health.

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Many subliminal messages are deeply-rooted in our society especially in children’s shows, which is why parents need to understand what their kids are seeing and be prepared to talk about them, Schroeder said.

“Things that are unfamiliar feel scary,” she said. But “parents are actually helping by talking about these topics.”

An uncertain path forward

While the new Maine law may be a step forward in ensuring that all Maine students learn about affirmative consent, some educators seem unsure of how it might affect schools that already teach the subject.

Stacey Vannah, who has been an educator in Maine for more than 20 years, said that many schools and educators have been including consent in their lessons plans for a long time.

But Vannah said this law is a step in making sure that all students are learning the same information, especially for schools that didn’t already teach affirmative consent.

The new law will simply ensure that schools across Maine are being “more intentional” with their curriculum when it comes to teaching consent, said Kelli Deveaux, the communications director for the Maine Department of Education.

This is education that young people need, Vannah said, adding that students actually want to talk about how to navigate the complexities of their social relationships.

But consent education is a complex and nuanced topic, which can sometimes be difficult for kids to fully grasp, Vannah said. It becomes especially challenging for students to understand why verbal consent is needed every time between consistent partners and, even more, that they don’t owe their partner anything, she said.

“There’s this perception of what affirmative consent is and isn’t. The more we can help the students become comfortable with agency, the more that becomes a normalized behavior,” Deveaux said.

Staggering statistics, hope for change

According to the 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, 7.2 percent of Maine high school students reported that they were physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they didn’t want to. The same study revealed that 15.8 percent of girls and 5.4 percent of boys reported having been forced to have sexual contact during their lifetime.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Vannah said, when students first learn about affirmative consent and some realize they’ve had sexual experiences where consent wasn’t present.

Affirmative consent could impact how students respond to sexual violence in the future, too. This model is giving students the vocabulary and the skills to identify and talk about their experiences, said Oronde Cruger, the program manager for Speak About It, a Maine-based organization that aims to prevent sexual violence through performance-based education.

He explained consent education as a public health priority. Teaching affirmative consent is not so much about sex as it is about providing tools and resources for young people so they may be better equipped to pursue social relationships in a healthy way, he said.

Teaching kids about affirmative consent and sexual health early on might also encourage them to put off sexual activity and use protection when they do.

According to the 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, 38 percent of high school students reported they had sex at least once.

Nationally, the number of sexually active teens has declined since 1988. Data from the National Survey of Family Growth revealed that girls and women ages 15 to 19 who report that they have ever had sex has declined from 51 percent in 1988 to 42 percent between 2011 and 2015. For high school boys and men, that number has dropped 16 percent over that same timeframe.

“Sex-positive isn’t always sex-pursuant,” Cruger said. “We’re saying, pursue sex in the way that feels safe to you, which can sometimes mean not pursuing sex.”

Catherine Buxton, Speak About It’s communications manager, told the Maine Legislature in May that, “By mandating consent education curriculum across the state, we are ensuring that teachers and administrators will be equipped to handle conversations and teach skills about consent, sexual assault, and dating violence.”

Buxton testified that providing affirmative consent education in schools will prevent sexual violence before it happens and is a “concrete solution” to the problem.

While educators and lawmakers agree that the law is a small part of the ongoing work to expand consent instruction, it symbolizes a movement toward change.

“It’s an important first step in building a culture of affirmative consent,” Buxton said.

This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s November 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.