A group of brave teens at Liberty High School last week created homemade “No means no” T-shirts and wore them to school, hoping to spark conversation about sexual assault and the importance of consent.
Leah Pruitt, a senior who helped organize the group, said the students — a mix of both females and males — organized after someone close to her was assaulted. “We are kids with adult problems, and we need to be [educated] how to handle that,” Pruitt told us.
She’s absolutely right. Unfortunately, consent — like any subject revolving around sex — can be difficult to talk about, especially with our sons and daughters who might be becoming sexually active or curious long before parents are ready for that reality.
But if anything can be gleaned from the feedback the teens received from wearing the T-shirts, it’s that many high school students don’t take the issues of consent or sexual assault seriously. One male student offered a T-shirt said he didn’t need one because he wasn’t a girl and that being sexually assaulted as a male would be embarrassing. Other students who participated in the demonstration were told it was pointless and would change nothing. A few others recalled a presentation that included information about consent, but that many students made jokes about it afterward.
Sexual assault and abuse is very real among adolescents, and nothing to joke about.
About 18 percent of girls and 3 percent of boys say they have been victims of sexual assault or abuse by the age of 17 at the hands of another youth, according to a study of 6,000 students between 2010 and 2014. According to that same study, it is incredibly likely that the victim will not disclose or report the assault. About two-thirds did not tell a parent or another adult about the assault. Less than 1 in 5, or 19 percent, report the assault to law enforcement.
These assaults can also have serious, long-lasting affects on the victims. Scientific research has reliably shown negative childhood experiences lead to poorer physical and mental health later in life. Both sexual and nonsexual assaults on teens are associated with higher-than-normal levels of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic symptoms and increase the risk of being assaulted again.
So how do we approach the difficult subject of sexual consent, especially among young people, without making all involved feel uncomfortable and teens tuning out?
Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has taken the approach that sexual consent is as simple as understanding personal boundaries, and that’s where the discussion should begin.
“We realized consent is just a fancy word that means permission to cross someone else’s boundary. Starting there, we found plenty of examples of boundary crossing that have nothing to do with sex,” according to an article on its website, tolerance.org.
The approach was introduced throughout Montana in 2012, according to the article, and not only did teachers feel more comfortable with the lessons than talking about sexual consent, students also seemed to grasp the concepts more easily when it was connected to everyday experiences — such as someone wanting to read their best friend’s diary — than they would when it was discussed in only in the context of sex.
Both parents and teachers may be able to take that to heart. Helping our children and students better understand and respect others’ personal boundaries will make sexual consent far easier of a concept to grasp as they are coming of age. And respecting personal space is a good life lesson regardless.
Also, it’s important for adults to understand and recognize that personal boundaries vary by individual. What might be OK for one person could be traumatizing to another. It’s important to respect those differences and take reports of sexual assault or sexual aggressiveness seriously, and deal with it appropriately.
It really does came back to the simple fact that “No means no.” Period.