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Minnesota should mandate affirmative-consent education in high school

Gabrielle Schwartz

The rise of the #MeToo movement has led to an outcry from survivors calling for justice. #MeToo began trending on Twitter in October 2017 to create a sense of the magnitude of the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in our culture. We’re hearing from sexual assault survivors. We’re hearing their stories. We’re hearing of their trauma and their resilience. We’re hearing pathetic, weak apologies from perpetrators.

We see legislators talk about creating justice within the legal system for survivors. But we’re not hearing enough from them about how to prevent sexual violence. The focus appears to be on solutions. But, that is not the action we need. What we need is prevention. 

One prevention effort includes awareness and education on consent, specifically affirmative consent. Affirmative consent shifts the “no means no” standard to “yes means yes” for obtaining consent for sexual acts.

Affirmative consent policies have been implemented at colleges across the United States. Most recently, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities have adopted an affirmative consent policy that changes the definition of consent under the board’s sexual violence policy, and clarifies what constitutes as sexual assault. Minnesota State University, Mankato student and Students United State Chair Faical Rayani argues that obtaining a “yes” rather than a “no” is crucial because, “Many times, individuals are too intoxicated, too frightened or too anxious to say ‘no’ to sexual activity.”

These policies should be adopted by all higher education institutions. We need to be talking more about consent, particularly affirmative consent. But, why are we waiting until students are in college to teach them about consent? We need to be promoting affirmative consent well before then.

In general, Minnesota has fairly relaxed mandates for sexual education in public schools. According to the Minnesota Women's Consortium, the only current requirements for sexual education courses in Minnesota are:

  • STD/STI and HIV/AIDS education.
  • Abstinence must be taught as the only 100% effective way to protect against unplanned pregnancy, STDs/STIs, and sexually transmitted HIV/AIDS.
  • A sex education course must be taught.
  • The information must be technically correct.

Why isn’t teaching consent a mandated requirement?

Minnesota needs comprehensive sex education. A Minnesota Department of Health study from 2010 revealed that more ninth-grade students reported getting their information about sex from their friends than from schools, teachers, counselors or parents. For Minnesota youth to have honest relationships and healthy sexual behavior, there must be comprehensive sex education in schools that is medically correct, covers contraceptives, and discusses the importance of consent.

Recently, a bill, House File 4207, has been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature that would mandate that all public school students in grades 8-12 receive education on affirmative consent. The bill was authored by Rep. Erin Maye Quade from Apple Valley and has been supported by several University of Minnesota graduates who are part of the Students United advocacy group. The proposed bill specifies that “ ‘consent’ must be affirmed by each party involved in a sexual activity; ‘a lack of protest’ or ‘the existence of a dating relationship’ do not qualify as indicators of consent.”

House File 4207 has been stalled in the Education Innovation Policy Committee. This bill needs our support. By contacting our individual legislators, we can urge them to show their support for this vital piece of legislation. Its passage is critical for implementing mandated instruction of consent to high school students.

We’re hearing the stories of sexual assault survivors. We know that students are not being informed about the importance of consent. We need to be teaching consent. We need to see legislators advocate for legislation mandating affirmative consent education. We need comprehensive, sexual education in high schools. We need to be arming students with the tools and education to prevent the continuation of sexual violence.

Gabrielle Schwartz, from Elgin, Minnesota, is a master of public health candidate at Boston University, where she is studying health policy and law with an emphasis on women’s health policy. Her undergraduate degree is from the College of Saint Benedict.

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Comments (3)

I hate to say it but...

Sex isn't like a real estate transaction or an online purchase. The concept of affirmative consent can only be enforced contractually, when it's documented. The most common example would be the consents you sign regarding medical records and treatment, those consents basically say: "yes, I give you permission to do this".

Sex isn't a contractual obligation, consent is not documented in an enforceable way, and frankly it's not going to be, that's just not how human beings engage in consensual sex. Sexual predators will just claim that their victims said: "yes" the way they currently claim sex was consensual; so it's hard to see how this concept actually deters sexual assault?

Not to be nit picky but prevention is part of the solution, not something other than the solution, strengthening penalties and language isn't necessarily misdirected energy.

I can see the value of discussing consent, what it is, how to recognize it, when to require it, how to require it etc. It might more valuable to discuss the concept of implied consent; do teenagers understand that under some circumstances simply participating IMPLIES consent? Sure, it's not a BAD idea to ask for a explicit verbal consent, but I don't see how we can make it a requirement of any kind because sex is primarily a non-verbal human interaction. If you ask someone for consent, and they respond with in a passionate behavioral way rather than verbally... does that mean you DON'T have consent?

It's also not clear to me who we're really empowering with affirmative consent. Ultimately people have to understand that they have a right to say: "no- stop" if someone is assaulting them or making them participate in something against their will. That right to stop someone is a power people need to understand and exercise. I tend to think that requiring a "yes" in advance transfers the power back to the other actor, they now have to ask, but what if they choose not to ask? You can say "no" at any point, but you can't "yes" unless your asked, so who are we really empowering?

Yeah

This comment raises a lot of good points.

I’m not sure this policy really gets at the behavior we are trying to fix.

Amen to this.

Amen to this.