Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Manners, please: A case for consent education

Posted By on Wed, Jan 20, 2016 at 1:27 PM

click to enlarge consent_photo.jpg

I work part-time at a community center in my neighborhood. One of my elementary students loves braiding, and for a child growing into dexterity, he's a pretty talented hair stylist. When all the kids are in the gym playing a mash-up version of dodgeball and field hockey, he's seated behind me in the bleachers, weaving my locks into a fishtail down my left shoulder. The first time I let him braid my hair, his fingers were tangled up in my tresses before he thought to ask me — a teachable moment too perfect not to seize.

"I'm not upset with you, but if you want to touch my hair, you must have my permission first."

He offered a sincere apology, and with my consent he proceeded to manipulate my hair into a cute up-do I wore for the rest of the afternoon. After that day, whenever I saw him playing in another kid's hair, I asked both if consent was requested and given, and nearly every time the answer was yes or rectified right away. I don't think opportunities to teach children in real time are as effortless as the moments with my hair-braiding student, but bringing more formal education to schools on setting and respecting boundaries, asking and giving consent is a worthy investment.

Recent research conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show 17.3 percent of Indiana high school girls reported experiencing rape or sexual assault in 2014, a percentage significantly higher than the national average of 10.5 percent. Since the report's release, Rep. Christina Hale (D-Indianapolis) has focused her legislative efforts on decreasing the rate of teen sexual assault in Indiana. Her latest goal is to introduce a bill this session making consent a required part of the state's sex education curriculum.

The inspiration for the bill may be modeled after California law. All schools serving students grades 7 through 12 must offer comprehensive sex education courses and mandatory consent lessons. The hope is to remove the stigma for young people to talk comfortably with trusted adults and each other about their changing bodies and sexuality, equip students with safe and practical ways to sexually engage with or abstain from others, and provide space to learn about consent relevant and applicable to their lived experiences.

Indiana's sex education curriculum is not nearly as robust as California's. Current Indiana law does not require school districts to offer sex education, but if districts choose to, sex education must be included in general health classes and stress abstinence and monogamous marriage as the best ways to avoid teen pregnancy, STDs, and STIs. Thankfully, the Hoosier approach to sex education is a step above strict abstinence-only programs that have been proven ineffective and even counterproductive. In a time when just a quarter of parents report regularly and openly talking with their children about sex, sexuality, and dating beyond disciplinary rules, a network of parents and trusted adults can help children navigate rising hormones and budding bodies.

As demonstrated by my hair-braiding student, teaching children the value of ownership over their bodies is a lesson in consent that can be applied to situations where setting and respecting emotional, physical, and sexual boundaries is an invaluable social skill. Along with addressing teen rape and sexual assault, consent education may help reduce unplanned pregnancy and dating violence among Hoosier teenagers, two other rates of occurrence in Indiana hovering well above the national average.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reports the national rate of teen pregnancy between 1991 and 2012 is down a historic 57 percent. In Indiana, the rate has only dropped 45 percent. Just over 6,200 Indiana teenagers birthed a child in 2014. There is no current research on the Indiana teen birth rate determining how many pregnancies are a result of consensual sex or rape. Considering the state's teen rape rate is among the highest in the country, informed assumption includes the reality that a number of teen pregnancies are due to sexual violation.

When Heather Norris was brutally murdered by her estranged high school boyfriend in 2007, her mother Debbie worked tirelessly to pass Heather's Law, signed by former Governor Mitch Daniels in 2010. The law requires the Department of Education and domestic violence organizations to provide age-appropriate abuse and dating violence education programs for students grades 6 through 12. According to Ball State University, 11.3 percent of Indiana high school students report experiencing physical abuse from a dating partner in 2011. A basic tenet of physical abuse, as well as emotional and sexual, is false entitlement over someone else's body as a means of gaining and maintaining power and control.

Consent education, one way to complement inconsistent sex education offerings in Indiana, has significant potential to mitigate sexual abuse and teen pregnancy, physical abuse and teen dating violence without overriding current Indiana law or trumping parental guidance. Consent education can bolster social and sexual safety for Hoosier teenagers into adulthood.

I often wonder if my hair-braiding student remembers to ask for others' permission before touching their hair when he is not in my care. I hope our momentary lessons on consent serve as a reminder no matter where life leads him. Hale has the opportunity to promote consent education for young people statewide, and her impending bill deserves committee consideration and votes this legislative session.

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Elle Roberts

Elle Roberts

Elle Roberts is a musician and writer living in near east Indianapolis. She is the founder of shehive, a grassroots project creating safe spaces to deconstruct gender inequity.

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