High school consent culture evolves in #MeToo era

By Alexandra Yetter, Staff Reporter

Jocelyn Moreno

As victims come forward to talk about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, educators and activists want to create a culture of mutual consent by educating  students.

“With the Me Too movement, people were coming forward and using their social media to make a change,” said Liv Montgomery, chief executive officer at nonprofit Project Consent and a senior public relations and documentary film major at Chapman University in California.

For Montgomery, and other students, formal sexual education in high school was laughable, and consent was never part of the conversation, Montgomery said. However, social media and the Me Too movement is ramping up that conversation.

Illinois does not require schools to offer sex education, but schools

that do are only required to teach about abstinence and contraceptives to receive state funding, according to the April 2016 Illinois State Board of Education’s guidance document on sex education.

Beyond providing a support network for survivors, Project Consent tries to improve education on consent culture with the hope of lowering the occurrences of sexual assault during and after schooling, Montgomery said.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, Child Protective Services estimates 63,000 children are victims of sexual abuse every year; and survivors are four times more likely to experience depression.

Tony Rigitano, health teacher at Burlington Central High School in Burlington, Illinois, said open, honest discussion of what consent is and what to do in a variety of situations can lower those statistics.

Although adolescents do not always make the right decisions, Rigitano said he sees a lot of interest in learning about consent from his students because of the current political atmosphere involving the Me Too movement.

“As a teacher, you can’t always discuss everything you want to in a public setting because it might offend somebody, and they would take it to [the] administrators,” Rigitano said. “[But] I try to be honest with them.”

Kitty Stryker, author of “Ask: Building Consent Culture,” has educated herself about sex and consent since she was 10 years old and would often be the person peers went to when their sex ed classes were ineffective, she said.

Stryker and Montgomery both advocate strongly for teaching students at a young age how to make choices without feeling pressured.

Stryker said by knowing how to say “no,” adolescents may have fewer bad experiences later in life because they recognize how to say it and how to deal with being told “no.”

“If we start young, teaching the idea of consent in any sort of situation, not just in a sexual situation, it becomes easier for children and young adults to understand consent as they get older,” Montgomery said.

Implementing consent education in schools is more than curriculum, Stryker said, adding that educators also need to teach abusers about consent rather than simply punishing them. Otherwise, they learn to not get caught instead of changing their behavior, Stryker said.

High schoolers can become consent advocates by being vocal, educating peers, organizing walkouts, creating support groups and implementing social media movements, Montgomery said.

“A lot of people fear that because they’re younger they won’t be heard,” Montgomery said. “But more and more people are listening to youth because of the voice that we have.”