If you stop and ask 20 strangers to define “consent,” you will hear a variety of answers. If you stop and ask 20 students who have all attended the same consent assemblies to define the term, you will get an equally diverse set of answers.
With the intention of providing students with the basic understanding of consent, Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) has repeatedly organized assemblies and shown the “Tea Consent” video, among other informational videos. Through the analogy of forcing someone to drink tea, the creators of the video portray consent and respect of one’s body in simple terms that are easily digestible by a younger audience.
The extent of these efforts by PAUSD may have left students with fluency in the topic of consent in sexual encounters, but not with the judgment or wisdom to act on what they have learned. It is clear — based on incidents of sexual assault in the Paly community alone — that the meaning of “consent” seems to be as widely misinterpreted and foggy as ever.
Definitions of “consent” are taught using euphemisms that leave some students confused. Classroom teaching usually focuses on upperclassmen, even though students may confront sexually charged situations much sooner than their junior or senior year. Like in other schools across the country, Paly students struggle to grapple with these nuances and the changing legal definition of consent.
In light of a series of high-profile incidents of sexual assault in the district, Paly’s several assemblies tackling consent have brought in speakers such as Anea Bogue, an expert on women’s self-esteem and preservation of confidence.
“I believe especially among [adolescents], that if you just have the right information on what constitutes sexual misconduct and how to interact in sexual and non-sexual contexts in ways that are consent based, fewer people will get hurt and fewer people will become perpetrators,” Bogue said in an interview with The Campanile.
After going to assemblies, attending classes and watching YouTube videos about consent, many students can easily regurgitate the simplified definitions they learned. But the real issue is whether they are able to apply it to their everyday lives.
It starts with how people talk about sex. Sex is often compared to items such as pizza or tea or baseball, with the aim of creating analogies that are easy to understand, which actually muddle the situation further.
In some Living Skills class last year, students watched a Ted Talk by Al Vernacchio that pointed out the problems with talking about sex in baseball terms such as first, second and third base because baseball is “competitive” and “goal-directed.” Instead, Vernacchio suggested talking about sex as pizza because it is generally thought of in a positive light and can be customized to anyone’s likes.
Vernacchio’s analogy tried to show that sex is more like pizza than like baseball, but students in this class said the problem came from using metaphors rather than just discussing sex directly. This leads to miscommunication and leaves people with holes in their knowledge as to what is OK and what is not.
“We need to get our definitions straight, as a nation, before we can resolve this issue. Right now, the situation about what consent is and isn’t, is chaos.”
Vanessa Grigoriadis, the author of “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus
Over time, attitudes toward intimacy and consent have shifted.
“Colloquially called ‘yes means yes,’ affirmative consent is a new doctrine that shifts standards for consent,” Grigoriadis said. “And it’s a good one — better than the old doctrine, which was ‘no means no.’ With ‘yes means yes,’ Americans will understand that silence isn’t consent.”
So, students can repeat simplified definitions and acronyms that they learned, such as “FRIES,” which stands for freely-given, revocable, informed, enthusiastic, specific. But in the heat of the moment, the issue becomes whether they remember the acronym, or know how to apply it.
At Paly, we get a ton of information about consent and watch the Tea video hundreds of times, but it seems that no one ever fully understands the importance of consent until they are faced with a scarring incident that affects them personally,” said a Paly junior who asked to remain anonymous to protect her privacy said.
She said one night, she intended to have a girls’ night in with two good friends and instead found herself lost and confused after being peer-pressured into smoking marijuana at a nearby park.
The student was later led into the backseat of a car with a male friend who was two years older and half a foot taller.
The student recalled being too high to think clearly and not being able to walk straight on her way into the car.
“[He] forcefully pushed my head down continuously and said, ‘Come on, go down on me,’” she said.
“He never asked if it was OK, and he made me feel that I was powerless and had no control over the situation.”
Anonymous Victim 2
Afterwards, he left the car and began to text his friends, boasting about his recent “accomplishment,” she recalled.
“When I woke up the next morning, I felt this deep sudden loss of respect for myself and it’s stayed with me for months,” she said. “I find myself feeling very insecure about myself, and it’s honestly difficult to trust a guy again.”
Issues of consent can also involve situations where someone gives permission to proceed with one act, but not for all the events that unfold.
Another student shared her experience with this issue and requested to not give her name. She said her partner of almost three weeks took her to his friend’s house, an unfamiliar place. She recalled being asked to follow him into a room separate from their friends so they could be alone.
“He took me into a bedroom and asked me to give him [oral sex], and I was unaware of the fact that the entire time I was being recorded. His friends even came in and snickered, and then they left, I didn’t know what to do.”
Anonymous Victim 2
She said that she later discovered that her partner’s friends had been watching the video on a computer synced with cameras installed inside the bedroom where they had their encounter.
While she consented to the sexual activity, she did not consent to being recorded.
“I have a lot of regrets, but I was also super-ignorant, so there wasn’t much I could do at the time to prevent this from happening,” she said.
Students are confronting sexual experiences before the focus on teaching about consent begins. A large majority of students take Living Skills as upperclassmen, just to fulfill the requirement.
“[Paly] teaches consent in Living Skills, which a majority of students take when they are already upperclassmen,” said the second victim.
“Maybe if the administration implemented the information to freshmen it would be more helpful and we probably wouldn’t be experiencing so many incidents that involve lack of consent today.”
Anonymous Victim 2
From a young age, kids receive subtle messages from seemingly innocent bedtime stories that insinuate consent is inconsequential.
“Sleeping Beauty,” for example, has its origins in rape; in the original 17th century story, “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” written by Giambattista Basile, the princess awoke not to the kiss of Prince Charming, but to the birth of her baby twins, as she had been raped in her sleep. Over generations, the story was rewritten and sanitized to the Disney version that is known today.
No matter which rendition, “Sleeping Beauty” tells the story of sexual assault: a man kissing an unconscious woman. From a contemporary lense, the fairytale looks alarmingly similar to a girl falling asleep at party, awakened by the weight of a man on top of her. And, when little boys and girls are told that kissing an unconscious person is romantic, they may grow up carrying deep-seated beliefs that diminish the importance of consent.
Schools and families do not have to stop telling these stories completely, but changes need to be made in these narratives to reflect the goals and beliefs of the current generation.
“If I were to teach ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ I would be absolutely open to looking at how the text could be problematic,” AP Language teacher Melissa Laptalo said. “You could do a lot of interesting activities, like asking students to rewrite an ending, or talk back to the text, or [write] different versions, like, ‘If this were 2018 Sleeping Beauty, how would it be different?’”
As a result, teaching students the meaning of “consent” consists of developing changes in their ideologies, which requires entering the gray area and taking on the problem in all of its complexity.
“I think some people just feel like, ‘Well it’s uncomfortable to talk about, I’m not supposed to rape someone, I get it. Like, what else is there to talk about?’” Laptalo said. “But I think there are so many levels of nuance of what sexual assault can look like and how you can be involved in it.”
Schools’ efforts to force “consent” into students’ vocabularies has resulted in exactly that — consent has become just another word that carries little relevance to the experiences of students in real life.
“I think the real question is what are students experiencing, where do they have questions. That’s where the real learning can happen, instead of an outsider’s imposition of ‘I’m assuming you think consent is this so I’ll tell you what it really is.’”
However, if merely surface level conversations continue, people will become tired of hearing the same depthless orations repeated.
According to Laptalo, on Safe and Welcoming School Day, when students were required to watch the “Tea and Consent” video, her students “groaned” with irritation as they felt that the video had been overplayed.
“It just felt awkward, like, ‘Why are we talking about tea versus actual consent or sexual assault?’” Laptalo said. “So it maybe seems juvenile or weird or something.”
Like solving any systematic issue, combating this culture must be fought from its roots.
Laptalo said, “If you can’t talk about sexual assault directly, then how are you going to change anything that’s problematic in that field?”
Above all else, “consent” is a legal expression, and one that is relatively recent.
Early Versions of Consent
“Well into the 20th century, with sexual assault laws and rape laws, we didn’t even use the term ‘consent,’’’ said Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg, who specializes in criminal law. “(The legal system) used a term ‘resistance’ and, in particular, ‘utmost resistance.’”
Utmost resistance, Weisberg said, is when the victim “fought back so hard that she was virtually risking her life to defend her honor.”
The legal system at that time would, in effect, assume consent was present unless the victim literally risked his or her life to prevent the sexual assault.
By the mid-20th century, the concept of “reasonable resistance” was developed to address the reality that sexual assault victims rarely had the means or wherewithal to resist an attacker and should not be punished for failing to do so. Thus, a sexual assault victim could manifest “reasonable resistance” without having to risk his or her own life to do so, Weisberg said. If resistance would have been “futile because of a physical imbalance,” the courts could even consider no resistance to constitute reasonable resistance.
Consent Becomes the Norm
In the early 1970s, the feminist movement decried the state of rape legislation and with their concerns came changes to the law. According to Weisberg, these changes came in two phases: first, instead of requiring evidence of the victim’s resistance, proof of sexual assault could be shown by a lack of consent to a sexual encounter; second, the idea of consent had to be “affirmative consent,” meaning consent that is unambiguous in nature. The latter change was only present in certain states, but the idea that the presence or absence of consent would determine whether a sexual encounter was an assault has become the new federal standard.
Up until the late 1970s, a common technique of defense attorneys was to “very vigorously cross-examine (a victim) about her personal sexual history in order to show that she really wasn’t a very virtuous person,” Weisberg said. This practice of “putting the victim on trial” was believed to deter many sexual assault victims from coming forward, lest their entire sexual history be revealed and examined in a public courtroom To correct this, many states enacted rape shield laws that said a woman’s sexual history was irrelevant unless it related specifically to the incident in question
In 1978, Congress passed the first federal rape shield law as part of the “Privacy Protection for Rape Victims Act of 1978,” and it was broadened in 1994 to include all types of sexual assault.
Modern Changes to Consent
In the past decade, many states have updated their sexual assault laws to include an “affirmative consent” requirement. Rather than the old “no means no” approach, which focused on the victim’s expression of a lack of consent, the new law requires an affirmative expression of consent. American universities have become the new focus of these evolving consent norms. In view of the statistics that show 20 to 25 percent of college women and 15 percent of college men are victims of forced sex during their time in college, according to the National Institute of Justice, President Barack Obama sent a letter to schools that introduced a lower standard of evidence to find a student guilty of sexual assault. States like California followed suit, with universities adopting “yes means yes” policies to keep federal funding.
In 2017, the Department of Education reversed these lowered-standard-of-proof policies, arguing that they “lacked basic elements of fairness.” With this reversal, campuses can now adopt the higher “clear and convincing” standard of proof, the highest standard of proof available in civil cases.