“That’s what she said.” When students walk into Denise Velasco’s sex education classroom at Network Charter School, they see this phrase on a poster. This appeal to juvenile humor is not what it seems: Look closer and you’ll see two women kissing beneath a word in bold letters — “Yes.” As corny as the poster is, it sends a clear message about sex.
“Consent is talked about on an almost daily basis in my class because I can incorporate it into every lesson in some way, shape or form,” says Velasco, who has taught sex ed at Network Charter School for 10 years. “It’s a big part of my program.”
Definitions of consent vary, but according to the UO Student Code of Conduct, “explicit consent” means “an affirmative verbal response or voluntary acts unmistakable in their meaning.”
It’s complicated, because the definition of the word “consent” has evolved, and simply saying “No means no” doesn’t cut it anymore when teaching teens the ins and outs of sexuality. The concept of consent is much more fluid than that.
The UO community is in the midst of figuring out how to deal with its sexual assault problem — preliminary results from a survey of UO students conducted by UO prof Jennifer Freyd found that 35 percent of female respondents and 14 percent of male respondents had at least one sexual experience without their consent. Recognizing the benefits of teaching kids consent before they head to college, Oregon has updated its sex ed standards over the past 10 years to emphasize positive, healthy sexual relationships instead of scary diseases.
Sex education experts in this state believe that when teens learn what healthy relationships look like, what consent means and how to apply these concepts in their own lives, incidences of sexual violence can be reduced. When teaching sex ed across Lane County’s school districts, health teachers face large class sizes, staff shortages and crunched class schedules, yet despite such difficulties, local teens are learning more about consent and healthy relationships than any previous generation, thanks to Oregon’s strong health education standards.
Let’s talk about sex
The way sex education manifests in the classroom varies from school to school. Depending on the school, some teens get an entire class devoted exclusively to human sexuality. Most of the time, though, sex ed is incorporated into health class.
At Sheldon High School, students have to take two trimesters of health in four years. Health teachers at Sheldon are required to cover all subject matter listed in Oregon’s health education standards, which dictate benchmarks and skills that Oregon students should know. Besides sex ed, this includes alcohol, tobacco and drug prevention, prevention and control of disease, environmental health, healthy eating, mental health, physical activity and injury prevention.
Communications Specialist Devon Ashbridge says that in the Springfield School District, health teachers follow Oregon state standards for high school health education, incorporating topics like consent into the healthy relationships portion of the class. Ashbridge says that “students in Springfield talk specifically about ‘No means no,’ and they explore both male and female perspectives by discussing current events, reading perspectives from those who’ve been in situations where consent wasn’t clear and role-playing so they have the opportunity to hear and express consent.”
Of course, while all Oregon schools are supposed to adhere to Oregon’s health standards, that doesn’t always happen.
Velasco says when she worked in Roseburg in Douglas County over 10 years ago, she taught parenting classes to teen parents who still attended high school. Part of the curriculum included information on how to prevent having a second child, but when the school district found out, that section of the class was removed. “The district didn’t think it was appropriate for these girls to have that type of education, even though they’d obviously already had sex,” Velasco says.
Mary Gossart of Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon says that although Oregon’s laws on sex education are considered a model of comprehensive sex education, implementation of the standards is not always up to par. “It’s an unfunded mandate, so you could go to different schools around Lane County and find varying degrees of sex ed being taught,” she says. “In some schools they’re doing a terrific job and in alignment with health education standards, and at other schools not much is happening.”
Consent in the classroom
In Velasco’s class at Network Charter School, students take half a year of sex ed in a mixed class of ninth through twelfth graders. Velasco’s students cover everything from masturbation to sexting, and she invites Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS) and Womenspace to speak to her students about sexual assault.
“We talk about what consent looks like, the importance of asking for consent and that consent can be taken away at any moment,” Velasco says.
One of her teaching strategies involves discussion, a popular way of getting teens to open up and relate topics to their own lives. In high school, sometimes this means that silliness ensues, but humor often transitions to constructive debates.
During class, Velasco asked her students what “reproductive rights” means. A student answered, “If you were to live in China, you can’t have more than one child. In America, you can have five kids.”
“Or 18,” another student chimed in.
“Or 75!” added another.
Once the laughter died down, the conversation turned toward more serious topics: unintended pregnancies and the role of the government in controlling abortions.
In another class activity, Velasco gave every student a piece of paper. Then she wrote a statement on the board, and students had to write whether they agreed or disagreed. Students then crumpled the papers and threw them at each other, scrambling the papers up so it was impossible to tell who wrote what. After that, each teen found a new paper. Even if they didn’t agree with the viewpoint expressed on their paper, they had to make an argument in favor of it.
“It’s a way for them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” Velasco says.
She acknowledges that gender is fluid, so instead of saying “woman” or “man,” she says “someone with a vagina.” She also says she tries to speak in inclusive language, using terms like transgender and cisgender.
Yes means yes
Oregon’s health education standards specifically require students to “define sexual consent and explain its implications for sexual decision-making,” as well as “demonstrate respect for the boundaries of others as they relate to intimacy and sexual behavior.” In the classroom, teachers measure their students’ progress through discussion, role-playing, essay writing or any combination that teachers find effective.
Compare this to Texas, which requires its school districts to unrealistically tell students “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.”
Part of Oregon’s strength comes from its “comprehensive” model of sex education. Comprehensive sex ed emphasizes the benefits of sexual abstinence but also acknowledges sexual activity by providing the knowledge and skills required for current and future sexual behavior.
Only 22 states require sex education in public schools, and abstinence-only curriculum is still pervasive. Study after study shows that abstinence-only sex education does not decrease levels of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), two of the biggest measures of success in a sexual health program.
“With abstinence-only, kids aren’t informed of STIs or how to use a condom properly,” Velasco says. “When my students choose to become sexually active, I want them to have a happy, safe sex life. I want them to understand the risk involved in having sex, but also the good things, too. I don’t want them to think it’s all bad, because it’s not.”
And when it comes to talking about sexual violence, having conversations about healthy relationships and consent is an important first step.
“You can’t talk about sexuality without talking about consent,” says Julia Baldino, community outreach coordinator for SASS. “If people aren’t engaging in conversation before they’re getting to the point where they’re having sex, then that’s a big problem in terms of being able to prevent sexual violence.”
In the early 1990s, Oregon sex education focused greatly on HIV/AIDS prevention — STIs received growing attention as HIV raged across the country. By 1993, AIDS was the leading cause of death among 25- to 44-year-olds in the U.S., and hope of curbing the spread of the virus causing it motivated many states to mandate sex education of some kind, even if it centered on the negatives of sexuality rather than the positives.
In a 2014 Time magazine article, writer Lily Rothman describes the “fear of the then-mysterious disease” that “gave parents, educators, politicians and students a reason to put aside their squeamishness — and thus changed the history of sex ed forever.”
While the prevalence of mandated sex education increased in many states, it also created a fear-based approach to sex education, the kind that parallels driver's ed classes with their tales of gore and woe that strike speeders and drunk drivers. Teens learned primarily about the dangers of STIs, looking at grisly pictures that served as warning of the horror that might befall them should they have sex.
Enter the Oregon Youth Sexual Health Plan (OYSHP), a sex-positive guide released in 2009 intended to help advocates in “planning programs” and “educating stakeholders to support the sexual health of Oregon’s youth,” according to the plan itself.
A task force, which included contributors from Planned Parenthood, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and health departments from around the state, created the OYSHP after former Gov. Ted Kulongoski expressed a desire for a cohesive approach to youth sexual health.
“One of the major shifts we made was that scare tactics were not to be used in the classroom,” says Brad Victor, a retired sexuality education specialist for the ODE. “When you look at the standards, they focus on healthy communication and positive attitudes about yourself and others. All of these things are meant to make life better, not work from a premise of fear.”
The Healthy Teen Relationship Act, which went into effect in 2013, specifically requires that Oregon schools address teen dating violence. Part of that includes directions for “each school district board” to “adopt a policy that incorporates age-appropriate education about teen dating violence into new or existing training programs for students in grades 7 through 12 and school employees,” according to the bill.
This means that Oregon includes specific language in its legislation and health standards requiring school districts to address sexual violence, consent and healthy relationships.
“We see comprehensive sexuality education as a resource to help reduce sexual violence,” says Michele Roland-Schwartz, executive director of the Oregon Sexual Assault Task Force. “When we’re teaching youth what healthy relationships look like, we directly impact levels of sexual violence.”
Absence of no
While Velasco’s Network Charter School class has around 14 students, health teachers at Sheldon High School tackle much larger class sizes.
“We have around 36 to 40 students per class,” Sheldon High School health teacher Delia Wenrich says. “It’s too many. Teaching large classes of ninth graders at the end of the day isn’t ideal.”
Wenrich and fellow Sheldon health teacher Michael Bell say that of the 12 weeks that are allotted to teach ninth-grade health, they ideally devote about two weeks of that to sex ed. In that time, they cover date rape, relationship dangers, anatomy, HIV, safe sex, contraceptives, sexting, decision-making, refusal skills, consent, boundaries and healthy relationships.
“I’d love to do way more than two weeks if we could, because there’s just so much to talk about,” Wenrich says.
Wenrich and Bell say that when 4J had a district health specialist, they would meet with other health teachers a few times a year and share ideas, get updates and prepare for upcoming changes. But the health specialist position was cut around four years ago.
Even with these obstacles, Wenrich and Bell say they make sure to talk about consent. Wenrich facilitates discussion-based lessons, and she describes an activity in which students have to figure out what their sexual boundaries are and tell someone else about those boundaries.
“So many people don’t even know what their boundaries are, and most of them haven’t even thought about it, so we make them think about it,” Wenrich says. “If you can’t talk to your sexual partner about sexual things, you shouldn’t be taking your clothes off and doing things, or letting people do things to you.”
Wenrich says she emphasizes the idea that “the absence of no doesn’t mean yes,” and she urges her students to practice refusal skills by role-playing.
Bell says his students discuss rape culture and victim blaming, and he’d like to add more to his class on how “guys can confront guys on thinking errors around proper ways to address women, particularly around the issue of consent.”
Wenrich and Bell say they also bring speakers from Planned Parenthood and SASS into the classroom. “That’s helpful, because they can talk specifically about their work,” Wenrich says.
Peer to peer
Lane County teens have access to sex ed from their peers, as well. Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon (PPSO) runs a year-long program called REV, short for Revolution, which trains teens as peer educators, equipping them with the skills they need to lead sessions with parents and fellow students on teen dating violence, consent, healthy relationships and sexual assault prevention.
REV youth use what they learn through the program to speak to middle and high school classes around the county.
“Peer-to-peer conversations can create a community impact on dating violence, relationships and consent,” says Jenny Russell, youth advocacy coordinator for PPSO. And peer education can sometimes be more effective than traditional forms: A 2008 study showed that students who received an HIV/AIDS lesson taught by peers demonstrated better understanding of concepts than the traditionally educated group.
Sophie Kreitzberg, a 17-year-old at South Eugene High School, is both a REV youth and a member of the board of directors at PPSO, and she says her interest in talking about sex initially stemmed from her realization that people don’t talk about sex enough. “High school opened my eyes to how little we talk about sex and healthy relationships in our day-to-day lives,” she says. “Friends talk about sex a lot, but we don’t really talk about it in healthy, constructive ways.”
When Kreitzberg joined REV, she not only learned about what healthy relationships look like but about how to communicate the concepts she learned with other teens, who often feel more comfortable talking about sex with someone their own age.
Fyona Rose, an 18-year-old senior at the Academy of Arts and Academics in Springfield, adds that as young people, they can provide a unique perspective to parents as well. “We usually do a parent night and help parents become more ask-able to create a more open environment for kids to ask questions,” she says.
A culture of consent
As the definition of consent changes, the content of sex education classes must shift along with it. “One thing we’ve noticed over the last couple years is that the definition of consent is really evolving,” Victor of ODE says. “We’re learning more and more about how to teach that effectively. Consent is a very difficult concept for young people to understand, and I think you’re going to see a lot more discussion and thoughts on how to best get this across to young people so that they’re safe and their partners are safe, and they can make good decisions about their wants and needs.”
For Baldino, who works with teens on behalf of SASS, it’s encouraging that many of her students are already familiar with the concepts she presents to them. She’s given talks about sexual assault prevention and consent at Sheldon High School, North Eugene High School, Spencer Butte Middle School, Crow Middle/High School and Cascade Middle School, and she hopes to add more schools to her list.
She says that normalizing consent is her ultimate goal. “Kids are hearing about sexual violence in songs and seeing it in movies, and that’s the norm,” she says. “I think by talking more about consent in everyday interactions, hopefully we can create a culture of consent instead of creating a culture of sexual violence.”