The sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh have sparked an important conversation about the moral standards to which public officials should be held. The allegations also highlight the need to educate young people about affirmative consent and bystander intervention in junior high and high school.
Affirmative consent (“yes means yes”) is becoming the fundamental protocol for sex. Sexual activity cannot commence without voluntary affirmation by both parties prior to each step in that encounter. Bystander intervention refers to the necessity of interceding when a witness believes that a friend or fellow student is susceptible to sexual assault.
College and university systems across the country have incorporated these concepts into their campus sexual assault policies, beginning with California in 2014. However, as we argued in a Los Angeles Times editorial that year, waiting until college to teach young people about affirmative consent and bystander intervention is too late. Instead, we called for follow-on legislation adding affirmative consent to the list of required sexual education topics for high school and junior high students.
The California State Legislature answered the call, amending the state’s Education Code to address these topics. Unfortunately, only a handful of states have followed California’s lead, meaning that the vast majority of students receive no training on affirmative consent before they get to college. Here are several reasons why they should.
First, although the media has focused largely on sexual assault on college campuses, a disturbingly high number of young people are victimized in high school and junior high. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42 percent of all female rape victims were first assaulted before they turned 18. Waiting until college to address affirmative consent and bystander intervention does little to protect these young victims.
Second, people’s views on sexual behavior and relationships are often firmly established by the time they reach college. With dating and sexual activity increasingly starting in junior high school, ameliorative measures at the college level might come five or six years too late. By then, attempts to “re-program” a college student’ s views on sex and relationship dynamics could prove difficult.
Third, early education has a greater chance of not only preventing abuse from occurring in the first place but of increasing the rate of reporting when it does happen. Sadly, known assailants – friends, boyfriends, extended family members, and so forth – commit most sexual assaults and most perpetrators abuse multiple victims before they are caught. Early education and training can empower survivors to report abuse, which in turn may discourage perpetrators from striking.
For these reasons and many others, states should follow California’s lead and begin training students on affirmative consent and bystander intervention in junior high and high school. As a practical matter, the curriculum can be tailored to young audiences. Age-appropriate role-playing exercises could illustrate how affirmative consent operates in the context of, for example, hand-holding or kissing. Training would also include modeling strategies to deny consent and education on the importance of intervening and reporting sexual abuse to authorities. These exercises could then be extended to progressively ordered intimate steps for older students.
While incorporating the “Yes Means Yes” standard into college sexual assault policies has been an important first step, the best way to address the scourge of sexual violence is to educate students about affirmative consent and bystander intervention even earlier. Now, more than ever, is the time to do so.
Leif Dautch is a prosecutor, former Commission President, and candidate for District Attorney of San Francisco. Dr. Paul Abramson is a Professor of Psychology at UCLA.