SSAIS co-founder: As the Mother of a Rape Victim I Know Consent Education is Not Enough

Originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Pen and check boxes

Sure, we’re all about consent. That’s because we know–firsthand–the indelible nightmare of sexual assault. Maybe if the tenth-grade football player who raped our daughter on a high school field trip had consent education he might have learned that  “Stop” means no and only an enthusiastic “Yes” means yes. Or maybe not. He’d already been suspended for having intercourse in the bushes on the lunch break in 8th grade, according to a public investigation report. Maybe our daughter’s rapist needed consent education in middle school. His Facebook page included posts to “Slap that bitch hard,” among other unmentionable recommendations. He even admitted to the school’s investigators that while our daughter told him multiple times to stop, “I did not pay attention to her that much.”

Consent education is being touted as the solution to the epidemic of sexual assault in our K-12 schools. Can we please stop and think?  Why do we need consent education? If we respect our friends or our students, we don’t treat them like objects for our own gratification. Maybe we really should be educating students about the underlying problem: the pervasive sexual objectification that allows perpetrators and victims to view sexual harassment as normative. We need to be teaching students about rape culture, not just about how to ask for sex. Maybe we also should be teaching students about impulse control: “Hey, I’m about to traumatize a classmate or student for the rest of her/his life. What the hell am I doing?” Does it even matter that it’s wrong?”

In “real life,” consent education doesn’t address the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault occurring in K-12 schools–the “training ground” for college assaults. Consent education won’t help students obtain their right to an equal education under Title IX, a federal civil rights law that numerous school districts fail to understand or implement. Consent education won’t address the many types of assault that plague students’ lives. Say, for example, a girl consents, but later breaks up with the boy; he retaliates by creating a hostile school environment. How will consent education help when the school fails to protect her under Title IX?  Consent education also won’t help victims of devastating cyber sexual harassment where there’s no touching, nothing to consent to.  How will consent education address the epidemic of oral rape in remote areas of school when the school pretends consent occurred, to protect a valued male student or to avoid liability? Consent education won’t help when the victim of an off-campus assault must face the perpetrator at school. Nor will consent education help when lecherous teachers claim they had consent. Consent education won’t help students subject to pervasive sexual harassment–particularly dangerous for girls and LGBTQ students. Consent education won’t help with sexual assault hazing either. In such cases—and countless others—Title IX education is the essential education students and schools need. Without the safeguards Title IX provides, young lives are severely compromised and destroyed.

When our daughter was raped, she, like countless other victims of harassment and assault, expected to be treated with dignity, not like a second-class citizen by her school that privileged the assailant’s allegation of “consensual” sex.  Instead, the fear of liability for the assault was always foremost in the school’s strategy. But schools have clearly defined responsibilities under Title IX: to conduct a prompt, impartial investigation independent from law enforcement, to involve the Title IX coordinator, to address retaliation, to create a safe environment to ensure educational continuity, among other duties. Had the school acted appropriately to the report of sexual violence, we’re certain her life and education could have been salvaged. Moreover, schools are required to be proactive and take action, even when sexual harassment or “unwelcome sexual touching” is suspected.

Why do schools focus on consent education when students and families aren’t educated about Title IX rights and safeguards? Because by touting consent education, schools can appear proactive and deflect attention from their own failure to become Title IX compliant. In addition to teaching healthy relationships, school districts must educate themselves, their students, and families about Title IX.  Students must know their recourses when faced with persistent sexual harassment or unwelcome sexual touching. Schools must be made to understand the value of creating a school culture free from sexual harassment, sexual violence, and gender based-discrimination. Until schools step up to the plate, students, parents, and organizations must demand Title IX compliance.

We must raise awareness of the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault until young survivors feel supported and safe reporting.  We’ll begin to see change in K-12 schools when students, parents, PTAs, and school counselors form groups to discuss the right to an education free from sexual harassment, when parents demand Title IX compliance, when schools educate students and staff about Title IX, when the daily school announcement affirms students’ rights, when relevant notebook resources are provided to every student, when athletes step forward to speak against sexual harassment and assault, when peers practice bystander intervention, when students engage in  projects to raise awareness of their rights, when college-aged educators mentor high school students about their risks and rights, and when people from all walks of life care enough to take simple steps to hold schools accountable.

Consent education should never eclipse Title IX education. And the legal implications of affirmative consent (“yes means yes”) must be understood alongside Title IX. That’s another discussion.