California schools next year will adopt new sex education requirements, including a mandate to teach about affirmative sexual consent, after Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills into law earlier this month.
Efforts to combat sexual assault have shined a harsh spotlight on college campuses in recent years, but advocates for comprehensive sex education insist that conversations about issues like consent should start earlier, before many teenagers consider having sex for the first time.
California is the first state to respond to that call.
Under the new laws, school districts that require students to complete a health course for graduation will soon be required to incorporate into that course instruction about sexual harassment and violence.
Those lessons must include discussions of affirmative consent, which replaces “no means no” with “yes means yes” in sexual situations.
Lawmakers in five states considered bills that would promote or require schools to incorporate discussions about sexual consent into health or sex education classes, but California’s were the only ones to approve legislation.
“I firmly believe that by instilling in young minds the importance of affirmative consent and relationships built on love and respect, that we can reduce the sexual violence inflicted on young women,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kevin De León, a Los Angeles Democrat, wrote in a statement. “Lessons taught today will result in safer campuses and communities tomorrow.”
Brown also signed a bill that requires secondary schools to offer sex education classes, allowing parents to opt their children out if they desire. Those classes must include medically accurate teaching about human development and sexuality, including education on pregnancy, contraception, sexual orientation, and sexually transmitted infections.
First of Its Kind
That pair of new sex education laws follows another trailblazing move by California last year that required the state’s colleges and universities to teach students about affirmative consent and to use affirmative consent as a standard in disciplinary hearings related to sexual assault. The law defines affirmative consent as “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.”
Critics have said the standard threatens the due process rights of the accused, but supporters say affirmative consent promotes safe, healthy sexual relationships. Until Brown signed the new law, it had been up to colleges and universities to explain to students what such consent looks like in real-life situations.
California’s move follows a push by the U.S. Department of Education in recent years to hold higher education institutions more accountable for preventing and addressing sexual assault on their campuses, an obligation under the federal Title IX law.
Advocates for comprehensive sex education say earlier conversations about issues like consent and sexual decisionmaking will equip students to make better choices later on.
“Prevention after the fact and responding to crises is oftentimes an easier route, but what I’m so excited about seeing in the states is a focus on equipping people with an education component,” said Jesseca Boyer, the interim president and chief executive officer of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
“The first step for any effort, whether it’s HIV prevention or sexual-assault prevention, is equipping people with education and information beforehand,” she said.
For many students, that means those conversations must happen much earlier. According to a 2014 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 83 percent of sexually experienced teen girls reported on a federal survey that they did not take a sex education class before they first had sex.
Of high school students responding to a 2013 survey, the most recent data available from the CDC, 7.3 percent reported they had been forced to have sexual intercourse when they didn’t want to.
Around the country, schools’ approaches to sex education vary greatly, operating under a patchwork of inconsistent state laws and district policies.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education.
California’s new mandates set it apart from other states because of the broad range of issues that they require schools to cover, and many supporters of the measures said they hope they will inspire other states to consider including discussions of consent in their standards.
Those discussions fit into a broader trend in prevention-education efforts, including drug-abuse prevention, that has moved away from providing a specific list of prohibited substances or behaviors.
In many areas, schools now instead emphasize responsible decisionmaking and the importance of forming a personal ethic, Boyer said.
The affirmative consent sex education bill faced opposition from one organization, the California Right to Life Committee, which argued that the requirement is “another nonacademic subject forced on teachers and their students in an effort to mitigate a cultural problem.”
The bill won support from a wide range of organizations, including the Association of California School Administrators, the California State PTA, the California Teachers Association, and the National Association of Social Workers.
“It is important to educate and inform our youth about healthy relationships and address the underlying problems that lead to sexual assault and violence,” the Association of California School Administrators said in a statement of support.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as California Blazes Trail With New Sex Education Mandates