Teaching Consent: Could Oklahoma Lead a New Wave in Sex Education?
Lauren Atkins has had to repeat the story of the worst night of her life so many times that she can now tell it in three sentences. So, when an Oklahoma legislator asked Lauren to share it at a recent committee hearing, she was nervous but prepared. Sentence number one: she went to a party last spring. Number two: she was incapacitated and a boy at the party told her friends he would take care of her. Three: after she finished throwing up, she recounts, he helped her onto a bed and raped her. “The word rape is hard for some people to hear,” Atkins says, “but I feel like me saying it is what actually catches their ear.”
If passed, Oklahoma House Bill 2734, nicknamed “Lauren’s Law” after Atkins, would provide high school teachers with the training and resources required to have nuanced, evidence-based conversations with their students about consent. Teachers in participating schools would learn how to arm students with the language to communicate boundaries, the tools to build safe and healthy relationships, and the awareness to recognize physical and emotional coercion, violence or abuse. They would also help students understand the law, which in Oklahoma, defines consent as an “affirmative, unambiguous and voluntary agreement to engage in a specific sexual activity.” Students would learn that by law, consent can be revoked at any time and that it cannot be given by an individual who is incapacitated.
Stacey Wright, a legislative activist who helped write the bill, heard about Atkins’ story and asked her to help shape this new legislation. The 18-year-old got involved because she believes that consent education could have drastically changed that night for her. “I really don’t think he did this to be a terrible human being,” she says. “He didn’t know that this wasn’t allowed.” Wright hosted Atkins and newly elected state Rep. Jacob Rosecrants at her kitchen table last December, and in early February, they brought Lauren’s Law to the Oklahoma legislature.
“If we could pass this bill in a very conservative state,” says one activist, “it could be done anywhere.”
To secure the bill’s success in a Republican-controlled legislature, Wright has had to make concessions, the biggest being that school districts will not be required to implement these curriculums, but she still believes in the impact Lauren’s Law could have. “If we could pass this bill in a very conservative state, it could be done anywhere,” she says. “We’re out there with the #MeToo movement and the #TimesUp movement. Everyone is asking, how do we end sexual violence?” For Wright and Atkins, the answer is simple: education.
The bill did not face organized opposition in the House, but a handful of vocal conservatives did challenge it. Resistance is not surprising in a state where sex-ed courses emphasize abstinence and are only required to teach HIV/AIDS prevention. More than anything, the representatives’ questions proved that these elected officials would benefit from the very curriculums they were trying to keep out of schools. The first representative to voice his concern asked about the bill’s intent to promote “healthy relationships”: “Is that like a snowflake thing?” he said. Another representative showed a lack of awareness of his own state’s law when he inquired about the definition of consent. Proponents of the bill argued that providing students with resources that will help them stay safe and healthy isn’t a partisan issue; it’s common sense. The bill was passed in the House, 54-34, and will be voted on in the Senate this week.
AJ Griffin, a former teacher and the Republican state senator who agreed to sponsor the bill, recognizes that both Atkins’ story and the momentum of the #MeToo movement have been integral to the success the bill has seen so far. A combination of the two factors, says Griffin, “makes it more difficult for individuals who would like to ignore these issues to pretend that they don’t exist in our community.” When asked about Oklahoma’s teacher strike, Griffin insisted that it should not dissuade her colleagues from voting in favor of Lauren’s Law. “Regardless of our willingness or unwillingness to properly fund education,” says Griffin, “these scenarios are still going to happen. These are the resources that our teachers need.”
Six other states, spanning from Maryland to Missouri to Michigan, are also working to harness the energy of the #MeToo movement to pass similar legislation. Even though women Lauren’s age are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault, California remains the only state that mandates consent education in public high schools. While none of the bills in this legislative session propose a statewide mandate comparable to California’s, this widespread legislative effort shows a growing understanding that sexual violence can be prevented by changing the way adolescents are taught about sex.
Lauren and two of her friends told Rolling Stone that they first learned about sex from “gross boys in school” and later received a crash course in their eighth-grade science class which, unlike the gross boys, advocated for abstinence. When asked about where they turned if they had questions relating to sex and relationships, the three all agreed that they rely on the same unreliable source: the Internet. Lauren and her friends say they turn to sites like Twitter, Babe.net, and even WikiHow to fill the vacuum created by years of inadequate sex ed. The trio also agreed that their education has required them to unlearn certain things, too. The silence on the part of parents and teachers, explained one friend, “teaches you not to take ownership of your sexual experiences and questions. It makes it seem like being curious is embarrassing.”
Providing educators with the resources to break this silence has been proven to have a meaningful and lasting impact on students’ lives. One study recently cited by the CDC found that a school-based program addressing intimate partner violence – which taught middle and high school students how to recognize abuse, empathize with others, understand boundaries, and prevent sexual assault – reduced victimization and perpetration by up to 92 percent. Researchers circled back to these students four years later and found that the effects of the program were sustained. And for every study that shows these curriculums are valuable, there is another that proves they are necessary. When she discusses Lauren’s Law with legislators, Wright walks them through a few of the statistics: one third of rape victims in Oklahoma are under 18, over 12 percent of women and nearly six percent of men will experience sexual coercion at some point in their lives, eight percent of women in Oklahoma are subjected to intimate partner violence before they are old enough to vote. If high schoolers are not too young to experience sexual violence, she tells them, then they are not too young to learn about how to recognize and prevent it.
Atkins told Rolling Stone about an unintended consequence of her decision to share her story: It helped one of her friends realize that she, too, had been raped. “Before we talked, she just labeled it as ‘bad sex’ or ‘a bad night,'” she says. Atkins hopes the passage of Lauren’s Law and bills like it will help eliminate the need for painful conversations like that one. After all, if educators create space in their classrooms for conversations about sex and consent, it will be easier for students to interrupt patterns of sexual violence without having to experience it firsthand, either as perpetrators or as victims. Lauren is haunted by the thought that if she hadn’t shared her story, her friend could have gone her entire life without realizing that what happened to her was fundamentally not OK. “Boys could have continued treating her like shit and she would have assumed that’s just how boys are. But no, that’s not how boys are supposed to be.”