By Isabella Gomez
The #MeToo movement is sparking a conversation about sexual harassment, but it is leaving teenagers with questions about how to prevent abuse.
The wave of allegations against powerful men in entertainment, politics and athletics show many people do not know how to take no for an answer. Because of this, some high schoolers think discussions about consent are now more important than ever.
“To me, consent means giving permission to another to be intimate with them,” says Katie*, a sophomore at Sprayberry High School. But while she feels comfortable with the concept, Katie also says it’s more complicated than a simple yes or no. “I wish that schools would explain what consent is and how to give it,” she adds.
In a 2016 survey by Planned Parenthood Federation reveals less than a third of Americans reported learning about consent as part of sex education in middle and high school. Curriculums that did include consent were more likely to teach students to just say no rather than explain that consent is an ongoing dialogue between two people.
These relatively low numbers of consent education, combined with stigmas surrounding honest and open communication about sex, leave many young people grappling to understand what is and isn’t okay.
Alli Maloney, News and Politics Features Editor at Teen Vogue, says that this was her experience growing up. “I wish I would’ve known that changing your mind doesn’t make you a [bad person], that you can stop at anytime” Maloney reflects. “Just because you’re kissing doesn’t automatically equal sex.”
Last fall, investigative pieces by The New York Times and The New Yorker about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein opened the floodgates to hundreds of people coming forward with their own stories of being assaulted. While the public believed and embraced victims who dared to speak up, one woman’s tale was questioned and dismissed the minute it went online – that of the photographer who dated actor Aziz Ansari.
Unlike many of the other #MeToo moments, Anzari’s actions were not outright illegal. He did not threaten, insult or violently force the 23-year-old woman to hook up with him. He took her to dinner, invited her back to his place, and then ignored her verbal and nonverbal cues that she did not want to have sex with him.
Although Ansari owned up to the allegations, many people online still defended the actor. They took to Twitter to refer to the whole thing as a “bad date,” claiming that the young woman was confusing regret with coercion. In an op-ed for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan wrote that the woman and journalist who told her story “destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”
Public reaction to the Aziz Ansari debacle confused teenagers even more.
“If I suddenly start feeling uncomfortable with something my boyfriend is doing, am I supposed to just write that off as awkward?” asks 16-year-old Liyah Rocha. “If he keeps insisting, am I just supposed to give in and call it a day?”
Beca Grimm, an Atlanta journalist who writes about relationships, doesn’t think so. “Consent is not binding. Just because you said yes once before or 20 minutes prior doesn’t mean you owe anyone anything,” she says.
Until schools catch up their sex education programs, writers like Maloney and Grimm are taking it upon themselves to show young people that there’s more to consent than a blanket statement to green-light all sexual interactions.
*Interviewee asked for her last name not to be used for privacy reasons.