Yes, no, maybe: What New Jersey wants kids to know about sex and consent
At Rowan College at Gloucester County on an April Monday morning, Michael Beckford II caught students on their way to class with a disarming smile and a fluffy teal tutu over his jeans.
"Hey, do you have a minute to talk about consent?" the 20-year-old asked, before playing a popular YouTube video comparing sex to a cup of tea.
The message? Ask permission before giving someone a cup of tea (or sex) — and if they don't want it, don't force it, even if they wanted ''tea'' before.
It's a concept New Jersey will require middle and high schools to teach in health classes starting this fall, and some think should be taught even earlier as a way to prevent certain sexual assaults.
Today's college students arrive on campus with lots of questions about consent and sexual activity, said Amy Hoch, a licensed psychologist and associate director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Rowan University.
"I think they’re hungry for these kinds of conversations," Hoch said. "If you just initiate the conversation, they want to talk about it, because they’re confused. We’re confused, as adults ... if we struggle with it, why wouldn’t they?"
Only a handful of states mandate lessons on consent, said Dan Rice, director of training for Answer, formerly known as New Jersey Network for Family Life Education. Based on the Rutgers University–New Brunswick campus in Piscataway, the national training organization was established in 1981, when New Jersey became one of the first states to require comprehensive sex education in schools.
Most New Jersey school districts focus on what Rice calls the nuts and bolts of sex education: abstinence, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. They haven't covered what consent looks like or whether it's OK to have sex with someone who is drunk or unconscious.
Consent education "is definitely a new thing in the age of #MeToo," Rice said. "We've seen over and over again through different news stories the pervasiveness of sexual violence and assaults toward women in our country."
Teaching young people to obtain an "enthusiastic yes" from their partner before engaging in sexual activity will help take blame off victims, said Gina Ridge, associate vice president of Victim Services and Adult Residential Services for the Center for Family Services in South Jersey.
"Sometimes, they're so scared, they lose their voice, they can't speak up," Ridge said. "It's not the victim's fault. What's wrong is the perpetrator didn't ask if it was OK, just assumed and assaulted the person."
During Rowan College's Sexual Assault Awareness Week, students immediately recognized the name of Brock Turner, a former Stanford University student convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
Taking advantage of a drunk person is a popular plot point in movies and television shows, said Kristen Wilson, the school's social service and career administrator. Such messages set young people up for failure, she said.
"It gets me very angry," Wilson said. "We need to talk to them earlier."
"The biggest fight is against social norms," agreed Beckford, co-advisor of the school's Student Government Association and a student at nearby Rowan University. "I feel like it's really difficult when talking to other guys about it, because some things are so normalized. In their head, they're expected to be dominant in every situation. We need to create new social norms."
After Beckford caught them on their way to class, 18-year-old Will Constans and 19-year-old Nicolette Drier said the consent issue was only brushed over in high school.
"They never went into depth on how important it is," said Constans, who instead learned about consent from his parents.
"I think, honestly, they should bring it up more towards fifth grade and middle school," said Drier, a Washington Township resident. "With our society, it feels like it's getting younger and younger."
Age-appropriate lessons on boundaries, privacy and consent can begin at very young ages, observed Hoch, who spent two decades counseling child survivors of sex abuse before shifting her career to work with college students.
"If we want to help our next generation be healthy in terms of relationships," Hoch said, "we have to talk about this earlier."
Few kids are getting the lessons at home, said Hilary Platt, program coordinator for Samost Jewish Family & Children's Services' Project S.A.R.A.H. in Cherry Hill. She's led classroom discussions in area high schools since 2012.
One of her students later reported she was sexually assaulted at her college campus. With Platt's help, the student pursued criminal charges against the perpetrator, who was arrested and jailed.
"I don’t sugarcoat it," Platt said. "Consent is that line that will determine whether you have a mutual experience or a possible rape. Consent will follow you from public school to college to the workforce, to the military.
"Ignorance is no defense."
As a former prosecutor in Burlington County, Rebecca Berger handled sexual assault cases and was well aware of kids' confusion about consent. As a mother, Berger lectured her daughter, now 25, on ways to protect herself from sexual assault in college: Don't put your drink down, use your friend system, stay with the group.
Today, the family law attorney works with Platt to counsel students on the criminal ramifications of consent and assault. She's found teenagers are surprised to learn there could be legal consequences for taking intimate photos and sharing them without permission.
"It’s very easy to be either the victim or the perpetrator ... or potentially be accused of that," the Audubon resident said. "So, why not have an environment where kids understand what consent means? To me, that makes the most sense: Educate them.
"If we start early, we have the potential to change future behavior."
Along with her husband, Yael Farr of Mount Laurel held a family meeting with her teenage daughter and stepson to talk about boundaries and consent. In high schools offering Platt's program, she shares her own experiences as a domestic abuse survivor, and has encountered students already entangled in controlling relationships.
It's why she thinks kids should hear those messages even earlier.
"There’s so many things they don’t understand," Farr said. "And the biggest thing they don’t comprehend is respecting and knowing each other’s boundaries."
There is evidence that comprehensive sexual health instruction can impact students' ability to make responsible decisions.
At Lakewood High School in Ocean County, trained peer counselors lead workshops for eighth- and ninth-graders on abstinence and refusal skills, sexual health, human trafficking, and risk reduction.
Taught by students, the evidence-based Teen PEP curriculum was developed in 1995 through the Center for Supportive Schools, HiTOPS, Inc., and the state Department of Health. The lessons already include discussions on statutory rape laws, sexting, dating violence, and how drugs and alcohol affect sexual decision-making, said Marianne Bradley-Arkush, director of school-based programs at Lakewood High School.
A large group of high school girls who recently interviewed with Bradley-Arkush were familiar with sexual harassment and unwanted touching, even before they underwent training to become the next crop of peer counselors.
"They were very much aware," Bradley-Arkush said. "They had their own ideas about what they would tolerate and what they would not tolerate.
"It was good to hear they understood what it was, and they were very firm about what they would or would not accept."