Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill making California the first state to require high school health classes to include in its sexual health curriculum lessons on affirmative consent, in addition to the usual about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. The lessons are required, by law, to include explaining that someone who is drunk or asleep cannot grant consent for sex.
The New York Times featured a 10th-grade class in San Francisco in one of the affirmative consent lessons. Shafia Zaloom, a health educator at the Urban School of San Francisco, told the rapt group that silence and passivity do not indicate consent. When a student challenged Zaloom, wondering whether consent had to come every 10 minutes in an encounter, the teacher responded, "Pretty much ... It's not a timing thing, but whoever initiates things to another level has to ask."
California already required colleges to use affirmative consent as a standard in campus disciplinary decisions and the Internet was pretty cruel to the idea. But at least a dozen other states are now considering the same in their state colleges and universities.
John F. Banzhaf III, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said to the Times that there's no clarity yet for how affirmative consent should work. "The standard is not logical — nobody really works that way. The problem with teaching this to high school students is that you are only going to sow more confusion. They are getting mixed messages depending where they go afterward."
But Zaloom, who has taught sex ed for two decades, says she's grateful for affirmative consent. "What's really important to know is that sex is not always super smooth," the Times reported she said to her 10th-graders. "It can be awkward, and that's actually normal and shows things are OK."
The new state law only requires that high school students be taught affirmative consent and not necessarily held to that standard.
Affirmative consent is a shift from what today's teens' parents grew up with, the mantra "No means no." Affirmative consent pushes into the gray area of silence and passivity.