Virginia to Expand Sexual Consent Curriculum

Virginia’s Education Department is revising Family Life Education curriculum. The new material was spurred by a group of students from Charlottesville and expands lessons on the meaning of sexual consent. 88.9 WCVE’s Saraya Wintersmith has more for Virginia Currents.

Since it was created in the late 1980s, Virginia’s Family Life Education has included areas like human sexuality, abstinence and the value of marriage. The curriculum also covers STD prevention and steps to avoid sexual assault.

Senator Jennifer McClellan: I think it’s very important that the minute you start talking about sex, you also talk about consent.

State Senator Jennifer McClellan sponsored one of two partner bills set to trigger a curriculum revision.

While current guidelines mention sexual consent twice as a topic for sophomores, McClellan and other supporters say it wasn't enough. Under her bill, SB 1475, the legal definition of consent can now be part of lessons on dating, domestic abuse and sexual violence.

McClellan: Mine focuses just on the fact that sex without consent is a crime, it is sexual assault. And I think we’ll focus on the fact that – for children – we’ve made the policy decision that 18 is the age of consent and sex younger than that does not have consent by law and is a crime – and I think it is very important for young people to learn that.

The bill also expands the topics of family and sexual relationships and changes the wording when it comes to “avoiding” sexual assault, putting an emphasis instead on prevention and deterrence.

McClellan: By focusing on avoiding sexual assault, domestic violence and dating violence, it inadvertently blamed the survivor and unfortunately we do have kids in school who are survivors of these terrible crimes and so we really want to focus more deterring sexual assault and domestic violence and dating violence so we changed that word in the code and in the curriculum. And then, finally, FLE only focuses on the importance of marriage in a family, but we wanted to expand this to include other family relationships, because a family is more than just a husband and a wife.

The other bill is sponsored by Fairfax County Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn.

It provides that high school students can learn age-appropriate, evidence-based lessons about sexual consent beyond its legal definition.

The Governor signed both bills in March, now the State Board of Education must work out exactly what the new guidelines will be.

Laurie Jean Seaman: The reality is that consent actually is going to prevent non-consensual sex from happening.

Laurie Jean Seaman is Lead Prevention Educator for the non-profit Sexual Assault Resource Agency.

She says that while some parents may express concerns as Family Life Education is updated, further incorporating the concept of consent won’t necessarily encourage sexual activity or more talk of sex.

Seaman: We’re not trying to go in and say “everybody start having sex now!” We’re saying “when you begin” – which at some point – 99.9% of people will have sex at some point, this is our chance when we can actually reach them to teach them what a healthy, sexual life looks like whether it’s when you start at 30, or 50, or tomorrow – and we do know that there are kids who are starting tomorrow, Right? - That we want them to have healthy, appropriate, safe sexual lives when that happens. The other thing is, we don’t necessarily even talk about sex when we’re talking about consent. Remember this is about respecting other people’s bodies. We aren’t increasing the amount that the health teachers are going to talk about sex, they’re already talking about it. We’re not increasing the amount, we’re changing how they talk about it so that it’s not shaming, so that it’s not victim-blaming, but so that the community can respond and prevent sexual assault before it happens.

And prevention is one of the big things the bills’ youngest advocates are hoping will come from increasing classroom dialogue and awareness around consent.

Stella Sokolowski is with the Charlottesville High School organization Step Up – a peer activism group that teaches students about preventing sexual violence.

At the ceremonial bill-signing, she beamed with pride while describing their role in the legislation. She says they started by examining the current Family Life curriculum.

Sokolowski: and it really did not teach us anything about what it means to be aware of sexual assault and be aware of what it means to have healthy sexual relationships.

She says even though Family Life Education in Virginia stresses abstinence, consent is still an important concept.

Sokolowski: Even if a person wants to abstain, they have to understand what assault is, they have to understand how to gather around and prevent assault and prevent violence in their community and they have to understand, y’know, the absence of consent within a marriage is just as illegal as anything else.

Sokolowski says she and her fellow Step Up members define consent as a clear, free and happy “yes.” They say that while that might look different for each person and relationship – emphasizing the need to understand consent is crucial to fostering healthy relationships.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Saraya Wintersmith, WCVE News.