This weekend, the New York Times published a long and interesting piece by Jessica Bennett about the many ways colleges and universities are trying to teach their students about sexual consent. Much of what’s intriguing about the article is Bennett’s description of the patchwork of approaches and programs colleges have developed, which, as Bennett notes, replicates the varying ways colleges have tried to handle sexual assault allegations through their disciplinary systems. But there’s one line in the piece that gets at a larger issue Bennett glosses over, and that discussions about consent education often avoid: a lack of sex education and sexual experience.
Bennett quotes the website of an advocacy campaign called #BetterSexTalk, which notes, “A crash-course in sexual respect during college orientation will never atone for years of inadequate sex ed.” And as much as sex education is critically important, it’s not the sole factor that will determine whether students have sexual relationships that are not just legal but good. Consent education works only when you know what you actually want to consent to.
It’s important to remember that not all college students are arriving at institutions of higher learning with the same level of either academic knowledge or life experience.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive and sexual health, as of the beginning of this year, only 23 states and our own District require students to receive some form of sex education, and only 20 states and the District require both sex and HIV education. Eighteen states and D.C. mandate that students receive information about contraception; 37 mandate that abstinence information be included in sex education curricula. And 27 states and the District of Columbia require some form of education about sexual consent be included in sex education programs, even ones that schools are providing voluntarily rather than because they are legally required to.
At colleges that are either state-run or otherwise attract most of their student body from a single state, these mandates might be enough to guarantee that a majority or plurality of the student body is operating from basically the same information. But at nationally oriented institutions, it’s probably worth remembering that students may have had very different sex education classes before they arrived on campus.
What students have previously been taught ought to shape the content of colleges’ own sex and consent education syllabuses. But students’ own experiences can often furnish them with important information that no course can teach them about their own desires and levels of comfort.
The Guttmacher Institute also tracks the age at which people have sex for the first time. According to its data, 61 percent of 18-year-olds have had sex at least once — which of course doesn’t mean that they’ve had sex enough to know what they like, what they’re comfortable with and how the availability of alcohol and lack of parental supervision might affect their preferences in the future. In 2006, 68.5 percent of college freshmen were 18, part of a shift toward older first-time students. Between the ages of 18 and 19, the number of people who have had sex for the first time rises to 71 percent. In other words, for a substantial number of college freshman, sex will be one of their new experiences during their first year of school.
I would never suggest that more education is a bad idea. But at a certain point, consent education programs bump up against a difficult reality that’s worth acknowledging. No matter how many classes you take, or how clever they are, you can’t implement affirmative consent, or enthusiastic consent, or whatever the term of art of the moment is without really understanding what you like. There’s a reason sexual intercourse used to be known by the now-antiquated but still-evocative term “carnal knowledge.” And as much as we want college students to be not simply safe and healthy but happy too, we should remember that sometimes the only way to have good sex is to have bad sex first.