Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about affirmative consent. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Annie E. Clark is executive director of End Rape on Campus.

Sexual assault on college campuses has become a hot-button topic, arguably one of the most crucial issues facing higher education. Experts, lawyers, students, survivors and administrators have offered solutions to combat this all-too-common crime. From bystander intervention to Title IX education, the multifaceted problems of violence prevention and survivor support require multifaceted solutions.

While the affirmative consent laws recently passed in California and New York might help in the prosecution (and prevention) of some cases, earlier education is crucial to cutting off the problem at its roots. The first time students hear “consent” should not be at their first-year orientation.

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I grew up in North Carolina, in the South, where abstinence-only education is the norm. We received lessons on biology but not safe sex — and certainly nothing about consent. The lack of education left a vacuum, leaving young boys to learn about “sex” through porn, the media and what their parents might or (more often) might not have told them.

If you ask a college man if he would ever commit rape, he would probably answer “no.” He would most likely be correct, because even though most perpetrators are men, most men are not perpetrators. However, if you asked men whether they would have sex with someone who someone who didn’t explicitly and verbally assent to sex , or someone who had been drinking or was otherwise incapacitated, their answer might change.

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This isn’t the same thing as the “blurred line” myth, that consent is confusing or ambiguous. There is a clear line between sex and rape, but ignorance of that line is not an excuse to commit a crime. And that means we must teach our children better.

We need to educate young men long before they arrive on campus. We must stop the idea that just because she didn’t say “no” meant that her body was available. We must stop the idea that women are objects and are responsible for whatever violent behavior is acted upon them.

This starts in elementary and middle school, when young girls are sent home from school because their collarbones or shorts are too distracting for young men. This is victim-blaming our girls and teaches our boys that they are not responsible for their own behavior.

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And beyond not participating in victim-blaming myths, we need to actively teach about consent. While some are hesitant about discussing consent in elementary school, this is a public health issue, and we can talk about consent in an age-appropriate way.

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Just the other month I was at a cafe with a friend, and a young girl — about 5 or so — approached my friend’s dog. She asked two simple questions: “Can I pet your dog? My dog likes to be pet on its head. Where does your dog like to be pet?” She demonstrated a clear understanding of affirmative consent: asking, and not assuming.

Imagine a world where the conversation about consent was not limited to the ivory tower of higher education. The radical notion of teaching respect and bodily autonomy to our children from grade school onward could make our colleges a safer place for all.

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Explore these other perspectives:

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