“Yes means yes,” the rallying cry of affirmative consent proponents nationwide, could become the standard for consent education in sexual education classes across Maryland and is already being implemented in Montgomery County schools.
Two Montgomery County lawmakers, Dels. Ariana B. Kelly and Marice Morales, proposed a bill that would require public school sexual education classes to teach affirmative consent.
Affirmative consent, the premise that any sexual interaction should involve positive and voluntary participation between both parties, counters the idea that consent is simply not saying no.
The legislation was originally proposed as a local Montgomery County bill last year, but did not pass because of opposition from the county Board of Education. The board expressed concern that the lessons could not be tailored to individual districts, as well as worries about age-appropriateness for seventh graders.
Patricia Swanson, the legislative aide for the Board of Education, said that generally, the board will oppose any kind of state mandated curriculum.
This time, however, the board has reversed their initial decision. The law was altered to allow individual school districts to develop their own curricula, and Montgomery County, which already includes consent in its sexual education classes, is working with the non-profit Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA) to create their affirmative consent lesson plans.
Regardless of whether Kelly and Morales’ bill passes, Montgomery County is adding instruction on affirmative consent to its public school curriculum for seventh and tenth grade.
“In Montgomery County we’ve had consent in our instructional standards for a while now,” said Cara Grant, the supervisor of Pre-K-12 health and physical education for the county.
MCASA and Montgomery County Public Schools will collaborate to evaluate the existing consent curriculum and create updated and research-based lessons.
The overall health education curriculum utilizes the idea of “health literacy skills,” a skills-based approach to health that includes interpersonal communication, goal setting and decision making, Grant said.
She emphasized that the lessons on affirmative consent will focus on respect, courtesy and care for others. By equipping students with health literacy skills, they will be prepared to make informed and responsible decisions about their relationships.
“It’s not all about sex,” she said. “It’s about healthy relationships.”
Consent applies to any level of intimacy or contact, she said, and the curriculum will reflect that.
The 2017 version of the bill also addresses the concern of the Board of Education that affirmative consent needs to be taught in an age-appropriate manner.
The seventh grade version of sexual education focuses on an abstinence-based approach to sexual activity.
Despite initial worries about how to include education on consent to sexual activity in a curriculum focused on abstinence, those developing the lessons found that consent can mesh well with this agenda, said Swanson.
“You should abstain from sex because of pregnancy, STDs, and because your partner doesn’t want to,” she said.
Kelly and Morales, both Democrats, hope that focusing on the affirmative aspect of consent will help to prevent sexual assault, particularly as students approach college.
In the last two legislative sessions, Morales sponsored bills that would require Maryland institutions of higher education to require a standard of affirmative consent for sexual assault cases. California and New York adopted similar laws, but the Maryland General Assembly did not pass Morales’ versions.
Kelly and Morales believe that targeting the issue at a younger age would be more effective than requiring colleges, which are already investigating sexual assault cases, to set the standard of affirmative consent in those cases.
“When you get to college,” said Swanson, “it’s almost too late.”