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Families & Community

Teens make the best teachers when it comes to sex and consent

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Paul Weaver
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In response to what has been a national movement to address sexual assault on college campuses, the University of Michigan released results from a campus survey on sexual misconduct earlier this week. The goal behind the survey, says President Mark Schlissel, is to get a better idea of what’s happening on campus to ultimately improve sexual assault prevention efforts. The university has faced scrutiny for failing to act on reported assaults in a reasonable time.

The survey says that 22.8% of female students had some sort of nonconsensual experience happen to them in the past year alone. 6.8% of male students reported unwanted sexual activity.

An effective way to prevent these nonconsensual sexual experiences is to teach students to get consent from their partner before going forward with sex. Fewer than 50% of U of M students surveyed said they get verbal consent, and around 70% said they look for non-verbal cues that indicate the other person is okay with what’s about to happen.

“Non-verbal cues” can be easily misunderstood, especially when someone is caught up in the moment. Experts say consent is an active, not passive act. This means that just because someone isn’t resisting sex doesn’t mean they consent to it. The absence of “no” does not automatically mean “yes.”

Instead of teaching students to avoid being sexually assaulted, new affirmative consent efforts teach young people not to sexually assault others.

U of M already does this kind of peer-to-peer training. But exposing students to this way of thinking before they ever set foot on a college campus might make a huge difference when they get there, which is exactly what some sex ed programs are starting to do.

Sex education programs have been proven to be more effective at reducing unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections when they cover things like power, control, and gender inequality. If you’re thinking high school kids might have a tough time talking to their teachers about this kind of stuff, you’re probably right – which is one reason why advocates say peer-to-peer programs can be really effective. Kids are more likely to open up to someone their own age about sex and relationships than an adult, and the messages they receive from peers have a huge impact on their own sexual activity.
 
The Teen Voice program at SafeHouse Center in Washtenaw County puts this peer-to-peer model into action. The group is made up of teen volunteers that, under the direction of SafeHouse staff, connect with local teens to provide education and awareness about things like dating violence, consent, and sexual assault. Teen Voice presents in schools and community groups across the county.

Barbara Neiss-May, director of SafeHouse, says Teen Voice not only spreads awareness but also conveys an important message to teens: in the event that dating violence or sexual assault does happen, they’re not alone and there is help available.

You can learn more about the Teen Voice program here.

Are you aware of any peer to peer sex education programs in Michigan? If so – let me know at brittanyb@michiganradio.org. Thanks!