By Aisling Walsh
The state of California has just passed a “Yes Means Yes” sexual assault law that has defined consent as “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” This is a landmark step in the advancement of women’s sexual rights and the rights to bodily integrity when too often silence, a lack of resistance, being drunk, drugged or unconscious or provocative behavior have been deemed toconstitute implicit consent on the part of the victim of a sexual assault.
This law is particularly timely where recent studies have shown that one in ten British women have been coerced into engaging in sexual activities at some point in their lives and up to one in five female students on US campuses have been sexually assaulted. A common trend in both studies was the confusion over what actually constitutes a sexual assault and when the line is crossed between consent and coercion. This culture of ‘blurred lines’ where the absence of a “No” has frequently been taken to imply consent signals the urgent need to rethink our models of sexual education.
A 2010 report from the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Vernor Muñoz, addressed the right to a sexual education as an essential aspect of the enjoyment of the rights to health, eduction and sexuality. He states that achievement of the the highest attainable standard of physical or mental health can only be possible “if we receive comprehensive sexual education from the outset of our schooling and throughout the educational process. To this end, school should foster pupils’ critical thinking about the various expressions of human sexuality and interpersonal relations, without reducing the topic to a biological approach (reproduction).”
According to UNESCO a comprehensive sexual education is be defined as: “an age-appropriate, culturally sensitive and comprehensive approach to sexuality education that include programmes providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information. Comprehensive sexuality education provides opportunities to explore one’s own values and attitudes and to build decision- making, communication and risk reduction skills about all aspects of sexuality.”
The right to a sexual education has been highlighted across the UN treaty body system and the lack of access to sexual and reproductive education has been viewed as a “barrier to compliance with the State’s obligation to guarantee the rights to life, health, non-discrimination, education and information.”
Muñoz highlights that while sexual education must be culturally and age appropriate it must also challenge patriarchy and systemic gender inequalities that perpetuate discrimination and violence against women and gender diverse communities.
Little by little the right to an empowering sex positive education is entering the public discourse. Of course there are already fantastic resources available online for young people to find non-judgemental, honest information about sex and sexuality, my favourite being Scarleteen. However, the right to a sexual education should not depend on your internet access or your ability to read english.
According to Muñoz “states must ensure that they respect, protect and implement the human right to comprehensive sexual education, by acting with due diligence and taking all measures necessary to ensure its effective enjoyment, without discrimination, from the early stages of life. The absence of planned, democratic and pluralist sexual education constitutes, in practice, a model of sexual education (by omission) which has particularly negative consequences for people’s lives and which uncritically reproduces patriarchal practices, ideas, values and attitudes that are a source of many forms of discrimination.”
Consent and respect for other individuals must be at the centre of a comprehensive sexual education. Current models of sexual eduction too often focus on generating fear and promoting the negative consequences of sex, particularly disease and unwanted pregnancies. Where abstinence is the only form of sexual education on offer unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases increase, as does the culture of shame, misinformation and vulnerability to exploitation.
A ‘sex positive’ model of sexual education should be built empowering messages for children, teenagers and adults of all genders, that focuses on the development of confidence and self-esteem so that they feel comfortable to express their desires and define and defend their boundaries. That fosters a culture of respect and understanding of gender and sexual diversity. Where the only prohibited and demonized behaviors are the ones that harm or exploit or violate other people. Where someone else’s body is not their’s to possess or consume. And that it is always ok to say no with confidence but that it is also ok to shout yes when you really want it.