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Students can come to college without understanding of consent

Dr. Robert Pleasants is the interpersonal violence prevention coordinator for Student Wellness.
Dr. Robert Pleasants is the interpersonal violence prevention coordinator for Student Wellness.

“I guess I could have assumed this, but I had never been told this outright — that it has to be a sober, not under the influence of anything, clear, complete ‘yes,’” Wotus said.

While there are state guidelines, the specifics of sex education in North Carolina are left up to local schools and teachers — and some students might head to college without fully understanding what consent means. But sexual assault is especially prevalent on college campuses and in high school.

More than 42 percent of female rape victims were raped before age 18, according to a national survey of U.S. adults released by the Center for Injury Prevention and Control. More than 37 percent were raped between the ages of 18 and 24.

Bob Pleasants , UNC’s interpersonal violence prevention coordinator, said teaching effective sex education and gender equity — at all levels of education — would help prevent sexual violence.

Pleasants teaches an APPLES service-learning course about interpersonal violence. It’s probably the first time his students learn in-depth about sexual assault outside of personal experience, he said.

“I think if we have more comprehensive education from elementary school and through high school, ideally a course like mine would not even be necessary,” he said. “That’d be a dream.”

Wotus learned about consent for the first time at UNC’s freshmen orientation last summer, he said.

April Mann,  director of UNC’s New Student and Carolina Parent Programs, said orientation tries to prepare incoming students for a new environment in college.

“I think that we really want students to know what it means to transition into a college community, and we know that nationally, college students in that age bracket can be some of the most vulnerable to sexual assault,” Mann said.

In a study published in the Journal of American College Health, 19 percent of undergraduate women had experienced sexual assault or an attempt since they entered college.

Public high school health teachers in North Carolina are required to address misconceptions about sexual assault, such as how most sexual assaults are not perpetrated by strangers.

But Meagan Surane , a freshman at Hough High School in Cornelius , said she thinks high school sex education underemphasizes how most victims of sexual assault know their attackers.

“There’re a lot of people who are pressured by a boyfriend or by a friend,” she said. “People should know what to do in that situation or how to get out of that.”

About 86 percent of female survivors and 85 percent of male survivors reported knowing their rapists in the survey released by the Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men reported being raped at some point in their lives.

Annie Gebhardt, a training specialist at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said it can be difficult for survivors to identify their experiences as sexual assault when rape is primarily portrayed as a violent crime committed by strangers.

“It’s really important to know that people who commit sexual violence are people in our communities, people often who we know and not just monsters lurking in the shadows,” she said.

The North Carolina Healthful Living Standard Course of Study, which public schools follow, includes learning objectives about healthy relationships, abstinence, contraception and sexual assault awareness.

Local schools and teachers decide the duration and methods of instruction for each learning objective.

Surane’s ninth grade health class’ sex education unit lasted two weeks. Students watched videos about negative effects of sexual activity with little discussion afterwards, she said.

“(The videos) would have real people that had been affected with diseases, or emotionally they had been torn up about it or they got pregnant,” she said. “It would show them and their stories about it, and they’d just say you don’t want to end up like this.”

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Gebhardt said students would benefit from a community-wide approach to sex education that reinforces positive messages about sexuality through schools, parents and community leaders.

“Consent is a really important part of that conversation, but it’s also important to look more broadly at what is healthy sexuality and what are the social and emotional and physical aspects of sexuality,” she said.

Ellen Essick, representative for North Carolina Healthy Schools in the State Department of Public Instruction, said local schools can use evidence-based resources provided by the state, but the state does not endorse specific curriculum.

“We provide resources and professional development, but it’s up to the individual local education agency to monitor the teaching and the quality of the teaching in the classroom,” Essick said.

Wotus said he remembers spending less than a week on sex education when he took health in ninth grade at Apex High School, and his teacher focused on human anatomy and abstinence.

“But I think spending more time on consent and sexual assault will get students to understand what consent really is at an early age, which is important,” he said.

Sexual assault education has historically focused on teaching students how to avoid attackers — despite the reality that most sexual crimes are not committed by strangers, Gebhardt said.

Instead, students should be encouraged to talk about themselves, what they want from their relationships and how to communicate their values, desires and boundaries, she said.

“The conversation needs to shift to: how do we prevent sexual violence from happening in the first place?”