North Carolina is one of only eight states that require the mention of consent in sex education.
North Carolina has specific health and sex education requirements for each grade, but local school districts have a huge amount of leeway in deciding how teachers meet those goals.
Elizabeth Finley is the director of strategic communications for Sexual Health Initiatives For Teens N.C. and works to educate teens about issues of sexual health and relationships.
“One of the legal requirements is that they have to teach about sexual abuse and assault risk reduction, but schools get very few resources to actually figure out how to teach this," she said.
Finley said some of the pitfalls that many schools fall into include reinforcing toxic ideas of masculinity and gender roles. Instead, she suggested that they focus on the concept of masculinity itself.
“It’s not a girl’s job or a survivor’s job or a victim’s job to avoid sexual assault,” she said. “It’s about addressing perpetrators while they’re young.”
According to the North Carolina Essential Standards for Health Education, in third through fifth grade, students discuss how to tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy interpersonal relationships.
Middle school students learn about predicting and avoiding conflict, as well as identifying signs of an abusive relationship and community resources for reporting sexual harassment.
These objectives can be interpreted in ways that support education about consent, but Finley said the freedom of interpretation for each school district allows them to emphasize issues such as prevention and abstinence, rather than how to ask for consent.
“There’s not a ton of content, and I think that’s something that’s very surprising to parents who anticipate that their children will learn a lot in school," she said.
Mills said she took several years to realize the flaws in her sex education class and is now furious at her former instructor.
“He’s telling young boys that if women do these things, these things happen,” she said. “He’s for all intents and purposes giving permission for them to be perpetrators.”
Grace Barger, a sophomore at Salem College, had a similar experience at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough. She said her health class focused on topics including puberty, sexuality and drugs. Pairs of students — always a boy and a girl — performed skits aimed at teaching them how to say ‘no.'
“In a lot of ways, we learned about sex and drugs as being the same,” she said. “There was a ‘just say no’ mentality to both.”
Both Barger and Mills specified that teaching consent should be a mandatory part of the curriculum. When it came to consent, Barger said they weren’t taught how to properly respond to a negative answer.
“We learned a lot of ways to say no but not ways to ask or respond," Bargar said. "I don’t think it was really meant to teach us about consent – it was meant to teach us about not having sex.”