Monday, March 27, 2023

Advocates Say School Lessons on Consent Could be Key to Preventing Sexual Violence


By Margaret O'Hara/Santa Fe New Mexican

When Alena Schaim teaches eighth graders about affirmative consent during Santa Fe Public Schools' Sexual Health Education Week, she discusses why "no" can be a difficult word to hear.

She explains how body language can communicate a state of mind, such as enthusiasm or sobriety, and brainstorms with students why some people might feel pressured to say yes in a sexual situation, even if they'd rather say no.

Schaim, executive director of the local violence-prevention organization Resolve, said the goal of affirmative consent education is to ensure students who find themselves in sexual situations are empowered to communicate their own feelings and won't ever assume consent of another.

"Prevention is rooted in people knowing better. Affirmative consent helps people understand what is actually required in order to know for sure that someone wants to have sex or do a sexual act," said Schaim, whose organization has been teaching at local schools for eight years.

A bill being considered by the state Legislature would require this type of education in New Mexico schools. In addition to directing schools and universities to adopt policies and procedures to address sexual assault, intimate partner violence, harassment and stalking, House Bill 43 would set affirmative consent to engage in sexual activity — defined as "affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement" — as the standard in secondary-level health classes across the state.

The measure has cleared two committees, with unanimous support Monday in the House Judiciary Committee, and is headed to the House floor.

Republican Sens. Brian Baca of Los Lunas and Candy Spence Ezzell of Roswell, both members of House Education Committee, voted against the bill last week. Baca spoke of concerns about a provision calling for trauma-informed responses and investigations following assault and harassment allegations at state-funded colleges and universities, arguing such duties should fall to law enforcement rather than institutions. Spence Ezzell did not comment during the hearing.

Neither could be reached to comment on their reasons for opposing the measure.

If HB 43 becomes law, advocates say, it could be a game-changer in sexual violence prevention.

"Programs are already teaching some affirmative consent across New Mexico. The problem right now is that ... access to that education shouldn't be dependent on where you live," said Jess Clark, director of sexual violence prevention at the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs and a former affirmative consent educator. 

Rep. Elizabeth "Liz" Thomson, D-Albuquerque, introduced HB 43. She pushed for a similar bill during the regular 30-day legislative session in 2022, but it didn't get a committee hearing.

Thomson said she hopes to see a different result in this year's 60-day session, when a broader range of bills can be considered. The first step to decreasing sexual assault and intimate partner violence, she said, is ensuring both members of a couple understand what consent means and how it's supposed to work. 

When sexual violence occurs, Clark added, a survivor is more likely to identify an incident as an assault and seek services if he or she has a clear definition of consent. 

While the bill is geared toward middle-school and high-school sexual health classes, Thomson said she'd like to see grade level-based lessons on bodily autonomy — such as teaching students not to touch each other without permission or that it's OK to say no to a hug or kiss — from prekindergarten onward.

"I'm hoping that affirmative consent, at the age-appropriate level will be started whenever kids start school," she said.

Organizations advocating for the rights of women and the LGBTQ community, as well as survivors of sexual violence, spoke in favor of HB 43 during the House Education Committee hearing.

"I'm a survivor of college rape, and we have a wonderful coalition of people that have been working on this year-round for five years," Thomson said. "... Everyone sees the need for it."

Specifically, the bill would address the need for expanded affirmative consent education in some New Mexico communities, particularly rural counties in the southern part of the state, Clark and Schaim agreed. 

If the bill is signed into law, affirmative consent education programs would not be subject to change with the departure of any school staff members, Schaim said.

Rather, Clark added, such programs would be required in all public schools, and districts — even those hesitant to provide affirmative consent education — would see incentives to partner with organizations already providing this type of education in New Mexico.

"It’s not just when there’s a certain teacher or a certain administrator that programs like Resolve’s get access to being able to teach this with students. It is understood as a public health need," Schaim said. 

Clark cited other needs in the state when it comes to responding to and preventing sexual violence, saying organizations serving survivors are underfunded across the U.S. and can't reach everyone in New Mexico. 

Still, the bill is a strong start, Schaim said.

"I wish I had this in middle school," she said. "Even an hour would have been life-changing. I wish my peers had this. I wish the people I went on to date had this when they were in middle school. It could have changed a lot." 

Schaim is hopeful the next generation of New Mexico youth will benefit from affirmative consent programs.

"I just know that my daughter will have this and that her peers will have this. She’s 5 now, so I feel very confident it’ll pass by the time she’s a teenager," Schaim said.


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