The huge and important way that sex ed is changing in classrooms across America

Sex ed no longer involves a teacher lecturing over a slideshow of grainy images or fumbling around with a banana while students snicker. Rather, sex ed has taken a new focus in the past few years: Teaching students communication skills, specifically the “yes means yes” rule, also known as affirmative consent, in an attempt to combat sexual violence.

Instead of solely preaching abstinence or numbly reciting biology terms, more and more high school sex ed classes today spend time discussing the practicalities of sex, promoting healthy communication between both partners. The “yes means yes” approach defines sex as consensual only when both partners are sober and clearly state their willingness to participate through “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement,” every step of the way.

The need to redefine mutual consent on college campuses has been encouraged by activists who work tirelessly to dismantle campus rape culture. Now the “yes means yes” standard is trickling down to high schools, promoting lively debate among students and, most importantly, an understanding and appreciation for the importance of clear communication and consent with regards to intimate and vulnerable sexual experiences.

While many abstinence-only groups fear that this effort to prevent sexual assaults is giving too many teenagers the idea that they are encouraging teen sexual activity, it is important to note that younger teens and even children are not immune to sexual violence. The U.S. Education Department is currently investigating 53 sexual violence cases at 51 elementary and secondary schools in more than two dozen states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio and Texas.

Sexual violence was the top policy focus among the 163 sex ed-related bills introduced in statehouses this year, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council. Nearly two dozen bills covered instruction in healthy relationships, communication, or consent.

Thankfully, many states are working to combat sexual violence. California, for example, is the first state to require “yes means yes” instruction in public high schools, starting in 2016. Lawmakers in Michigan, Minnesota and Oklahoma have introduced similar legislation. While California and New York are the only states requiring affirmative consent on college campuses, many colleges throughout the United States have voluntarily adopted the same standard to better handle sexual violence.

As CBS News reports, Carlmont High School in Northern California is one of the schools that has been incorporating “yes means yes” in their sex ed classes before the mandatory deadline. In one recent class, a roomful of fourteen and fifteen year olds are given a scenario: A girl and boy meet at a school dance. The boy drives her home. They kiss. What happens next, over the girl’s protests, leaves him confused and her crying, no longer a virgin.

“Raise your hands if you think this was rape,” health educator Justin Balido asks his freshmen, drawing them into a debate that has absorbed college administrators, lawmakers, and newsrooms throughout the country.

Only about a third of the students think it’s rape. Most of the classmates aren’t sure, encouraging more questions: Did the girl invite intercourse by dressing provocatively? Did she try hard enough to stop it? What should the boy have done, to make sure she was willing?

Together class and teacher analyze the fictional teens’ story moment-by-moment, exposing the missed cues, communication gaps and ingrained assumptions in their disastrous sexual encounter.

After encouraging a heathy debate, Balido makes clear that this situation was rape under California’s new law. “Sexual assault or rape is the choice that the perpetrator makes, and it is never the victim’s fault.” He continues, “Here’s what affirmative action sounds like: “Maybe” means “no.” ”OK,” ”sure,” and “fine” also mean “no.” Anything short of an enthusiastic “yes” means “no.

“If I’m not sure my potential partner is playing hard to get, what can I do? Ask, right?” he says. “I can ask them.”

Yes and yes again. It’s always best to ask.

(Image via Shutterstock)