The goal of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, started by President Obama, is to educate the public on topics pertaining to sexual violence, such as consent. Ashley Jones, a youth educator at Planned Parenthood, said it is important to openly discuss consent in regards to sexual violence because it is a topic that nobody wants to talk about, but everybody needs to talk about.
“When we ignore consent, we are perpetuating a cycle of rape culture,” Jones said. “But if we really focus more on teaching consent, I think more people will report rape. I think it would change the culture of how we view it.”
An average of 68 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, according to the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey. Jones said the currently stigmatized nature of consent can often lead to victim blaming, which in turn reinforces the cyclical nature of rape culture.
“We need to empower people to be able to advocate for themselves, not saying that rape victims don’t, but I think people just don’t realize that they haven’t given consent,” Jones said. “Anytime you don’t give consent and somebody does something that you don’t want, like sexually, you’ve been raped.”
At her Planned Parenthood classes, Jones begins teaching the topic of consent to her students as early as middle school age, but because her classes are not affiliated with the Shelby County Schools, parents must go out of their way to enroll their children, which can be burdensome on low-income and minority families.
Audio piece by Michael Robinson
Not only does the SCS’s sexual education program not cover consent, its abstinence only policy often leaves Memphis area children woefully unprepared when it comes to basic sexual health topics such as unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, non-profit reproductive justice advocate, Sister Reach, found that 90 percent of Memphis teens surveyed did not believe they have the information they need to be fully educated about sexuality.
Deborah Clubb, executive director of the Memphis Area Women’s Council, agrees that the SCS’s stance on sexual education is leaving many Memphis area youth at-risk for unwanted pregnancies, STDs and sexual assault. Clubb said the 30 pregnant students at Melrose High School alone is an example of this problem.
“The Women’s Council talked several years ago about trying to make a major project out of helping get sex ed, reproductive health education and relationship education into the schools,” Clubb said. “Carole Johnson (former superintendent of Memphis City Schools) actually told us one day in a meeting that sex ed – whether to teach it or not – was up to the health teachers and most of them did not want to teach it on religious grounds.”
The topic of consent, Clubb said, is another aspect of sexual education that has evolved over the years.
“I watched last summer when it went from ‘no means no’ to ‘yes means yes’ in just the space of a few weeks,” Clubb said. “Yes means yes is what we are teaching now. No means no just had too much leftover fuzziness about it, so now we are using yes is yes. Not a look or shrug or anything else is yes. Only yes is yes.”
Memphis Mirror writers Michael Robinson and Kristina Vitsenko also contributed to this story.