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'Affirmative Consent' Won't Work in Sexual Situations

Teaching about sex in high-school health classes is about to get even more controversial as a result of the passage of a new law in California ("For Teenagers, Sexual Consent Classes Add Layer of Complexity to Difficult Subject," The New York Times, Oct. 15). The state became the first to require that all high-school health education classes provide instruction about "affirmative consent."  But I doubt that schools can do much to affect the behavior of young people in any sexual situation ("Schools Can't Stop Kids From Sexting. More Technology Can," The New York Times, Nov. 10).

What affirmative consent means is that each level of increased intimacy must be accompanied by verbal approval. It stresses that if someone is intoxicated or asleep, the person cannot be considered as giving consent. Colleges in California have been required to follow the rule since last year.  But this is the first time it has been applied to high schools. It also expands what constitutes rape, which if strictly enforced will likely make felons out of many boys.

I applaud the intent of the new law, but I question how realistic affirmative consent is at either the high-school or college level.  I say that because sexual passion and rational thinking do not mix any more than oil and water.  It's a comforting delusion to believe that once students have been instructed about affirmative consent they will remember what they've been taught, either in person or via texting.  I hope I'm wrong, but human beings are hardwired a certain way.  We can try, but I don't think we will succeed.

That's particularly the case today when sexual images bombard young people from an early age. Even the best teachers can't compete with the mass media.  I realize that there is a difference between virtual sex and actual sex.  Yet I think both involve emotions rather than reason.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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