Jordan Diaz-Boutte is a sophomore at Phillip and Sala Burton High School in San Francisco. From her perspective, consent is still an ambiguous issue.
"Right now, I think that people don’t really think of consent as anything. Like they know the phrase ‘no means no,’ but when it comes into that situation, they’re like ‘oh well,'" says Diaz-Boutte.
In 2014, with SB 967, California became the first state in the nation to write affirmative consent into law, defining it as “affirmative, conscious and voluntary engagement in sexual activity.” Under the old "no means no" approach, consent is the default unless you specifically hear the word "no"; the updated "yes means yes" says that consent requires ongoing verbal agreement between both parties at each stage of sexual encounter.
The new affirmative consent standard was first implemented at the college level, but this year, a new state law, SB 695, takes it even further, mandating that "yes means yes" be taught in high schools. So what does this actually look like?
I decided to ask Hanna Pastrano from Expect Respect, a peer-education group from City College of San Francisco that teaches about consent in San Francisco's School District. While Pastrano’s been a sex educator for three years, this semester she’s changing things up to comply with the new law. Because of timing issues, I couldn’t get into a classroom, so I asked Hanna to simulate a workshop for me instead.
"So we’re all different, right? So we’re all going to do this a little different. But I want you guys to feel your ‘yes’ and feel your ‘no.' So, feel what your own voice sounds like when you’re saying this, right, because we want to get this practice in," Pastrano says.
She proceeds to ask me to strike a pose that feels like my "yes": a thumbs up, or something like that. I feel self-conscious at first, but wanting to get the full experience, I open my arms to the air and say, “Yes!” She then continues with a series of questions, which I respond to.
"Consent is fun for both partners?" Pastrano asks.
"Yes!" I answer.
"Consent means both people are equally into it?"
"Consent is enthusiastic?"
"Consent is sexy?"
I’ve never been asked to pay attention to what saying "yes" actually feels like. And I have to say, it feels good!
We move on to practicing saying "no."
"Ok, so now we’re going ask you to say ‘no,’ and feel free to do your power pose, to all of these rape myths," Pastrano says. "So, do you owe a person sex if they’ve paid for the date?"
"No!" I answer.
"Do you owe a person sex if you’ve been flirting with them?"
What about if you’re dressed in a really sexy way?"
I was surprised, but doing this exercise, hearing myself say "yes and "no," actually made me feel more confident. According to Pastrano, that’s exactly the point. Consent is about feeling empowered to communicate. But, while these exercises are a good start, she says real life situations might not always mirror what we learn in the classroom.
"I feel like if you haven’t been there yet, necessarily, than, it might sound like 'Well, if I say no, they’re going to back off.' But I think that in that situation, it’s not so easy to just state your boundary and be done with it."
Practice (and pizza) makes perfect
Christopher Pepper was a primary editor for SFUSD's sexual health curriculum called "Be Real, Be Ready." As a health educator, he says that starting these conversations about consent early—in the ninth grade in San Francisco schools—is important so that when the time comes, young people will be ready.
"Better relationships and better sexual experiences come out with people more fully expressing their desires and their wants, and being comfortable saying what they don’t want and what they aren’t comfortable with," Pepper says.
In order to get comfortable with that, we have to practice, and that means making conversations about consent much more commonplace. To this end, Pepper says there's a metaphor he likes to use, which he got from a sex educator named Al Vernacchio.
"When we think about consent it can seem a little complicated, so it might be better if we think about ordering pizza. When one person’s hungry, and they’re around a friend or a group of friends, they can say, 'I’d like some pizza!' And their friend can say, 'great I’d love some pizza too!' And if two people decide to have pizza together, that’s not the end of the conversation. Do they like the same toppings? Can they agree? Maybe one person feels like mushrooms that day. That doesn’t mean they always feel like mushrooms, but day they want to have mushrooms. And the other person wants pepperoni. Well, they work that out. Can they both agree on that, or not?"
Of course, consent is about much more than pizza. But, the point is that the more consent becomes a comfortable topic of conversation, the better our chances for creating a more safe and respectful environment. And that's a pizza that everyone can agree on.