“The talk” used to be a conversation parents had with their children in private about the basics of sex, hygiene and relationships.
But as interactions with sexually explicit images on TV, in music and on the news become more difficult to avoid, schools in McHenry County are furthering the conversation in the classroom and updating their lessons to apply to a younger generation.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement and a tense political climate involving sexual assault accusations against prominent figures such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, preschool-aged children and older are learning in age-appropriate ways about consent and healthy relationships, said Jane Farmer, executive director of McHenry County domestic violence agency Turning Point.
Turning Point keeps busy visiting classrooms in elementary, middle and high schools throughout the county to talk about domestic violence and consent, among other topics. Woodstock High School and McHenry East and West high schools are a few schools in the area that additionally talk about consent and healthy relationships as part of their sexual education unit in health class, school officials said.
There’s no set curriculum for sex education in Illinois, but the Illinois State Board of Education provides guidelines.
Sex education courses should include instruction on both abstinence and contraception, along with sexually transmitted disease prevention, and the information must be medically accurate, age appropriate and evidence-based.
McHenry East and Woodstock high schools, for example, each go over reproductive health, relationships, abstinence, family planning or contraception and consent in their sex education units, which are part of the schools’ health courses. Woodstock High School also regularly invites Turning Point representatives to speak during the unit, during which students are particularly engaged, both schools said.
Only 24 states in the U.S. mandate sex education, and of those, only eight address topics such as consent and healthy relationships, according to a 2018 study by the liberal organization Center for American Progress.
Illinois schools aren’t required to teach sex education, but the ones that do have chosen to add topics such as “sexting” to get through to a younger, more tech-savvy generation.
“You need to have consent for anything – any sort of lewd photos, be wary of those kinds of situations,” Woodstock High School Physical Education Division chairman Matt Prill said.
For young children, the conversation starts out simple. Youngsters are taught the age-old rules of keeping their hands to themselves and being respectful to their friends, Farmer said.
As students get older and learn about personal hygiene, they also might hear about inappropriate touching and responsible social media behavior, she said. By the time students enter high school, they should be learning about consent and having healthy sexual and romantic relationships; that’s because kids and teens seem to be engaging in sexual behavior at younger ages, Farmer said.
More than 1 in 4 teenagers said they’d received a sexually explicit text message, picture or video, otherwise known as a “sext,” according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
A substantial proportion of sexual violence, stalking and intimate partner violence also happens at a young age, meaning prevention against those forms of violence also should begin early, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think when it comes down to it, if an individual says ‘no,’ then they mean ‘no,’ ” Farmer said.
Coercing someone to have sex or engaging in sexual activity with someone who can’t consent also are forms of sexual assault and abuse, she said.
That’s a topic McHenry East High School teacher Theodora Davis directly addresses in her health course’s sexual education unit.
“Being drunk or high or anything is not ‘implied consent’ because they can’t advocate for themselves and they’re not clearheaded,” Davis said.
Davis, who is the chairwoman of the school’s Physical Education Division, always has known consent to be a topic of discussion in her sex education unit, but it recently has received more emphasis, she said.
“More recently, like last year, I think, is where we really started to cover it, and not just an overview,” Davis said.