New National Survey from Planned Parenthood Shows Need to Educate Young People on Consent and Sexual Assault

New data released today by Planned Parenthood Federation of America on consent and sexual assault shows that there continues to be a great deal of confusion about what consent is and the definitions of sexual assault.

It also shows that very few people received education about consent from either school or their parents, and that when they did receive such education, the focus was usually on saying no or dealing with sexual assault after the fact.

In addition, parents talk more to their daughters than to their sons about sexual assault. The survey also found that most people think more needs to be done to educate people about sexual assault and consent, and that there is overwhelming support for including consent in sex education.

The survey was conducted from September 17-October 8, 2015, by NORC at the University of Chicago with 2,012 adults aged 18-95 across the U.S., and explored people’s knowledge and beliefs about consent and sexual assault, as well as their experience of education about these topics in schools and from their parents.

Survey: Confusion Around Consent and Sexual Assault

The nationally representative survey, which included 1,040 women and 972 men, found that there is persistent confusion among U.S. adults about what constitutes both consent and sexual assault.

On average, women have a clearer understanding of consent and are less likely to hold misconceptions about sexual assault—however, there is disagreement and confusion on these issues on the part of both men and women.  

“This new data on consent and sexual assault make it crystal clear that more needs to be done to educate men, women, and young people in this country.

Most people have not received any education about what consent is, what it looks like, or how to do it. It’s no wonder there is still disagreement and confusion.”

– Dr. Leslie Kantor, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Consent means that both people are clear about what’s going to happen next, and they’re happy about it. Good communication skills are an important part of healthy sexual intimacy, and consent means checking in with your partner before any sexual activity occurs and throughout to make sure they’re comfortable and want to continue.

The survey found that overall, there was little consensus about what consent (or lack thereof) looks like:

On average, women had a clearer understanding of what actually constitutes consent. For example, women were statistically significantly more likely than men to strongly agree that consent must be given at each step in a sexual encounter (women 27%, men 19%). Women were also more likely than men to strongly disagree that consent for sex one time is consent for future sex although a strong majority of both women and men strongly disagree (women 75%, men 64%).

On average, women were less likely to hold misconceptions about sexual assault. For example, women were more likely than men to strongly disagree that when women go to parties wearing revealing clothes, they are asking for trouble (48% of women responded “strongly disagree,” while 35% of men did), or that sexual assault accusations are often used by women as a way of getting back at men (25% of women responded “strongly disagree,” while 13% of men did).

Overall, some people strongly agreed that getting a condom (37%), taking off their own clothes (35%), nodding in agreement (24%), or engaging in foreplay (22%) indicates consent for more sexual activity. However, between 12% and 13% of people strongly disagreed that these behaviors mean consent.

19% of people strongly agreed that not saying “no” indicates consent for more sexual activity, while 20% of people strongly disagreed that not saying “no” means consent.

The findings from the Planned Parenthood survey are consistent with a 2015 survey from Kaiser and The Washington Post among current and recent college students, which found major differences in students’ understanding of consent.

“In order to curb sexual violence, we need to teach young people how to talk about sex, including how to ask for and recognize consent.  People can learn these skills from high-quality sex education.

Sex education that includes consent education is sexual assault prevention.  This survey shows just how far we still have to go.”

– Dr. Leslie Kantor, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Survey: Parents Talk to Daughters and Sons Differently

Most people also reported that their parents did not talk with them about issues of consent and sexual assault — and if conversations on these issues did happen, they differed for daughters compared to sons.

  • When asked about a variety of topics that parents might have addressed related to sexual assault, people reported that their parents were most likely to talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships (40%). Parents were least likely to talk about how to ask for consent in sexual situations (19%).

  • Parents in this sample (n=892) talked with their daughters more than their sons about how to say no to a sexual activity, how to reduce the risk of being sexually assaulted, and rights and support services available if they have been sexually assaulted.

Survey: Consent Not Part of Sex Ed

The survey found that most people in the U.S. have had little or no education on consent—for example, how to give consent or say no to sex, or how to recognize whether your partner is giving consent—in middle school or high school. The topic addressed the least was how to ask for consent in the first place.

  • Less than a third of people were taught anything at all related to consent, sexual assault, or healthy relationships in middle or high school.

  • Among those that did receive some education, people were most likely to have been taught how to say no to sex in both middle (25%) and high (33%) school and least likely to have been taught how to ask for consent in both middle (14%) and high (21%) school.

Survey: Overwhelming Support for Teaching Consent in Schools

The good news is that the survey shows the vast majority of people support teaching consent, as well as doing more on issues of sexual assault in workplaces, schools, media, and U.S. laws and policies.

  • The survey shows most people think that too little is being done to educate about sexual assault in high schools (63%) and colleges (61%).

  • An overwhelming majority of people support teaching how to ask for consent (88%), how to recognize whether your partner is giving consent (93%), and how to avoid sexually assaulting someone (95%) in high schools.

  • The majority of people felt too little was being done to support the victims of sexual assault in US laws and policies (62%), workplaces (58%), high schools (64%) and college campuses (67%).

  • Over half of people felt too little is being done to deal with those accused of sexual assault in U.S. laws and policies (58%), workplaces (53%), high schools (62%) and college campuses (65%).

“Open, honest communication between partners is necessary to ensure that sex is safe and mutually consensual, and this is a skill that can and must be learned.

Across the country, Planned Parenthood provides sex education that includes information about and opportunities for young people to learn the communication, negotiation, and refusal skills they need.”

– Dr. Kantor

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Tags: Sex Ed, Sexual Assault, Planned Parenthood

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