A recent article in Arkansas Online covered in-depth the various ways school districts and educators across Arkansas are working to make sex education more comprehensive. The article does a great job of showcasing the ineffectiveness of “sexual risk avoidance” and the discomfort in talking about sex and making those conversations more commonplace. However, the article details a skit meant to teach consent but merely reinforces gender stereotypes.
Called the “Ann and Paul skit,” Paul and Ann are on a date when Paul starts pressuring Ann to have sex. Female students, playing the role of Ann, practice “what to say that’s not too offensive” that also refuses Paul’s advances. Presumably, Paul gets the hint.
The skit is a nice idea. Many American teenagers don’t receive any lesson or education on consent, if they any receive sex education at all. But, the skit does more harm than good when teaching students consent in the following ways:
1. The Burden is on Ann to say “No”
The skit reinforces the dangerous and disempowering stereotypes that boys are uncontrollably horny and girls are the gatekeepers who must stop the sexual inertia clearly, loudly, and without hurting his feelings. He asks. It’s a yes/no answer. End of conversation. Ann never initiates the conversation. Paul never refuses.
Consent isn’t a simple yes/no answer. Consent isn’t just about how to refuse sex. The skit does not portray the nuances of consent, or the possibility that Ann may ask Paul if he wants to have sex. It certainly doesn’t show that it’s okay for Paul to go on a date with a girl without the expectation of sex today or at a later date, let alone refuse sex himself. At best, the “Ann and Paul” skit teaches one aspect of consent but doesn’t cover the concept in totality.
2. It’s Not Ann’s Problem or Fault if Paul is Offended
Ann is not obligated to have sex with Paul, or anyone for that matter. Ann does not owe Paul physical intimacy. She doesn’t owe him her body. She doesn’t owe him a relationship. She doesn’t even owe him an apology or justification for her refusal. If Paul doesn’t understand this, then it’s not Ann’s duty or responsibility to explain it to him. It definitely isn’t her responsibility to make Paul feel better after she says “no.”
On the flip side, Paul isn’t entitled to Ann. He’s not entitled to her body or her time. He’s not entitled to a relationship with Ann, or a romantic relationship with anyone whatsoever. By teaching female students they need to refuse in a way that’s “not too offensive,” they’re also being taught to prioritize their partner’s bruised ego over their own feelings, and ultimately, their partner’s sexual desires over their own. The emphasis on being nice could have the opposite effect: compelling girls to have sex even though they don’t want to because they don’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings or deal with someone who can’t take “no” for an answer.
3. It’s Unclear if Paul Learns Anything Here
The skit involves students playing Ann and learning how to respond to Paul. But, what does Paul do now that Ann doesn’t want to have sex? How does Paul respond? Although the article doesn’t include a video or a sample script of the skit, the way the skit is presented leaves readers wondering if Paul learns anything. Does Paul get angry and is that response okay? Does he learn how to ask Ann to have sex without pressuring her about it? Does Paul think all he needs to do is ask again on the next date, and keep asking until he gets consent from Ann? There’s plenty to unpack with Paul’s behavior and what students ought to take away from it.
But, what’s also missing from the lesson is how couples can have a healthy discussion about sex and the nature of their relationship. The conversation can go beyond “I want to have sex but you don’t want to have sex,” and could go into what sex means for each person, how each person feels about the relationship overall or what each person means to the other. Without the healthy discussion component, there’s a lost opportunity to teach teenagers that a couple can be connected and intimate without sex and that sex isn’t the only way to connect and be intimate.
4. What If Ann Wants to Say “Yes”?
According to Planned Parenthood, consent is freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific. It’s not clear from the skit if students ever learn or practice how to give consent. What if Ann wants to say “yes” to Paul? What does consent look like? After all, consent isn’t just learning how to say “no,” but also learning how to say “yes” and how to recognize when you have consent.
First, what is Ann saying “yes” to? Sex means different things to different people, and people may consent to one sexual act but not another. Second, say they agreed to vaginal sex. What does Ann do if she wants to use a condom, but Paul doesn’t? How does that conversation look? Third, what if Ann changes her mind in the middle of everything? How does someone communicate they no longer consent after they’ve consented? Overall, consent isn’t just about teaching female students how to say “no.”
It’s great there are people in Arkansas who want more students to receive comprehensive sex education. It's laudable that educators and school districts are doing what they can to make their current curriculums more comprehensive. However, improving sex education means dismantling the concepts and stereotypes harm student well-being in the long run. Improvement is more than providing students with medically accurate information about their reproductive health, but also eliminating the societal expectations and contracts that hinder a person’s ability to truly make decisions for themselves.