Yes? Discourses of Consent in California's Sex Education Policy and Practice


Funding Program:

SSHRC Insight Development Grant

Funding Amount:


Across North America, sex education is undergoing a transformation in school boards, universities and colleges, and local, state, and provincial governments. Affirmative sexual consent is increasingly being placed at the centre of new curriculum, policy, and legislative change. What pedagogical and political possibilities emerge from North American legislation, policy, and curriculum that cast affirmative consent as a meaningful response to the threat and harms of sexual violence? What lessons about violence, agency, and youth can be gleaned from efforts in California—a policy context that, like Ontario, is a site of controversy and leadership in the push to include definitions of affirmative consent in sex education policy?

This project is a study of discourses of affirmative consent in sex education in California over the next two years. It will bring the results of this study into conversation with another, related project that looks at the role of affirmative consent in the recent Ontario sex education controversies. In Yes? Discourses of Consent in California’s Sex Education Policy and Practice, we turn to consent to consider how sex education regulates and produces youth sexualities. By comparing policy and legislative conversations about sexual consent in California with Ontario, as well as teacher and student engagements with those discourses, the project considers how discourses of sexual consent intersect with legal and political assumptions about sexual citizenship (Cossman 2007) in North America. It asks:

  • How did affirmative sexual consent emerge in California as the legislative, policy, and curricular solution to sexual violence?
  • What model of sexual citizenship emerges from U.S. discourses of affirmative sexual consent in sexual health education?
  • How do students and teachers in California schools interpret, contest, and reimagine discourses of affirmative sexual consent in the curriculum?
  • How do discourses of affirmative sexual consent—in policy, legislation, and curriculum, as well as teacher and student understandings—compare to similar developments in Ontario sex education debates? What happens to “affirmative sexual consent” as it crosses national boundaries?

In recent curriculum reform across North America, including sexual consent has become a hallmark of progressive sex education policy and instruction. This inclusion reflects a growing consensus that sex education must acknowledge that the risks of sex are not only disease or unplanned pregnancy but also assault. However, the move to consent also allows for another possibility, one that may once have seemed unimaginable: that young people, and girls in particular, might want to have sex, that sex might be freely chosen and pleasurable, and that sex education ought to help prepare young people for that reality.

This project moves in two directions:

  • First, we consider how discourses of affirmative consent have been integrated into curriculum, legislation, and policy in California, a site of recent controversies over sex education. Drawing on the methods of policy archaeology, this project will explore how affirmative consent emerged as the policy and curricular solution to sexual violence and what model of sexual citizenship these policies and curricula advance.
  • Second, it will investigate how these broad shifts shape conversations in school-based sex education. The project will involve conducting focus groups with students and teachers in California schools to study how students and teachers understand and navigate ideas about sexual consent. Discourses of affirmative consent have the potential to transform sex education policy and practice across North America.

This study traces how this discourse moves across national and state/provincial contexts and gets taken up and rewritten by students and teachers. The turn to affirmative consent holds great appeal—we need institutional environments that support young women’s sexual agency and rights. In this work, we must also recognize how discourses of consent both inspire new conversations about saying yes (and no) to sex and risk reinforcing narrow constructions of (middle-class, straight, white) young women’s sexuality as vulnerable and in need of protection from the state and neglecting the vulnerabilities of boys, LGBTQ youth, and young people of colour. A comparative study of California promises to put into relief the strengths and limitations of this approach to sex education in Canada and beyond.