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How Much Do Teenagers Know About Sex And The Law?


How much do teenagers in school know about the law and their sexual behavior? We're going to talk about that with Al Vernacchio. He is a sexuality educator who was invited to speak at St. Paul's School after the allegations became public. Welcome to the program.

AL VERNACCHIO: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Having spoken with and listened to students, what do you think they understood or understand about how the law applies to them?

VERNACCHIO: I think students in general have a very poor understanding of the legalities of sexual interactions. And so often sexuality education programs are not necessarily covering that area which, in this day and age, is something we absolutely have to include in any comprehensive sexuality education program.

INSKEEP: I guess there's a basic confusion here in that for students who are all in high school, some may not quite grasp that there is a line and some young people are over that age limit and some are below it.

VERNACCHIO: That's correct. And the age of consent varies by state and not every young person is aware exactly what that is or what the age of consent law means. And there can be situations where students who are going to the same school fall outside the window of that age of consent where one student could be committing a crime by having a sexual interaction with a student who is below that age.

INSKEEP: And let's set aside, for a moment, the age of consent and just talk about consent. Do you think that students broadly understand what consent really is in a sexual encounter?

VERNACCHIO: I think that we have to continue to and do a better job talking about consent with young people. I think every young person can clearly say that a no means no. But understanding when a yes means yes and understanding that consent is an ongoing process is not something that, in my experience, is being routinely taught at the high school level. I think colleges are doing a great job of addressing this, but we need to be talking about these issues with high school students.

INSKEEP: Explain the distinction between saying no means no and saying what people have said more recently, yes means yes. What's the distinction there?

VERNACCHIO: Sure. I think that for most people no means no is a clear signal that whatever activity is happening needs to stop. Having the yes means yes conversation means understanding that because the person has consented to one form of physical contact or sexual interaction does not then give license for anything or everything else to take place - that each moment and each action needs to be continually assessed and negotiated by both parties.

INSKEEP: How do you get a conversation going on this subject when, on some level, it's on the minds of everybody in the room, but many people may be unused to or uncomfortable talking about it?

VERNACCHIO: Well, I think the first thing you do is you address the discomfort and you say, I know that as a society we aren't very good about talking openly and honestly about human sexuality and sexual interaction. However, for my definition of what is healthy sexual activity, it necessarily involves that conversation. I tell my students if you can't look someone in the eye and talk about what you want to do with them, you don't have any business doing it. And that's a very high standard. It's a high bar for students. It's a high bar for adults. But I think it is one of the ways that we can avoid some of these really tragic circumstances where people on both sides wind up terribly hurt and impacted for the rest of their lives.

INSKEEP: Al Vernacchio is a sexuality educator, and he is based at Friends' Central School outside of Philadelphia. Thanks very much.

VERNACCHIO: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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