Body Sovereignty

Lawmaker, students will push governor for “affirmative consent” sex-ed

As a survivor of sexual assault, Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Thomson, D-Albuquerque, knows the blame loaded onto victims.

“She was too drunk to say no, or, you know, she didn’t fight hard enough,” Thomson says, adding the cumulative effect of these excuses, puts “the blame on women.”

Part of how the state can address the longstanding problem of sexual assault, she says, is through clear language.

Thomson has been pushing for policies designed to remove any haziness around sexual encounters that could lead to violence, establishing “yes means yes” should be the codified standard for consent.

For a third legislative session, the lawmaker is pushing to incorporate a definition for “affirmative consent” into schools’ sexual health standards: clear, voluntary consent, which can be withdrawn at any time, is needed from all involved individuals taking part in sexual activity.

She’ll offer a bill for consideration at the session that begins in January, though she isn’t hopeful Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will green-light it for consideration.

That’s not to say it isn’t pressing.

“Silence cannot be construed as consent,” says Alena Schaim, executive director of Resolve, a community organizations that works with Santa Fe schools to teach students about sexual violence and a supporter of Thomson’s efforts to create statewide standards. “And when there’s so many pressures for people to not disappoint others, to not hurt someone’s feelings, especially for girls, having that policy so that everyone gets this education is so important.”

While few districts in the state incorporate sexual violence education into schools’ curriculum, schools in Santa Fe—both public and private—have taught “affirmative consent” as part of a wider sexual health education program for 10 years.

For the Partners Against Sexual Assault program, Santa Fe Public Schools works with community organizations to provide weeks of programming for middle schoolers that gives students an opportunity to ask questions about sexual health and practice scenarios involving consent that takes the guess work out of encounters

Schaim adds that students are grateful for the opportunity to ask questions and learn about what is or isn’t acceptable.

Ellie Wechsler, a former Santa Fe Girls School student, tells SFR she felt empowered by the education she received around sexual violence and consent. After taking a 50-hour course on self defense and communication with Resolve, Wechsler began serving as a youth ambassador, speaking about sexual violence, and advocated for legislative actions to create safer school environments.

But as she watched a 2019 legislative effort, sponsored by Thomson, fail to materialize, “it became pretty disheartening to see what was going on.” The bill, among other things, would have baked a definition of affirmative consent into sexual health education in all New Mexico middle schools.

Of the legislators who failed to advance the 2019 bill, Wechsler says, “These representatives were not only not listening to us, but basically saying things and pushing ideas that would actively harm us going into high school.”

Almost three years later, Wechsler is now an 11th grader at New Mexico School for the Arts.

“I was worried about myself going into high school and what that would mean for me and my peers and unfortunately I would say that those concerns were not misplaced,” she tells SFR.

Wechsler, along with a diverse team from across the state, plans to continue the fight for affirmative consent this year.

Thomson has a history advocating for sexual assault victims. In 2019 she successfully sponsored the Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights in response to an egregious backlog of rape kits, that extended back 40 years. The law requires crime laboratories to test rape kits within 180 days, guaranteeing survivors comprehensive information and more agency in the process.

Defining affirmative consent in state law has proven more challenging. And with a 30-day, budget-focused session on the horizon, it will be up to the governor whether a bill will even be considered.

“There are lots of moving parts as we approach the 30 day session,” Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s spokeswoman, writes to SFR. “We will thoroughly review and evaluate potential initiatives in our ongoing conversations with legislative leadership.”

Earlier versions of the bill, which Wechsler advocated for, included additional efforts to stem sexual violence through the creation of a task force and mandating that schools adopt sexual assault prevention policies. But for this year’s session, Thomson explains, her team decided to keep the proposed change slim, by only adding the definition of affirmation consent into statewide standards.

If passed, New Mexico will join five other states—California, Colorado, Illinois, New York and Connecticut—in adopting affirmative consent legislation. Though the policy approach differs between states, with some requiring public universities to create policies around consent and others, like New Mexico, updating sexual health education.

Marshall Martinez, executive director of Equality New Mexico, explains part of the reason he advocates for this update to sexual health education is to support those populations most affected by sexual violence.

“This is so critical because queer and trans people experience significantly higher rates of sexual violence,” Martinez tells SFR. “And so much of that, I think, is because we have not grown up learning the negotiation skills of consent.”

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