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The Meaning of Yes and No: WISE Counsels High School Students on Sex and Consent

Tuesday, June 02, 2015
The question before a group of 10th grade students in their early morning health class at Hanover High School is this: What happens if you’re on the verge of, or already engaged in, sexual activity but you’re not sure whether you want to go ahead? Or you’re not sure whether the other person wants to go ahead? What then? Like, awkward. Really awkward.

“If only there was a way to know before you did something, ” said Kate Rohdenburg, program director at WISE, who was at the school leading a program for 10th graders on how to recognize and prevent domestic and sexual violence. The issue du jour was how to negotiate the tricky question of consent. Teacher Diane Guarino sat at the back of the room, while the students sat in their chairs in a wide semi-circle, facing Rohdenburg.

There was dead silence, and a lot of staring at the floor, until one young woman piped up. “You can ask!”

“Yes, ask....!” Rohdenburg echoed.

Rohdenburg and other counselors at WISE go into the Lebanon, Woodstock, Windsor, Thetford, Dresden, Rivendell, Lyme and Mascoma school districts throughout the year to talk to middle and high school students. WISE counselors have been engaging with students in class rooms for 20 years.

The issues the counselors cover are broad, including the history of sexual violence, gender stereotypes, dating and what to do if you are a witness to domestic or sexual violence, or a situation that seems to have the potential to end badly. WISE also does work at a smaller number of elementary schools, Rohdenburg said.

Obviously the conversation that takes place in elementary school is very different from that of high school, Rohdenburg said. But some of the same principles still apply, whether you’re a kindergartener who consents to a hug from a fellow classmate, but not to being lifted off the ground; or whether you’re a young woman in college who agrees to go to a boy’s dorm room.

“We know that students and young people are having a hard time recognizing sexual assault if there are complicating factors, like alcohol, or they know each other,” Rohdenburg said in a phone interview prior to leading the Hanover High School class.

In the class, she parsed the difference betweeen Yes, Kinda Yeah, Maybe, No and “I’m not sure, but I feel uncomfortable.”

The consent must be ongoing, Rohdenburg told students. Just because someone says Yes at one point, doesn’t mean she or he means Yes later on.

“If someone says No, what should you do?” Rohdenburg said.

“Ask them again,” said a boy at the back of the class room, to jeers and laughter from the class.

“You can be in the same place at the same time and have two very different experiences,” Rohdenburg points out. “Does that seem reasonable?” The students nod.

The body language and the verbalization have to match, Rohdenburg told students. “If you feel that their body language doesn’t match their words, you ask. ... I feel like your standard should be someone who is not just willing, but super-psyched.”

Rohdenburg talks to the kids as they might talk to each other, irreverently, frankly and sprinkling her speech with the latest pop culture references. “I want kids to be able to relate to me somehow. I don’t want this to be a bummer for them. I want to quickly develop a rapport. I want to be accessible. I’m not going to use my biggest words,” she said during a break between classes.

Diane Guarino has taught health classes for 20 years, the last 10 of which have been at Hanover. She teaches around 200 Hanover High 10th grade rs each school year.

“I’m always adjusting my curriculum,” she said, particularly in the last decade as media and technology have infiltrated nearly every aspect of students’ lives. Music, film, advertising, TV, Youtube, and a host of such hookup apps as Tinder, I’m Hot, You’re Not and Grindr have made sex seem as casual and disposable as snack food.

The key, she said, is to “help them to decipher the underlying messages and culture” that are so pervasive, and potentially so damaging when it comes to how teen agers understand body and gender issues, and sexuality. Both the health class and the WISE presentation are critical, Guarino said, noting that there have been some students who have called WISE afterwards because of something that was said by a counselor.

“I feel confident that it changes their attitudes. I do feel it’s extremely beneficial for them: They are informed and empowered,” Guarino said. “I think kids should have as much information as possible. And they’re grateful, they’re very grateful for it.”

This sentiment was echoed by Les Lawrence, who has taught health for 17 years at Lebanon High School and invites WISE in annually to give their program. Lawrence wants his students to come away with concrete advice on how to contact a social service agency if necessary. The issues of domestic and sexual violence, consent and pressure to have sex “impacts a lot of these kids,” Lawrence said. “I think it needs to be revisited on a fairly regular basis.”

The program does its job, he said. “Every time (WISE has) been there, I can safely that at least one person has come forward in class or after class to talk to them about things going on in their lives.”

Lauren Kovol, who lives in Hanover, appreciates the way the WISE programs provide students in the class an “opportunity to talk to people about their point of view.”

Alexandra Elliott, a 10th grader from Lyme, said that the class is helpful in a number of ways. She learned that verbal abuse can do damage, just as physical abuse does, and gleaned advice on ways for young women to guard against potentially risky situations. And young men learn the importance of talking to, and asking questions of, their partners in sexual situations.

“I think it’s good because (Rohdenburg is) not stepping around things; she didn’t really sugar coat it; she told us what we needed to know,” Elliott said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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