Updated on January 8, 2019
Maeve Sanford-Kelly started the fight to include consent in sex ed classes when she was 12. That’s right, 12.
In 2016, news stories of sexual assaulters like Brock Turner and Bill Cosby dominated the headlines, and the infamous recording of our current President bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy” was made public. The #MeToo movement had not yet gained full force, but its seeds had been planted.
Twelve-year-old Maeve Sanford-Kelly of Bethesda, Maryland witnessed it all, including the way sexual assault victims were treated. Disheartened, Sanford-Kelly decided to take action. She started locally, with the goal of making consent an early part of the Montgomery County sex ed curriculum.
Sanford-Kelly made her case before the Montgomery County Delegation with impressive poise.
Sanford-Kelly’s mom, Ariana Kelly, a representative in the Maryland House of Delegates, helped her daughter navigate the civic process. Working with other young people, they drafted a bill to present to the Montgomery County Delegation. In December of 2016, Sanford-Kelly testified before local legislators to make the case for consent to be taught in seventh and tenth grade.
As part of her argument that consent education can’t wait until high school, she said:
In seventh grade we’re taught about abstinence, we’re taught about HIV and AIDS prevention, and we’re taught about STDs. We should learn about consent. As middle schoolers, we’re constantly consuming media: the movies we see have sex scenes in them, the music we listen to has sexual themes, and you can see naked women anywhere. We hear stories, we read stories, about… Brock Turner and Bill Cosby… but there’s not a disclaimer that says sexual assault is wrong. It doesn’t say that sexual violence is bad or that rape is inexcusable. We have to be taught that. Before we are taught about pregnancy prevention and STDs, we have to be taught about consent.
Her testimony earned applause from the entire room.
Thinking bigger, the group took a similar bill to the state level. It died there, but their determination resurrected it.
Sanford-Kelly, her mom, and friends revised the local bill and took it to the Maryland House of Delegates. The bill died in the State Senate, however, due to lack of support from Republicans and conservative Democrats.
Sanford-Kelly was undeterred. “I was crushed,” her mother told NBC Washington. “But Maeve said, ‘We are coming back next year.'”
And come back they did. Montgomery County and Baltimore City schools voluntarily implemented the bill in 2017. That’s when the #MeToo movement really took hold, and the group received a rush of support for their state-level bill. It was approved by the House of Delegates and State Senate in early 2018, and signed into law by Governor Larry Hogan in May.
Maryland is now just one of 10 states that include consent as part of their state-mandated sex ed curriculum.
Sanford-Kelly, now 14, and her friends accomplished an awesome feat in persuading Maryland to include consent in sex education. But there’s still much to be done across the nation.
Only 10 states, plus Washington, D.C., require lessons on consent to be included in the sex education curriculum. Considering what a huge part of the public discourse it has become, that’s kind of unbelievable.
Consent is the very basic idea that sexual activities need to be welcome by both parties in order to take place. Why anyone would object to that fundamental concept of respect and bodily autonomy being taught in schools is unclear. If kids are old enough to learn about sex, they’re well beyond the age to learn about consent.
This young lady and her friends deserve thanks for paving the way for more states to make consent part of required curriculum, and for showing us the power of young people making their voices heard.