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How teens are teaching each other the meaning of consent

Ashley Cooper, community and school programs coordinator at the L.A. chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, leads a conversation with peer educators about recent high-profile stories of sexual harassment. Michelle Faust/KPCC

Brianna Tuomi remembers the night back in high school when she went to a party and drank for the first time.

The then-16-year-old felt flattered when an older boy, a senior, started flirting with her, and then asked her to go for a walk.

"I thought it was pretty cool that he chose me," said Tuomi.

The pair started kissing, but she said when she wanted to stop, he raped her.

"After saying no several times, I was pretty in shock. My body wouldn’t let me leave," Tuomi remembered. "Later that night, I actually had my first panic attack."

Tuomi, now 20, said she was surprised and upset that some of the kids she knew blamed her when they heard what happened.

She had something of an unusual response to the episode. "I wanted to take action against the issue of sexual violence," she said.

As an intern at the Los Angeles chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, Tuomi said she collaborated with another girl, Lauren Foley, and adult organizers to create "a program that would be a comprehensive sexual education for peers like myself."

The initiative, launched in 2015, was The Talk Project — a program in which teens educate each other about sexual harassment and assault. Participants say it's more relevant than ever as ever-increasing numbers of women step forward to accuse men in positions of power for sexual misconduct.

Consent is a central theme of The Talk Project workshops’ curriculum, said Tuomi, noting that it's not typically part of the conversation when adults talk about the birds and the bees or put condoms on bananas.

In the three school years since it started, the project has held workshops for some 3,000 teens and collaborated with about 18 L.A. high schools.

The effort is designed to motivate teens who participate in the workshops to get trained to lead workshops themselves. The project has 20 peer educators.

The most active teen leaders for The Talk Project meet for regular Saturday meetings to talk about issues in the news and prepare for workshops.

On a recent Saturday, they practiced a skit that uses a non-sexual situation to teach about consent.

In the skit, two girls agree to watch a movie. One changes her mind, and the other insists she watch the film because she had initially said she would.

The skit is designed to demonstrate that, in sexual situations, "consent can be revoked," said peer educator Rachel Tokofsky, 16.

One of the Council of Jewish Women staff who has worked with The Talk Project from the start said she wishes she had something like this when she was a teenager.

"I had zero conversations about consent and sexual assault. I didn’t know anything," said Maya Paley, director of advocacy and outreach for the Council's L.A. chapter.

Paley believes many adults don't realize how early in life girls must deal with harassment.

"I know that I started to endure street harassment by age 11, walking down the street," she said.

On a recent Saturday morning, 10 students from Academia Avance and Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory high schools gathered at the Occidental College student union for a workshop.

Alexa Hirsch, 16, and Ava Payman, 16, speak at the workshop for other high schoolers at Occidental College. (Video by Michelle Faust/KPCC)

One of the four teens leading the workshop, 16-year-old Alexa Hirsch, used the Harvey Weinstein case to demonstrate that it can be next to impossible to give consent when there's an imbalance of power.

The women now accusing Weinstein of sexual assault "felt obligated to go up to his hotel room or have dinner with him, or watch him shower," she said, "because they felt obligated because he was their boss."

Peer educators showed clips from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, to illustrate why some people don't file official complaints. 

"The concept gets really complicated when the accusations are against people we know and love, like celebrities and other public figures," Hirsch said, referring to cases brought against famous student athletes.

As the peer educators made their presentation, some of the youngsters nodded in agreement, and others squirmed in their seats.

Brianna Tuomi, now a psychology student at UC Davis, came to observe this session. She said she helped write the scripts for the workshops in the hopes of helping her peers understand seemingly confusing situations.

"There shouldn’t be any confusion anymore. There aren’t blurred lines," she said.

As the workshop drew to a close, 16-year-old Ja-Rey Kilpatrick asked a question.

"If my friend was in a relationship and she — kind of — tells me something that I believe is a sexual assault but she doesn’t take it that way, what do I do then?" she asks.

The leaders reiterated the definitions of rape and assault and reviewed different options.

The Talk Project always tries to have a school psychologist on hand at its workshops. On this day, it was Angelica Herrera Ramirez from Anahuacalmecac. This was her second workshop; she pronounced herself a fan.

"We kind of put our students in a bubble," she said. "Having them know about the topic and know the statistics of what it really looks like outside, that’s what I want my students to get out of this."

After the workshop, Ja-Rey Kilpatrick said she wants to be trained to teach her peers.

She was compelled in part by a statistic she had just learned: that one in four women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime.

"There’s more than four girls in here," said Kilpatrick. "So the fact that one of us might be assaulted in college, it’s really frightening."

That’s the sort of response that gives Brianna Tuomi hope that The Talk Project will help change social norms around sexual harassment and assault.

"I think now we’re realizing that we don’t have to accept it anymore," she said. "I think that’s the largest switch."

The Talk Project is trying to measure the impact of its work by having teens take surveys before and after each workshop.

"Students who saw The Talk Project reported being significantly less likely to adhere to rape myths and significantly more likely to intervene if confronted with a situation linked to sexual violence," said Paley.

The Council is working to expand initiative, so that it will reach many more high schoolers across L.A., she added.