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We’re Failing in Sex Education

Recently, as survivors have felt emboldened to share #MeToo, sexual harassment and assault have been shifted into the spotlight once again. This shift has been brewing for the past few years as large-scale assault cases (such as Jerry Sandusky, Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, etc) have captured media attention. From college campuses to company boardrooms the question of how to handle sexual assault reports is rightfully getting harder to ignore.

To be perfectly clear Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence are not about love or passion. They are crimes about power. People who choose to act abusively in these ways often do so because they feel that they are able to do what it is they want free of consequence. They believe or want to hold power over the other person(s). Anyone can be an abuser, which means, that anyone can be a victim. Now that we are at this place where some survivors are feeling more comfortable sharing and people are starting to listen we have the opportunity to make some real change that can impact future generations.

Currently, we’re still in the phase of reacting when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault; we need to be moving towards the proactive stage. In 2014, when an old video of football player Ray Rice punching then fiancée Janay many reacted asking “why did she stay?” This prompted the social media response #WhyIStayed, in which hundreds of users across social platforms shared their own stories of domestic violence relationships. We react, we talk about domestic violence, and then the media cycle turns over and we move on. When mass shootings like Sutherland Springs and Pulse happen and links of Domestic Violence come out – we react. We talk about how those with a history of domestic violence should not be allowed to get guns, and then we move on. When scores of women come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against the same person – we react. We question their credibility, why they would wait so long, and how it could just be a misunderstanding – then inevitably we move on. What we have yet to address is the underlying issue of how can we change so we can stop reacting and start moving forward. That impact can easily start with education.  

Education is routinely talked about as the path forward for individuals. It is supposed to be the great equalizer for opportunities,  in a country whose foundation is built on inequity, genocide, and slavery. We tell kids to “stay in school” to keep away from violence that may permeate their communities. We praise stories of supposed success — children born to families with little means who end up with full rides to prestigious colleges. We tell kids that through education they will learn the tools that they need to become anything they can imagine — as long as they are willing to work hard. But the truth is, we don’t teach them everything and as we know our education system is far from equal.

With the glaring inequality within educational opportunities it can be easy to make list after list of what needs to change and when. But given the moment movement that we are living through right now it would be an extreme oversight not to consider sex education on that list.

As of October 2017, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate Sex Education, and additional 10 states mandate HIV education (but not sex education).  This means that there are 16 states where if you receive sex and/or HIV education at all it is because your particular school offers it. Right here alone we have educational inequality – where you go to school should not drastically change the education you as a child receive. Not to mention that of all 50 states only 13 require that “when provided, sex or HIV education must be medically accurate”.  More states give parents the right to “opt out” of sex/HIV education for their child than actually mandate that education as an option. Don’t get me wrong, parents have the right to opt out their child if they so choose to do that but all children should have the option of receiving sex/HIV education.  

Furthermore, when sex education is provided: only 18 states plus the District of Columbia say it must include information on Contraception; 22 states say sex education must include life skills for Healthy Decision Making; and only 11 states stay it must include Family communication. It’s simply not enough. We throw around words like sexual assault and domestic violence as if they are commonly understood terms when really the need to be learned. You need to learn that you can be in an abusive relationship without a partner every laying a single finger on you. You need to talk about what healthy relationships are not just what they aren’t. You should have the opportunity to learn about how to communicate about what your boundaries are with a partner. These topics aren’t biologically ingrained and if we don’t learn them or see them modeled we may never know.

How can you expect the differences between assault and harassment to be understood if no one explains it to you (including the fact that these are often used interchangeably when they’re not the same). How do we get to a place where we understand that coercion or guilt tripping is not consent. How can we discuss the murky waters of believing an individual’s feeling of violation can be true even if the criminal justice system does not convict. Where do we have discussions on how domestic and sexual abuse affect men and boys, and those outside the gender binary as well.

The rebuttal is often that kids need to be kids, that they should enjoy childhood and not be exposed to these heavy topics. But what statistics show is that these issues are already affecting them. A CDC Report published in 2017  found that approximately 7% of women and 4% of men who ever experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner first experienced some form of partner violence by that partner before 18 years of age. Another study, found that approximately 10% of high school students reported physical victimization and 10% reported sexual victimization from a dating partner in the 12 months before they were surveyed. By not teaching students about these issues we are not protecting them from the issues themselves instead,  we are incapacitating students from being able to respond to them.

Yes of course education does not shield a person from abuse. I happened to have a great sex education that included talking about boundaries, consent, and contraception among many other things. That didn’t stop the stranger from taking pictures of my body (yes, not me but just segmented images of my body and what I was wearing) while I was in New Orleans; it didn’t protect me from the guy who publicly masturbated while staring at me on a park bench when I was in Barcelona studying abroad but it did give me the words to talk about those experiences and others when I was ready to. People who choose abuse will try to choose abuse because it’s what they want to do. However, choosing abuse is a lot harder of an option if people around you can identify and know how to intervene if needed. We should not force survivors to tell their stories but you cannot tell a story if you do not have the words to do so – even if you wanted to and felt like you could.

If we say that the purpose of education is to invest in our youth so that they can lead better lives than we do, we have to give them all the tools they will need in that journey – that includes comprehensive sexual education. The current state of sex education, the tight-lipped taciturn approach that depends on where you go to school is not sufficient. It has, and will continue, to fail our kids until we fix it. Continue to allow parents the option to remove their child if they want but make sure all children have the option first.

Making this change is not going to be easy, especially given the current administration, still it is imperative that we start now. Waiting any longer only means another round of #MeToo, another incident to provoke #WhyIStayed and countless more lives impacted. Changing education is not going to fix all of our domestic violence or sexual violence issues; nor is it a band-aid that can repair all the past traumas that have occurred. It is, however, a step away from just reactions and towards progress. Let’s capitalize on the wave that the floodgates have unleashed — don’t let us just move on this time.