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Sex(uality) Education & Sexual Violence

Over the past two weekends, I completed a 32-hour advocate training program with A.C.C.E.S.S. (Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support) in town. This wonderful shelter and organization provides resources, counseling, and shelter services for victim survivors of domestic violence (DV) and sexual assault (SA), as well as outreach to the community for education and training. I’m humbled by the opportunity to volunteer for this wonderful organization, and although the work is difficult, it is also incredibly important and rewarding. This is work I’ve been involved with in various capacities since my undergraduate days at the University of Minnesota, and something I am very passionate about. The nature of the work, and my identity as a White male continually gives me pause as I consider my positionality, and how I engage, advocate, and assist others.

Following the training, I engaged in quite a bit of reflection. I’ve been thinking about and working with issues of DV and SA for close to 15 years now, but the work I did was previously only loosely connected to my professional life. Now that I am also teaching and researching various aspects of sex(uality), this volunteer work seems to take on an even greater significance in my life. One topic that arose out of this training, and one that I hadn’t previously considered to any great degree, was the connection between sex(uality) education and sexual assault. I firmly believe that sex(uality) education is key to eliminating sexual violence.

There continue to be conflicting studies on the hereditary nature of violence, as well as research on the impact of violent media on the actions of young people. I’m not sure we’ll ever reach a conclusion in either one of these areas, and even if we did, what would significant change look like? In this era of globalization and capitalism on steroids, any quest to squelch the violent nature of media content and the multi-billion dollar pornography industry is an uphill battle with no end in sight. I would like to believe that making changes here may decrease the violence we see in real life, but without a clear endpoint, arriving at such a conclusion is difficult. On the other hand, comprehensive, feminist, multiculturally-inclusive sex(uality) education is within our grasp, and presents a very real opportunity for positive change.

Currently, only 22 states require that schools teach sex education (loosely defined), and only 19 of those states require the information required to be “medically accurate”, a term that varies in meaning and scope (National Conference on State Legislatures, 2014). Opponents of sex education continue to push for more and more restrictive content, despite a constant flood of evidence that indicates that access to information does not increase risk-taking behavior (Mayhew et. al., 2014), and that rates of sexual activity do not increase with comprehensive sex education. Furthermore, rates of unintended pregnancies continue to remain a concern for health educators and policy makers (Finer & Zolna, 2014). These facts alone make it clear that more sex(uality) education is necessary, not less. However, the numbers get far more disturbing when we look at rates of violence against women.

Congress struggled to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013. The main objections involved extending protection to additional groups of women, including undocumented women, Native American women, and LGBT women. Reporting rates for sexual assault are notoriously low and continue to be so, and we struggle to even agree on how to define sexual assault for reporting purposes. On an even more fundamental level, the topic of consent is rarely discussed, and high school and college students (along with many adults) fail to understand what it means.

Now, I should be clear in stating that sexual assault is not about sex, desire or pleasure. It is about power and control, and a fundamental lack of respect for women (and men) as human beings. Thus, educating young people about respect and consent in the context of sex(uality) education is crucial. We need to begin educating young people much earlier than we do about their bodies, their identities, and healthy relationships. Many teens are already the victims of sexual violence before they receive any sort of sex(uality) education. The myth persists that young people must reach a certain age before they are “ready” to have “the talk”. However, sex(uality) education is a scaffolding process, just like any other subject we teach our young people (and test/assess them on, I might add). They need to begin with developmentally appropriate content, and build on that foundation with more and more information. Not only does this provide them with greater access to the information, but also with the language to ask the right questions and a comfort in doing so when they arise.

This information begins with learning to be comfortable and knowledgeable about their own bodies. There is no excuse for adults who can’t say penis out loud and then teach their children to say “wee wee” and “pee pee”. There is no reason why boys are socialized to be comfortable (to a greater degree) with their anatomy, but girls are taught to be ashamed of their bodies and view them as dirty and not even be able to look at their vulva in the mirror. On top of this, we continue to segregate boys and girls for what little discussion does take place. We need to talk about sex(uality) with all young people in a gender-inclusive manner. The human body isn’t a secret, and you certainly can’t respect something or someone who you don’t understand.

We also need to acknowledge that many young people have already experienced sexual violence, either firsthand or as an observer, and they need an outlet for conversation. They need an advocate in the one consistent environment they are in outside of the home. They need to know that asking questions and sharing information is ok, and that teachers and other adults care about them and are willing to listen and help them if necessary. We encourage kids to report other problems, and seek out the help of adults. We talk about “stranger danger” and they have a vocabulary to voice those concerns. They don’t have the vocabulary to voice questions about their sex(uality) or about sexual or domestic violence. They receive the message loud and clear, through what is said, what isn’t said, and through body language, that sex(uality) is not something that we talk about. Perhaps this brings us back full-circle to the media and the beginning of our conversation. If young people aren’t comfortable discussing issues of sex(uality) and sexual violence with other adults in their life, then they increasingly turn to the media for answers. If the media is to blame, in any way, for the violence taking place around the country, then perhaps it’s because young people were taught that it was the only place to get answers, and there is nobody inside their TV or computer fact-checking.

Young people deserve to learn respect for themselves, and learn about the importance of respect for others. Through sex(uality) education, we have an opportunity to instill that respect, along with a thorough a timely understanding of the diverse aspects of sex(uality) that each of us possess and engage with every single day. In doing this, perhaps we can decrease the rates of sexual violence and raise our young people to have a healthy respect for themselves, their bodies, and those of others in the process.