Addressing Sexual Violence through Sexuality Education


This week the Internet has been buzzing with conversation about how to
teach about sexual violence — kicked off by an article in the New York Times about talking to boys about sexual assault.  The blog postings have ranged from
humorous to derivative to insightful, while the comments have included
far too much about man-hating women and about male chauvinists
whistling at women in the streets.  The only things there about which there seem to be
broad agreement are that both rape and date rape are bad.

The crux of the argument centers around whether to provide
gender-unspecific sex education or gender-specific sex education.   The
goal of gender-unspecific sex education is to provide the same
curriculum, information, and skills to males and females so as not to
stereotype girls into victims and boys into rapists.  Gender-specific
sex education say that because boys are more often rapists and girls
are more often victims, we must specify their education to some degree. 
But neither side seems to provide much in the way of practical details
on how to actually effectively educate girls and boys about sexual
violence.  And in any event, I disagree with the fundamental argument: We do not need either gender-specific or gender-unspecific
sex education, but rather gender-inclusive sex education.

I teach sex education to everyone from middle school age through
adulthood.  In every class I teach, we work our way through
conversations about sexual violence and assault.  I am bothered by how
the Times article and many following blog posts and comments merely
called on parents to "have that talk" with their sons and sometimes
their daughters too.  This is not enough.  Parents and teachers need
guidance in how to broach a conversation about sexual violence above
and beyond simple encouragement to do so.

Most parents (and many teachers) don’t think their children or
students would sexually assault another person.  So while parents and
teachers might have conversations with their children and students
about sexual violence, their conversations are often not effective
enough.  The problem is a common adult/child/teen dynamic: Children and
teenagers, by and large, want their parents and teachers to have a good
opinion of them or perhaps just to leave them alone.  The young people
know the "right" answers to questions, how to act the "right" way in
front of adults, to keep as much respect, or at least as much peace, as
possible.

Parents and teachers need to have lots of difficult conversations with
their teens, where the "right" answer isn’t clear.  Even when this is
done, the adult might not know if the youth has grasped the knowledge
and judgment needed to reduce sexual assault.  Another mistake, besides
not allowing for more difficult, more nuanced conversations, is that
adults tend to talk too much rather than listen too much.  We must pose
hard questions, and then stop to listen long enough for the hard
answers to begin form.  Through these questions and answers our
children and teenagers will have the experience of deep analysis and
thought and have the benefit of honest reactions from adults to their
honest grappling.

Middle school students are in dire need of this kind of
communication.  One of my male students recently said in class that he
was jealous of girls in relationships, because their boyfriends aren’t
ever going to hit them or yell at them.  A female student said she
didn’t really know what she wanted to do physically with boys when she
dates them – and said she didn’t really want to ever think about it
either.

These students have naïve cognitive models about relationships and
so benefit substantially from conversations about relationship
realities and sexual responsibility.  Dismissing the reality that girls
are abused by boys in relationships does not further inter-gender
understanding or deep relationships, and declining to make personal
decisions about sexual engagement does not serve one’s sexual health. 
Middle school students, however, often still have some time before they
become fully sexually active when they will hopefully increase their
knowledge and skills in the area.  Through my work with college
students, however, I have found that far too few of them have actually
done so.

College students are more sexually experienced, but far too often
have only a little more knowledge and skills about sexuality in general
and sexual violence specifically.  Yesterday a young woman asked me in
that slightly off-kilter voice that makes it clear she’s talking about
herself, “If you’re at a friend’s party and passed out because you’re
drunk, like really drunk, and you wake up at four in the morning, and
you’re boyfriend is having sex with you, is that okay?  Because he’s
your boyfriend?”  There is a substantial education gap that lasts far
into young people’s sexually active years.

Students’ misunderstandings and misconceptions about sexual
violence only come up in the midst of hard conversations about
relationships, personal goals, and sexual violence.  The gaps in
knowledge and experience surface in response to oblique scenarios that
initially left the students unsure of the “right” answer.  That is to
say, these conversations were born out of real life scenarios where I
stopped talking and let them muse.  After they got going, my students
loudly argued their points to each other about what is right and wrong
behavior, who holds responsibility for what actions, and how to keep
them and their partners safe.

High quality sex education is not gender-specific, but
gender-inclusive.  The girls in my college classes must hear their male
peers say they are confused by unclear signals of interest, that they
don’t know how to respond to or interpret them, in order to begin to
understand why they have to say no or yes clearly.  The boys have to
hear the girls talk about the social assumptions that are made about
them to begin to understand why girls sometimes offer ambiguous
signals.  Middle school students need to have the same conversation,
only on their developmental level of sexual and romantic involvement.

We all, girls and boys, men and women, need to sit together and
talk through our collective pain on this issue of sexual violence.  It
is not something that anyone feels good about, but we can all learn
from the task of being and feeling and hearing honestly from our peers
about their experiences.

Additionally, I have to ask: Why didn’t the New York Times article, or the follow-ups, talk about alcohol?

Alcohol
clouds judgment, for the young and the old.  If someone is uninterested
in sexual intercourse when they are sober, but become interested when
they are drunk, were they raped?  Will they feel raped or at least
taken advantage of when they are sober again?  Whose responsibility is
it to have stopped that sexual encounter?  This is one of those
all-important, nuanced questions that we must ask our young people to
grapple with, starting in high school.  They need to think about it and
talk about it among their peers so they can learn where other people
stand, and hear different perspectives in a setting where they can take
them in and let them ruminate.

By and large, people of all ages will be dealing with sex and
sexuality and the implications of their choices among their peers
rather than alongside their parents or teachers.  Therefore it is among
those peers, and with an inclusive gender spectrum, that these hard
topics must be tackled. 

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  • amanda-marcotte

    One reason that a mere "talk" about this won’t work is that kids are swimming in a rape culture, where punishing and humiliating women for being sexually attractive but not available is considered acceptable to nearly mandatory.  I enjoy going to see comedies, for instance, but lately it seems most of your "bromances" have at least one scene, often more, where a hot woman who rejects the main character is punished for her troubles through humiliation, and in the case of "Observe and Report", this actually shades into actually just going ahead and raping her. 

     

    This is complicated, because there’s two messages that need to get out there to counteract this.  One, sex is not a weapon.  Boys need to really believe that sex isn’t sex unless she’s 100% in there with you, and having fun, and the second that isn’t true, it needs to stop right then and resume only when she’s 100% on board. Sex is for fun and mutual pleasure, not for the degradation and humiliation and punishment of women. Second of all, women are your equals. This means that they have a right to like who they like, not like who they don’t, and thinking otherwise is objectifying them.  Men have a right to say that someone isn’t their type, even if it’s something as small as hair color that gets in the way of their arousal.  Women should be treated as if we have the same rights, and the only proper response to getting shot down by a woman is to be sad and move on, not to be angry.  She doesn’t owe you her body, period. 

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for this thoughtful and bracing call to action, Karen. I have to admit that I often avoid these tougher conversations with beloved younger siblings and family friends because I’m afraid of learning just what passes for prevailing norms around what’s appropriate sexual communication and consent-seeking. To be honest, the idea of people arguing over this in a classroom setting sounds scary to me — when I was in school, I never wanted confirmation that some of my classmates had retrograde opinions on these sensitive subjects. That’s all to say that it can all too often be easier not to go there than to engage with what’s actually afoot. Thanks for the reminder that there’s a lot to be gained by trying.

  • invalid-0

    For schools systems and parents alike, the local sexual assault support center can be a great resource. Many agencies have school-based prevention programs available for students of a wide variety of ages. For parents, if you don’t have the information or would like help/advice about how to talk to your kids so that you aren’t passing on inaccurate/stereotypical information (“well, if you wear certain clothes or drink too much you’re putting yourself out there and that makes it partly your fault”- which some people believe no matter how inaccurate or irresponsible it is), call your local group or the national RAINN hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) to get connected to a group in your area. The younger these conversations start (with developmentally-appropriate content), the better.

  • http://twolia.com/blogs/relationship-underarm-stick/2009/04/22/follow-up-on-tough-love-rape-stance/ invalid-0

    Karen, thank you so much for talking about this issue. I’ve been covering the Steve Ward/VH1 perpetuation of dangerous misogynistic rape mythology at my blog (I’d love your input too!) and it’s so disheartening to hear the plethora of passionate myth-information passing which is really victim blaming.

    In covering that story, I missed the Times article & the responses; so thank you for bringing them to my attention.

    I’ll be sure to link your post in my continuing coverage.

    Thanks,
    Alessia

  • invalid-0

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  • http://www.bigmansland.com/ invalid-0

    i think that children need to learn these things. nice post. i hope that this is taken up in more schools, i think children are getting too much negative attitudes from tv and movies and not really learning how relationships actually are.