It’s become clear that we need to educate more widely on sexual assault, and that sex education is broken. Three of our bloggers tackle how and why in this mini-roundtable post. It’s the last day of SAAM – but these reforms could take all year.
There’s No Blurry Line: Why Don’t We Know That?
Sexual activity is consensual. Rape is not. The distinction may seem difficult due to the constant sexualization of women in every form of media we consume. People may think someone “wants it” because of how they act or dress without the thought that those actions can be purely individual. People may not know better.
We’ve all heard it before: when a girl is a victim of sexual assault the questions asked are: what were YOU doing, what were YOU thinking, how could YOU go to a party alone or why did YOU drink so much? It’s almost always about blaming the victim and not placing the blame where it belongs, with the perpetrator. Even in the rare chance a rape is reported, putting an offender in jail becomes the ultimate goal – and it’s one that doesn’t solve the systematic problem of what rape culture is and how it affects teens and adults in our daily lives. What’s being done to teach young adults and teens about the world around them?
We need comprehensive sex education that goes beyond “this is an STD and this is how you prevent them,” “this is pregnancy,” and a focus on abstinence as prevention. Scare tactics and stigmas around sex need to be eradicated before anything can actually happen in breaking down rape culture. There is never a blurry line between sex and rape. Let’s teach the line instead of avoiding discussion about either side in the classroom.
“We’ve really gone backward in the sexual revolution,” said Monica Schneider, an administrator at Overfelt High in San Jose. These days, she said, girls see their role as serving men, and “it is expected on a first date that they participate in sexual behavior.”
Many girls feel pressured to start being sexual when they’re not ready because it’s very rare to find adults willing to begin dialogue or show support around issues concerning sex. Adults are scared to give teenagers the tools to be responsible and to empower themselves, because when that happens the power shifts and our sexual mores could finally disappear.
But it’s the only way.
Can We Blame Them? High Schoolers Need Better Information
“Have you seen that picture of Megan yet? No? Well you HAVE to see it man, it’s hilarious. So she’s passed out naked on her bed and Ryan’s just going at it with her while all the other people are photobombing in the background. I think the funniest part is that she doesn’t even know it happened but everyone has the pictures now. That’s what happens when you get too drunk, dumb slut!”
Welcome to high school, just in case you haven’t been a part of such a loving adolescent community in a while. That tidbit of conversation seems so awful that if I hadn’t heard it myself, I would have never thought such words could come out of a sophomore boy’s mouth. But I did hear this story and its shocking commentary, as did the majority of the sophomore class at my private Catholic school in Austin.
What happened to Megan brought my attention to the ignorance about rape widespread on my campus. Far too many people here, and everywhere, are under the impression that teenagers know what rape is and that they should help the victim. The fact of the matter is, however, that teenage boys rape teenage girls on a regular basis without even really understanding the gravity of what they do, and then their peers harass the victim while the rapists get off free. (And that even when they do recognize the gravity of the crime, boys rarely see better examples of masculinity or a real reason to fear consequences within their scope of experiences.)
Victim-Blaming-- perpetuated by the media, commonly found in high school hallways
In Steubenville, two high school boys raped an unconscious teenage girl at a party and distributed nude pictures of her to their friends. The victim received significant backlash from her community, and former friends of hers said that since she was drinking a lot, it was her fault for being in that situation. The main difference between this case and the other incidences of teenage girls being raped while unconscious is simply that it was reported — aside from the notoriety, nothing sets Steubenville’s rape crew apart from any other gaggle of teenage rapists. This happens all the time, from the malicious and public attack down to the victim-blaming.
After I heard what had happened to Megan, I decided to ask around at my school and see what the general consensus was concerning rape, consent, and sexual violence prevention. I was dismayed by what I heard: the majority of students agreed that if a girl was taken advantage of when she was drunk it was her fault; students were of the opinion that if you’re dating someone, they have the right to expect sex and take it from you. When I asked teens what they thought rape was, they considered it to be when a guy had sex with a girl even after she said no. However, as long as they didn’t hear the word “NO”, they considered “Maybe”, “I’m not sure”, and silence to be a yes. It broke my heart when a senior told me that she was passed out at a party once and her boyfriend had sex with her anyway, but it was okay because they were dating.
My peers aren’t unintelligent people. They aren’t so-called “delinquents”. They aren’t immoral. They’re just uneducated about what healthy sex looks like in a culture that sells it and promotes it at every turn.
We can’t afford to shelter teenagers, and we can’t justify the lack of a conversation about sexual violence in schools any longer. As crazy as it seems, teenagers do not know what rape is. Teenagers do not know how consent works or why it matters. Teenagers do not know how to treat a victim or react to hearing about sexual abuse from their peers. And in many ways this is our fault.
How can they know all these things if they’re never taught? When do teens receive proper education about rape, sexual violence, consent, and prevention? They don’t. Any teen can tell you that rape is taboo in schools, yet if you listen to their conversations at lunch, you can hear an in-depth account of who-did-who last weekend after one too many shots. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, but schools need to start talking to their students openly about what exactly rape is. We can’t expect rape culture to go away when we refuse to engage in primary prevention with some of the most vulnerable populations affected by the crime.
All names in this segment have been changed.
What Sex Ed. Really Needs
Last week, the Ohio State House of Representatives voted on a budget bill that could have, among other things, imposed a fine of up to $5000 on teachers who condone “gateway sexual activity” (known to the rest of us as foreplay). This provision also would have prohibited the distribution of contraceptives on school property and discouraged educators from teaching anything other than abstinence-only sex education. Which, really, isn’t sex education at all.
Fortunately for the people of Ohio, these puritanical restrictions on sex education were taken out of the bill. But the fact that they were considered at all is a reminder that the debate over sex education continues to rage on in this country. In 2013, more than half of the states in the union still do not require their public schools to teach sex education, and an even greater number do not mandate that this education, if it is provided at all, be medically accurate. Furthermore, abstinence-only education, which teaches students that abstaining from sex until marriage (namely, heterosexual marriage) is the only acceptable form of sexual behavior, is still prevalent throughout the nation.
This approach to sex education is enormously problematic for a number of reasons. To start with the most obvious, it completely disregards the reality that, like it or not, teenagers are going to have sex. No matter how many times you tell them not to, no matter how vigorously you threaten them with pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases or an eternity spent in the fiery pits of hell, most of them are still going to have sex. They are going to have sex because, like adults, they are sexual beings with sexual urges, and it is only natural for them to want to act on those urges. This is not something that we need to “resign” ourselves to – resignation implies that there is something intrinsically wrong with having sex or wanting to have sex, likening an integral part of the human experience to some kind of unsavory but unavoidable truth. No, this is not a cause for resignation, but rather for acceptance. From where I’m standing, there is not a whole lot wrong with teenagers having sex with each other, so long as they are being smart about it.
The purpose of sex education is to educate students about sex – not to force a moral doctrine down their throats or withhold information from them that is vital to their physical, mental, emotional, and sexual well-being. We owe it to our teenagers to provide them with honest, accurate information about sex and sexuality. They need to know what to expect, what their options are, and how to look out for themselves and their partners. To deprive them of this knowledge is to deny them the tools they need to navigate sexual situations safely and responsibly. This approach leaves them with two options – to venture blindly into unknown territory, thereby putting themselves at risk for any number of negative outcomes (unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases), or to seek out information from sources that are likely not reliable or geared towards their best interests. Neither option is acceptable. The solution, then, is to provide students with comprehensive sex education that prepares them for what they will be dealing with when it comes to sex. Ultimately, we cannot control the decisions teenagers are going to make about having sex – nor, in my opinion, are we entitled to – but we can do our best to guide them towards choices that are both responsible and fully informed.
That this debate occurred in Ohio struck me as particularly timely given the recent media attention surrounding the horrific Steubenville, Ohio rape case. The events in Steubenville were a sobering indication that something is very, very wrong with the messages teenagers are getting about sex. Somehow, somewhere along the way in this fucked up sexual culture of ours, the boys who raped that girl developed the mindset that violating another human being was an act of little consequence. That is fucking terrifying. If we are going to stop things like this from happening in the future – and we must stop things like this from happening in the future – we need to fight back against that mindset. We need to communicate openly and honestly about sex, and teenagers need to be part of that conversation. If they are old enough to perpetrate acts such as these (and Steubenville is by no means an isolated incident), they are old enough to talk about how and why they happen.
With sex education, we have an ideal forum for starting that kind of dialogue. Rather than putting restrictions on these programs, we should be focused on improving them, making them better until they adequately address the needs and realities of American teenagers. Right now, it seems to me that we are fighting the wrong battle. This shouldn’t be a war on teenagers having sex – it should be a war on teenagers having sex that is not safe, not healthy, not consensual. It should be a war on rape, on victim blaming, on ignorance and silence and sexual shame. If the Ohio state legislature wants to reform the sex education in its public schools, it should start by spending a little less time worrying about “gateway sexual activity” and a lot more time figuring out why a pair of 17-year old boys would think it’s funny to carelessly abuse the body of an incoherent girl.
What sexual education needs, I think, is a shift in focus. The approach we take now is largely sex-negative – we focus on the risks, the repercussions, the things teenagers shouldn’t do. And, of course, these are all topics that need to be addressed. But where we fall short is in discussing the things they should do. Consent, respect, communication, trust – these are words that should be coming up just as frequently as “pregnancy” and “STDs.” We need sexual education programs that foster a sex-positive culture, one that recognizes and accepts a multiplicity of sexual choices rather than imposing a single standard.
I’m not saying that we should throw condoms at high school students and tell them to go have an orgy, but we also shouldn’t make them feel as if what they are thinking about and experiencing is something to be kept secret or to feel ashamed of. We should be encouraging teenagers to communicate openly about sex and sexuality – with peers, adults, and especially partners. If we can create this kind of dialogue – a dialogue about what sex should be to parallel what it shoudn’t be – we will be taking steps towards ensuring that events like those in Steubenville never happen again.