The San Francisco Chronicle headline read “ ‘Party culture’ blamed for rape.” It was yet another report of sexual assault and rape on a college campus.
While “party culture” may be to blame, at least in part, in this particular situation, and probably many others, those of us in the field of sexual health education know that the problem of sexual violence on college campuses starts long before students even reach their campus. This is a problem that starts with inadequate sex ed in school.
Many people assume that “sex ed” means teaching kids about their reproductive body parts, how a baby is made (and how to avoid making said baby), sexually transmitted infections, and contraception. Many of us are familiar with the experience around 5th grade of being split into boys and girls to watch a “special movie” and talk about how our bodies will start to change. But in fact, these topics are only a fraction of the content that should be covered in high-quality school-based sex ed.
A significant portion of high quality sexuality education must incorporate opportunities for students to reflect on gender norms and roles in our broad culture and the cultures of their families. Students must have an opportunity to begin articulating their personal values around gender, relationships, and sex. It starts in an age-approrpriate manner as children enter puberty (or, dare I say, even before) with comprehensive, engaging puberty education so that children establish a culture of respect about other people’s bodies and relationships and should get gradually more complex to give students the tools they need to make informed decisions that are consistent with their personal and family values.
And it doesn’t end in 9th or 10th grade with a checkmark in the sex ed box, just like they check off their swimming test to graduate. In the absence of structured information about sexual consent in sexuality education, kids are left to look to the only other place where they can see models of human sexuality - the media. In one activity, we ask 11th and 12th graders: How do you know two people are ready to engage in sexual activity on TV or in movies? The answers come quickly - they look at each other, they get drunk, their friends tell them. Rarely does the response, “they ask each other if they want to have sex” ever come up. How can we expect young people to understand what “consent” means if the majority of the messages they get about consent is that it’s awkward or socially unacceptable to ask whether the other person wants to engage in sexual activity?
Addressing the issue of campus sexual assault is fundamentally dependent on how we teach our children (yes, children!) to interact respectfully with one another from an early age. It’s heartening to see the additional focus placed on sexual assault on college campuses in the last two years, but if we really want to address this issue, we need to start investing in sexuality education that engages our entire community - children, parents, teachers, schools - from an early age.