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Ending Sexual Assault and Sex Education: It’s All Connected

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Sex Ed Needs to be Sexy

Guest Writer: Molly Adler, LISW-in-Training

Teaching the message “no means no” is not enough to prevent sexual assault. Many women and men don’t even know what “yes” looks like. California agrees. It’s hard for victims of sexual assault to say “no” when they are inebriated or asleep, and we know that is not healthy, consensual sex. Beyond that, current laws around sexual assault that imply all sorts of behavior may denote consent to sex that explicitly do not: like dressing a certain way or flirting. California just approved a law defining consent on college campuses as “an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision” by each party to engage in sexual activity. This shouldn’t be so radical for actual, consensual sex.

California is responding to a growing acknowledgement of an existing problem on college campuses, that one in five women will be sexually assaulted while attending college.

Americans tend to a negative, reactive response to social problems. We are told to say “no” or avoid certain clothing, behaviors or places to prevent rape.

We. Don’t. Talk. About. It.

In the absence of open and honest conversations about how to negotiate a positive sexual experience, we hear about what not to do.  The beauty of the new California statute is that it asserts that consent is about what we do want, not about what we don’t want.

If teens and young adults don’t know what good, healthy sex looks like they are left to fend for themselves in fear. Young people are taught to fear a bad reputation, sexually transmitted illnesses and assault, but may never hear what they should look for in a healthy sex life.

Many sex educators have a solution: make sex education sexy.

Putting pleasure in sex education is controversial. Let’s think about that. Many people are completely opposed to teaching pleasurable techniques or acknowledging that sex can be pleasurable in the context of sex education. It’s funny, because pleasure may be a big component of sex. People young and old know it, so pretending pleasure is not part of the equation only invalidates the credibility of those speaking.

Adults are scared if young people learn how sex can be pleasurable, it will encourage them to have more sex. The truth is, the media and our society does plenty to encourage sexual behavior. Pretending youth don’t live in that same society is denial. To take pleasure out of the equation is not only ineffective for sex education, but a disservice and outright lie to youth.

A comprehensive form of sexual assault prevention means education to prevent sexual violence before it starts.  If we only present abstinence-only scare tactics in sex education, it doesn’t work. Young people and adults could benefit from more skill building and learning what healthy sex and relationships look like through comprehensive sex ed. Discussions of pleasure and desire are empowering to young people. If a person’s baseline understanding of sexuality begins with assault or coercion, then positive, pleasure-based sex education can help balance that understanding of what sex can be. Researcher Tolman points out that young women are less able to assert their desires and consent when their sexual agency and openness is denied.[1]

Currently, discussions of sexual violence and pleasure-based sex education tend to be separate. We separate the good from the bad. Sexual assault prevention has typically meant avoiding being raped, instead of preventative education about healthy sexuality being emphasized.

Researchers have pointed out this is an unrealistic separation of approaching the positive and negative aspects of sexuality only in distinct spaces. Buck and Parrotta[2] write, “in drawing a distinction between positive and negative aspects of sexuality, the curriculum implies these as dualistic and easily defined.” By separating discussions of violence from pleasure, there is a false sense that these experiences will be separate in life, when unfortunately, it’s more complicated.

Sex and relationships are complicated. To deny that improves nothing. In order to see sexual violence decline and healthy relationships emerge, we have to talk about all of it. To empower people young and old to seek healthy sexuality, we need to talk about what good sex looks like.

 

[1] Tolman , D. 2002. Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[2] Alison Buck & Kylie Parrotta, (2014) Students teach sex education: introducing alternative conceptions of sexuality. Sex Education 14:1, pages 67-80.

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