I don’t remember everything about my experiences with sexual education in middle school or high school, but as an 18-year-old survivor and female minority, I am scared and unsettled by the amount of information left out of the class conversation.
The first time I experienced sexual violence, I was barely 14 years old and just about to begin the transformative high school journey. I wasn’t ready to be sexually active. I wasn’t “asking” for it, in case you’re wondering. I was a freshman in high school who hadn’t yet found her voice and wasn’t at all in tune with her body. The night I was violated I was with a close friend—a boy to whom I was romantically attracted at the time. It started as kissing and quickly became more intimate. I started to feel less comfortable, but it took time to fully realize that I was not okay with how I was being touched and, when I eventually did, my voice seemed to not matter or be heard. So I never reported it and instead blamed myself for not being able to advocate for my needs. I blamed myself for not being able to convincingly say “no.”
In the wake of the #MeToo Movement and the subsequent media coverage, forthright conversations regarding sexual violence and sexual misconduct have emerged. Yet even with this issue receiving regular coverage and attention, momentum has not translated into legislative change, particularly regarding sex education. The importance of sex education is well-recognized—93% of parents support having sex education taught in middle school. Yet there is still a devastating gap between the amount of information students are intended to receive and the amount of information they actually receive. The overarching issue is that the United States is without a national standardized sex-ed curriculum. Sex education is taught differently not only at the state level, but at the district level too. Statistically, a majority of middle and high schools take a conservative approach to sex ed, with only 20% teaching the 16 essential topics recommended by the CDC. Because of this, school curriculum focus mainly on STIs and condoms—dismissing other contraceptives like IUDs and birth control pills. Even “comprehensive” sex education focuses heavily on human anatomy and how to prevent pregnancy, leaving no mention of how to handle nonconsensual acts of harassment and abuse. Our curriculum assumes consent and, consequently, omits major parts of adolescents’ sexual health.
But there’s still another issue at hand: our nation lacks consent education, which navigates healthy relationships and helps adolescents understand their comfort zones. The curriculum stresses decision-making and communication, straying away from strictly content and redirecting the focus toward real-life skills. Still, consent education is rarely implemented at the high school level. One explanation is the concern that consent education teaches teenagers how to say “yes” to sex. But data does all but support this notion and, instead, attests that adolescents begin having sex at later ages with comprehensive education. The reality is that consent education stresses the importance of adolescents becoming comfortable with their own bodies and understanding the value of their voice. This is so important! Adolescents going into their first sexual experiences need to know that they can change their minds and say no at any point during the experience. I know this firsthand, because going into my first time I wanted to be somewhat physically intimate but without developed expectations. I never expected sex, nor did I want it. We were moving so fast that I didn’t know I could say no. Young people need to know that they have every right to speak up if they feel even the slightest bit of discomfort.
One up-and-coming proposal to develop a truly comprehensive sex education is peer-led sex education—having components of the material covered by other students. The goal is to reduce unprotected sex and to lower unwanted pregnancies by having high school seniors teach incoming freshmen about sex, STIs, and contraceptives. While peer-led sex education cannot be the sole form of sex education adolescents receive, it’s a beneficial additive to pair with adult-led sex education. The unique advantage of peer-led sex education is that it unintentionally destigmatizes sexual violence. Seniors that choose to become peer leaders promote respect in relationships and generate much needed conversations amongst their peers. Comprehensive sex education, in its most ideal form, pairs adult-led and peer-led education so that adolescents receive both the information they need, from a credible source, as well as relatable role models to normalize candid conversations surrounding sexual health. The first step toward reducing sexual violence among adolescents is education. Empower youth with knowledge and rhetoric so that they can confidently engage in these conversations with accuracy, intention, and power.