Can Sex Education Really Help Prevent Rape?
The power of sharing stories and teaching clearly about consent
Sex Education As Sexual Assault Prevention
People might not immediately think of sex ed when they think about sexual assault awareness, but the two topics are closely intertwined. That’s a point Jaclyn Friedman, the founder and Executive Director of EducateUS, emphasizes in this essay:
When I’m asked to share a story about why I’m so passionate about sex ed advocacy, I don’t tell a story about the sex ed I deserved but didn’t get. I tell a story about the sex ed someone else didn’t get, and that I deserved for them to have.
When I was 20 years old, I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew. He wasn’t someone I was dating or even liked, but we were at a party together, and he followed me back to my room uninvited.
In the aftermath, it became clear that this was not a guy who was used to thinking about how his actions affect other people, a guy who had never once considered the concept of consent, and one who definitely didn’t think he would face any consequences if he just took what he wanted. In other words, the guy who hurt me had been failed by his sex and relationships education, and I have been forever harmed by the education he didn’t get.
I’m so grateful to Friedman for sharing her story — I think reflections like this have real power to make change. I hear this as a strong call to action to work for better sex education in our schools.
As Friedman points out, research says that comprehensive sex education is one of the most effective tools we have to reduce sexual assault.
A 30 year meta-analysis of studies on the effectiveness of sex education found, among many other benefits, that quality sex ed reduces the odds that students will be the perpetrators or the victims of violence. It also increases the likelihood that students who see others being targeted will do something to interrupt the abuse. We can also say the inverse is true: failing to teach sex and relationships education in schools increases the odds that students will hurt and be hurt by each other, and that they won’t intervene when they see abuse happening.
How Pain Can Lead to Purpose
I’ve experienced the power of shared stories firsthand. When Greater Good magazine ran a feature called “How to Find Your Purpose in Life,” I talked to them about how, as a teenager, I first became interested in doing this work after hearing a friend’s story.
Sometimes, another person’s pain can lead us to purpose. When Christopher Pepper was a senior in high school, a “trembling, tearful friend” told him that she had been raped by a classmate. “I comforted as well as I could, and left that conversation vowing that I would do something to keep this from happening to others,” says Christopher. He kept that promise by becoming a Peer Rape Educator in college—and then a sex educator in San Francisco public schools.
The Power of Consent Education
Comprehensive sexuality education helps young people make informed decisions, prevent unwanted pregnancies, and reduce their risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections. But can it actually help prevent rape? In this essay, I wrote about a groundbreaking study that says it can.
A team at Columbia University, lead by pediatrician and professor John Santelli, MD, reports that sexuality education in middle and high school may have protective effects that extend well past graduation. In the study, published in PLOS ONE, the researchers found that students who had comprehensive sexuality education classes, including specific refusal skills training (practice on “how to say no” to sex) before age 18, had a lower risk of experiencing sexual assault during college. This difference was particularly true for young women—a reduction of about 50 percent.
Wondering how we teach those skills in class? I encourage you to listen to ‘Yes means yes’: Teaching teens affirmative consent, a radio story that takes you inside the classroom to hear what it’s like to practice this with teenagers. Here’s what I had to say in the story about why we take this “affirmative consent” approach:
Better relationships and better sexual experiences come out of people more fully expressing their desires and their wants, and being comfortable saying what they don’t want and what they aren’t comfortable with.
How Could Schools Be Teaching Consent Skills?
In “The Key to Curbing Campus Sexual Assault Lies in High School Health Class,” Mic.com reporter Marie Solis explored these ideas in-depth with students and educators, including quotes from me and from California’s 2021 Health Education Teacher of the Year, Shafia Zaloom.
Zaloom is one of my favorite go-to experts in this area. Check out her post, “Teaching Consent,” to learn more about how she introduces conversations about consent with students, and how she gradually leads them through more substantial discussions.
She approaches these concepts from a different angle in this piece for the New York Times, “Tools for Teens to Call Out Sexual Violence.”
When I teach, there are certain questions about sexual assault that teenagers always ask. They want to know, “How do I keep myself safe?” “How can I be a supportive friend and ally?” They also want to know, “What’s the deal with drunk sex?”
Her answers, which she expands on in the essay, are clear and straightforward:
Take Care of Yourself
Step in to Help Others
Engaging Young Men In Stopping Sexual Assault
I was thinking about how much room there is for growth in this area while reading “Prevention Is a Team Sport,” a new report from It’s On Us, It’s focused on the thoughts and behaviors of college-aged, male athletes regarding sex education and sexual assault prevention.
Although it’s focused on college students, I think a lot of the key findings apply in middle and high schools, too:
🔑 Young men need accurate sex and consent education: Initial experiences learning about sex – whether positive or negative – have a lasting impact on attitudes and behaviors toward sex, consent, relationships and gender norms. Many male athletes first learn about sex through pornography, which perpetuates myths and misinformation about sex, making accurate sex and consent education even more important.
🔑 Current trainings are not practical: Effective training must be intentional and specific to college athletes, such as hosting at a time when the athletes can be present physically and mentally and having multiple touchpoints no longer than one hour. Existing awareness and prevention education training programs are often boring, not reflective of campus culture, unengaging and typically conducted online.
🔑 Male athletes believe survivors when told directly, but are often conflicted when they hear about an allegation against a teammate or athlete: Although participants were likely to believe and support survivors when they received a direct disclosure, when they learned about a teammate or friend who had been accused of sexual assault, they expressed concerns about false allegations being levied against themselves or their teammates.
🔑 The athletes were unaware of what healthy – and unhealthy – relationships truly look like: Participants struggled to label characteristics of a toxic or abusive relationship they experienced or witnessed, particularly while the relationship occurred.
🔑 Male athletes want to help: Male athletes want to do all they can to prevent sexual assault on campus, but no one has shown them how to be active bystanders.
A bit about me: After several years working as a health reporter and doing volunteer sex education, I started teaching high school health classes in 2002. Since then, I’ve taught thousands of young people about things like stress, sleep, healthy relationships, and substance use. In 2014, I started coordinating the Young Men’s Health Project in San Francisco schools, which brings teen boys together in small groups to build positive, supportive relationships and discuss healthy masculinity. I’m currently co-writing the book TALK TO YOUR BOYS withand listening to Waxahatchee (are you reading ?)
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