Sexual Education in America: A Patchwork of Inadequacy
by The Milton Measure on Friday, March 31st, 2017
By Allie Reed ’17
“I grew up in public schools. We had very little to no sex education,” a female student from University of Nebraska describes. I find her story in a 2015 article from The Washington Post, where sexual assault survivors share their experiences. A team of Washington Post reporters interviewed dozens of people who responded to a survey of college students, asking if they had, at some point during their time in college, experienced unwanted sexual contact or faced an attempted or suspected assault. For the purpose of this article, I will refer to this victim as Jane. “I honestly believed — and oh my god, I can’t believe this but I did — I honestly believed that you could hurt a guy if you said no.”
Jane started dating her ex-boyfriend in high school, and continued the relationship through college. After six years of enduring sexual violence without realizing it, due to concerns from her family, Jane moved out of her and her boyfriend’s shared home and broke off the relationship. “I felt so unsafe in the relationship all the time,” Jane explained. She claims that her ex-boyfriend “was never super violent” against her, but that “it was very much a lack of consent.” In a country with scattered requirements about what young people must learn regarding their sexuality, situations like Jane’s seem inevitable.
Sexual education in America is a patchwork of inadequacy. Legislation about what forms of sexual education schools will and will not require remains in the hands of the state government. The majority of the United States doesn’t require sex and HIV education to be taught in public schools. When sex and HIV education are provided, most states don’t require information to be medically accurate, meaning instructors can make claims like ‘condoms are completely ineffective’ to discourage students from having sex. Texas, Alabama, and South Carolina require instructors to include only negative information on same-sex relationships. The arbitrary state a child is raised in can have a drastic impact on her sexual knowledge and expression, determining whether she hears a message like, “Don’t you dare tell anyone you’re a virgin if you’ve had genital contact of any kind,” or “Your sexuality is normal and okay.”
“Ninety nine percent of the work that I do is around shame,” Paula Leech tells me as we sit in her office. She is a certified sex therapist in Massachusetts, a young woman in her early thirties with long blonde hair to match her lanky body type. We meet after her one o’clock client, who avoids eye contact and rushes out the door as he leaves.
Leech works with people of all ages on issues like sexual trauma, erectile disfunction, rapid ejaculation, LGBTQ struggles, transgender struggles, desire difficulties, infidelity, and relationship concerns. These are just a few of the issues that Leech addresses everyday. She also works with perpetrators of sexual trauma, and argues that working with them is more important than working with victims. People with so many different sets of struggles have all come to Leech’s office, sat on the same couch, and tried to better themselves. What unites them is shame.
Jane remembers encounters with her boyfriend where “he would continue to berate me until I gave in.” She and her boyfriend grew up believing that in a relationship, it is the woman’s job to meet the needs of the man. Sadly, after looking at the history of sexual education in America, Jane’s perspective as a millennial doesn’t surprise me. The Bible verse, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands,” and the creation of Eve serve as the foundation for female submission. Following this ideal, an early 1900’s marital handbook explains that “it is of the utmost importance that if a couple is to have copious amounts of sex, that the woman be joyful in the act,” teaching women that their duty was to serve their husband’s needs sexually.
Soaring STI rates in the military during World War I brought about a demand for education that wasn’t just for couples on their wedding night. For the first time, the federal government allocated money to educate soldiers about syphilis and gonorrhea in The Chamberlain-Kahn Act. Sex education began to be viewed as a public health issue, and educational films like Damaged Goods spread, where a man has sex with a prostitute before his wedding, contracts syphilis, passes the disease on the disease to his newborn baby, and then commits suicide. In 1919, a report from the Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau referred to the lack of sex education in schools as “a cruelty on the part of any society that is able to furnish that instruction.” After the report came out, schools began to develop sex ed curriculums using films and literature. Advances in sexuality education continued; by the 1960s, support for sex education in schools was widespread. It wasn’t until the 1980s that sex education became controversial.
“What we’re doing [in America] is ineffective,” Leech explains to me after a sigh. She’s right: In America, three in ten girls get pregnant at least once before age twenty, youth aged thirteen to twenty-four make up twenty two percent of all new HIV diagnoses, and one in four girls, and one in six boys, is sexually abused before they turn eighteen. “We don’t talk about sex, we don’t celebrate it as something that is connecting and pleasurable and a basic part of the human experience. We only talk about it in very fear based negative ways. What folks end up dealing with is a lot of shame around the things that they enjoy, and around sex itself.”
In Jane’s case, the “little” sex education she received probably only covered the fundamentals of sexuality — the physical and emotional risks of intercourse, contraception, and healthy decision making. There was no talk of consent, so neither Jane nor her ex-boyfriend knew that sex was supposed to be pleasurable for all those involved. Leech argues that educators need to go past the basics of intercourse and cover things like pleasure, arousal, date culture, technology, and masturbation.
The two main types of sexuality education students receive are a comprehensive approach, based on the belief that “medically accurate and comprehensive information about sexual health would decrease risk-taking behaviors among young people,” or an abstinence-only approach, based on the belief that this information would increase risk-taking behaviors. Comprehensive education is known to have positive effects on students. In a study by the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, forty percent of comprehensive programs delayed sexual initiation, reduced the number of partners, and increased contraceptive use among adolescents. On the converse, there is no evidence to support abstinence only programs’ claim that they bring about the desired long-term behavioral outcomes at which they aim, such as delays in sexual activity, and reductions in unintended pregnancies and STIs.”
Jane describes that “it was never taught to me, that that was an option, to really say no and mean it.” Believing that withholding sex would physically harm her boyfriend, neither she nor her boyfriend had ever heard of the concept of consent. While I don’t know where Jane is from, and the journalist who published her story cannot give me that information, 86% of University of Nebraska Students are from instate. Nebraska has no sex or HIV education requirements, and no requirement for medical accuracy when sex and HIV education are taught.
Because of the huge divide in the way sex ed is taught throughout the country, gaps are inevitable. Some children receive distorted, negative information that can physically and emotionally affect their health. Pam Stenzel is an infamous Christian speaker, known for lecturing of abstinence-only sex education beliefs to young people. When I search for her name in google, the search bar suggests “Pam Stenzel memes.” She is commonly associated with the terms “ignorant,” “slut shamer,” and “unapologetic.” Half a million adolescents a year hear her say things like, “If you take birth control, your mother probably hates you,” ”I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous,” and spew lies such as “birth control makes a woman 10 times more likely to contract a disease… or end up sterile or dead.” Teen pregnancy rates in conservative, Christian states suggest that when teenagers hear this information, they are more likely to have sex without using birth control than to abstain from having sex.
Shelly Donahue, another abstinence-only speaker, teaches through analogy. She describes women as a piece of tape. While sticking the tape on multiple boys’ arms and pulling it up, she says, “How many partners do we have before we get married on average in America? Six. So can you imagine what’s gonna start to happen to the tape? It’s gonna lose its bonding power.” She also claims that girls who have premarital sex need to attend therapy. Other common metaphors describe women who have had premarital sex as a used toothbrush, a chewed up piece of gum, or a dirty shoe. These tactics claim that premarital sex devalues those who’ve had it. Imagine the shame felt by those in the room who have chosen to have sex before marriage, or even worse, those like Jane who were raped and thus feel devalued as people.
I meet with Milton Academy Director of Counseling, Lisa Morin, in the Health Center at this independent boarding school. We go into the kitchen for a cup of coffee as we talk. She is eager to talk to me, as most of my interviewees are, as it is unusual for them to talk with someone about sex or sex ed so openly. Ms. Morin tells me about some of the shame victims often place on themselves. “In a dangerous situation, people often have a fight or flight instinct. But there’s a third f, freeze, that no one really talks about.” Morin explains that most people freeze when they’re being assaulted, and then blame themselves for not fighting back enough, or not saying no enough. That’s why Morin is such a big advocate for affirmative consent, where “Yes means yes,” rather than “no means no.” Boys and girls need to learn from a very young age that sexual assault isn’t caused by a tight shirt or a few drinks; it’s caused by a perpetrator. Paula Leech believes that a sex education curriculum that really addresses what trauma is, what it looks like, how to report, and how to take care of one’s self on the back of this kind of experience would be hugely helpful to prevent the detrimental effects of self blame, self criticism, shame, guilt, and regret.
After reading up on American sexual education requirements, I became interested in my own state’s laws surrounding sexual education. While Massachusetts is the current most liberal state in America, it is also predominantly Catholic. I was shocked to discover that Massachusetts requires neither sex education nor HIV education, and doesn’t require either to be medically accurate when taught. Jane explains that her boyfriend is “a good person and what happened was not due to maliciousness but due to lack of knowledge about boundaries and consent.” With the lack of requirements for sexuality education, any girl or boy could easily have an experience like Jane’s today.
Even though Massachusetts doesn’t have sex ed requirements, the state did develop The Massachusetts Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework, the most recent document adopted by the Board of Education, “presenting statewide guidelines for learning, teaching, and assessment in health for the Commonwealth’s public schools.” The Curriculum Framework serves as a guide only for schools systems that choose to offer sex education.
The framework contains different learning standards and skills that students should have knowledge of by the end of grades five, eight, and twelve. In the Self Protection section of the framework, by the end of grade 12, students should be able to “define date and acquaintance rape, and describe how to protect oneself in these situations.” This framework places the blame of sexual assault on the victim: If he or she didn’t want to be raped, why wouldn’t he or she stay in a group? Or wear modest clothing? Or refrain from flirting? The Framework hasn’t been updated since 1999, while other subjects like math, English, and science, have been updated from 2010 on. Students may not use algebra after high school, but they’ll certainly use comprehensive knowledge about sexuality.
In my middle school health class, I learned about the difference between preventative care (for example, using a condom) and treatment (ex., an abortion). I wonder why we don’t require a more preventative type of education in school systems, teaching young girls and boys about consent and healthy sexual expression, rather than suggesting ill-equipped victims attend therapy. As an eighteen-year-old woman attending college in the fall, I don’t like my odds. One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, and the woman is often blamed for the incident.
To gain clarity on Massachusetts legislation, I seek out State Representative, Jim O’Day. Rep. O’Day sponsored “An Act Relative to Healthy Youth,” an act ensuring that Massachusetts school districts that choose to offer sexuality education provide young people age-appropriate, medically accurate information about both abstinence and contraception. School boards can still make decisions about whether to offer sex education, and parents can still decide whether or not they want their children to participate in the curriculum. The act has been nicknamed “The Common Sense Act,” because it seems so obviously the right move for Massachusetts.
Everything about reaching Mr. O’Day is an obstacle. I struggle setting up an appointment with him through his secretary, getting into the city to see him before an impending storm, entering the high security statehouse, finding his suite, and making it into his office past his two secretaries. We sit on two separate couches in Mr. O’Day’s office. Patriotism sprinkles throughout the room in the form of flags, festive pillows, and photographs.
Mr. O’Day has been stuck in legal purgatory. He has refiled the Healthy Youth Bill every year since 2011. He first filed the Healthy Youth Bill for several reasons: the state’s teen pregnancy rate remains high and must decline; STI rates amongst young people are soaring; and because there have been many cases of domestic violence — even to the point of homicide — in Massachusetts. He ascertains that the Healthy Youth Bill “does not strip away local control in any way.” The bill simply ensures that schools who do offer a health ed curriculum teach information based in fact.
On making laws, Mr. O’Day tells me, “There’s a lot of work that goes into it, a lot of grunting and groaning, but in the end, you hope that you get something that’s in the middle of the road for everybody.” He explains that the six years he’s been filing the bill are about average for lawmaking, and compares the length of time to that of legalizing recreational marijuana use.
On the other hand is the speedy process of passing a bill to ban the practice of “Upskirting,” where someone takes pictures up a girl’s skirt unbeknownst to her using his mobile phone or camera. This bill was filed, heard, and passed in the House and Senate in two days time. “Where there’s a real demand that something change immediately, the process will allow for that to happen,” O’Day explains. A bill like A Healthy Youth Act should not take over six years.
“The topic of sexual health education for whatever the reasons are, is an almost taboo subject, which is so far behind where people are today. I hear the argument that sex ed is going to be discussed at home, and that’s an easy way to cop out on this whole issue. The bottom line is that it isn’t being spoken at home. Parents are not sitting down at the dining room table having this conversation with their kids… If we’re not educating our young people about sexual health, we’re doing them a disservice.”
A 2014 study confirms O’Day’s point. The study examined the sources by which adolescents receive information on sexual assault. “Most participants received their information from the popular media, including television (43%), newspapers (29%), magazines (10%), and radio (9%). The internet was also a common source of information (38%). Participants also identified family (7%) and friends (10%), as informational resources. School based education on sexual assault constituted only nine percent.”
As it stands, even the nine percent of sexual assault education that students receive from school could be false. Current Massachusetts legislation allows educators to lie to students. A 2004 investigation reviewed commonly used abstinence only curricula, and found that most contained lies in their curriculum such as: “A 43-day-old fetus is a ‘thinking person,’ HIV can be spread via sweat and tears, Half of gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for HIV, Pregnancy can result from touching another person’s genitals, and as many as 10% of women who have an abortion become sterile.” Many of the falsehoods schools teach are in an effort to scare teenagers away from having sex.
I think back to a telephone conversation I had with Dr. Packard, an OB-GYN, Planned Parenthood board member, and mother. “As an OB-GYN, I spend all day long trying to counsel people about contraception. I see a lot of teenagers who are misinformed about options for contraception. Sex ed is an important piece of getting to people early, getting to people about birth control before they are sexually active.” Packard is up against misinformation provided by the internet, word of mouth, and even health education teachers who aren’t required to tell the truth. “Many teenagers come in with these ideas like ‘you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex,’ ‘if you pull out in time you won’t get pregnant,’ and I have to explain to them that these things are wrong.”
To Jane’s ex-boyfriend, the time he refused to let her out of the car until she performed oral sex may have seemed like acceptable behavior. Teenagers hear messages like “real men score” and “nice girls say no” that socialize them into stereotypes that become extremely harmful. Men expect a women to say no as a formality, a part of the chase they feel they have to undergo to seduce a woman. The phrase “no means yes and yes means anal” famously chanted by members of a Yale Fraternity exemplifies this culture.
Students’ perceptions of sexuality, and what normal, healthy sexual relationships look like are strongly affected by the media. Advertising often dismembers women, displaying them as a faceless collection of erotic body parts. Donald Trump, the President of the United States, was captured on video saying, “Grab [women] by the pussy, you can do anything.” Pop Singer Robin Thicke’s music video for Blurred Lines displays him, fully clothed, surrounded by naked women while he sings lyrics: “I know you want it, you’re a good girl,” “Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you, he don’t smack your ass and pull your hair like that,” and “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.” Coincidentally, in the same month that Thicke was nominated for three Grammys, he was awarded the title “Sexist of the Year” by the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
In my interview with Leech, she explained that in therapy, she has kids learning about sex through pornography. She explains that “pornography can be incredibly harmful if not buffered by a good amount of knowledge about what real sex and real intimacy actually looks like.” Pornography continues to grow increasingly violent. A 2010 study found “as many at 88% of pornographic scenes contained ‘physical aggression: principally spanking, gagging, and slapping.’ Despite the harsh treatment, the mostly female targets of aggression ‘often showed pleasure or responded neutrally to the aggression.’” These videos pose as a demonstration of consensual sex, normalizing violence against women.
A 2014 study points to a deep problem in the American education system. Without using the word “rape” in the question, the study asked various college men if they would use force to get a woman to have sex with them. A third of the men surveyed admitted that they would use force; however, when the question was reformulated using the word “rape,” only 13.6% admitted those intentions. Along with sex education, the media seems at fault for this disparity, glorifying women as sex objects, causing men to treat them as such.
“[Teaching sex education] is like a breath of fresh air for students,” says Mr. Vigue, director of Health education in Milton, MA. “We treat them with respect and with dignity… you can tell they appreciate us bringing up the subject.” Mississippi’s legislation prohibits schools from doing condom demonstrations, and, as of 2015, has the fourth highest teen birthrate in the United States. One teacher thwarted this law by putting a sock on his foot in front of his class. “I start with the sock. I’m gonna pinch the air out of the tip of the sock cause I want to make sure there’s room for my toes when I’m engaging in a shoe activity. Then I take the sock and I put it ontop of my foot. You want to take your sock and roll it all the way down your foot. And then you can put it inside your shoe.” Ms. Diaz-Marcano, a sex educator from New York City, explains that because of the lack of sex education requirements in America, “sex education, unfortunately, really is teacher by teacher. We have to work around legislation and take it upon ourselves to make sure that we give the best and most accurate information to our students.”
Towards the end of Jane and her ex-boyfriend’s relationship, she began having panic attacks. She didn’t even want to leave their house every day. Jane didn’t realize until after the relationship ended that her anxiety was directly tied to her fears related to sex. Jane suffered an injustice, but not just by her ex-boyfriend. By not giving young people the tools they need to navigate a world in which they will have some kind of sexual encounter, schools are failing them. Jane and her ex-boyfriend didn’t talk for a few years after they broke up. One day, he called her, wanting to apologize. He had gone through sexual assault training for his job, and had finally recognized his own behavior. For a grown man to learn about consent for the first time during on the job training is unacceptable. We cannot progress as a culture with a system that allows people to miss sex education completely, to slip through the cracks. When I come back to high school after college for my first reunion with my class, I know that twenty of my classmates will have been raped. Until curriculums in every single state, every single school, and every single class address the facts, this statistic will not change.
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