The #MeToo movement has many people expressing confusion regarding what constitutes sexual assault, concern they will be targeted with accusations, and has left a question mark surrounding what can be done about the apparent epidemic of sexual assault and harassment.
One step forward, health experts say, would be to start funding better sex education programs. Studies show sex education programs that put an emphasis on consent and healthy sexual relationships would help reduce the rate of sexual violence amongst young adults.
However, only 24 states require sex education at all be taught in schools and of those, only 10 states specifically reference “healthy relationships” “sexual assault” or “consent” in those programs.
Many states teach abstinence-only sex education, which discourages sex outside of marriage rather than educating about sexual safety prior to marriage. Congress approved $85 million in funding for abstinence-only sex education in 2016, according to a May 2017 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
To receive funding, these sexual education programs are required to put “unambiguous and primary emphasis and context” in six sexual risk avoidance topics that “normalizes the optimal health behavior of avoiding non-marital sexual activity.”
‘As a kid, I was taught that men would try to get sex from me, and my job was to say no.’
These topics include the what the program sees as the advantages of refraining from non-marital sex, including the decreased likelihood of poverty, the foundational components of healthy relationships and healthy marriages, how drugs and alcohol increase the risk of premarital sex, and “how to resist sexual coercion and dating violence.”
However, these abstinence-only sex education programs lead to shame and confusion surrounding sex, putting youth at higher risk of assault and making it less likely they will report such abuse, said Andrea Barrica, the founder and chief executive officer of online sex education platform the O.school.
“Conservative school boards don’t want to teach consent because they’re worried that it opens the door for consensual sexual activity,” she said. “But when you teach kids that all sexual feelings are wrong and shameful, rather than natural, it actually makes consent violations more probable.”
The question of what healthy sexual relationships and consent look like have come under renewed scrutiny during the #MeToo movement, which has prompted thousands of women to go public with experiences of sexual assault and harassment.
But Barrica said abstinence-only education plans put the burden of consent almost exclusively on women, creating a culture of shame that keeps abuse hidden. “As a kid, I was taught that men would try to get sex from me, and my job was to say no,” Barrica said. “When we teach girls that their job is to say no, it places the blame on us when we ‘fail’ — meaning we are less likely to report such violations. That internal shame is something predators count on.”
The U.S. government has spent about $2 billion on abstinence-only sex education programs in the past two decades, according to reproductive health non-profit the Guttmacher Institute.
‘The whole question is how you minimize harm and the conclusive evidence shows not by avoiding talking about these issues you actually make them worse.’
Even programs that are not strictly abstinence-only have been criticized for failure to comprehensively cover sexual education and consent. The Title V Sexual Risk Avoidance Education program and the Sexual Risk Avoidance Education program receive $75 million annually in funding put a “primary emphasis” on “avoiding non-marital sexual activity,” according to non-partisan think tank the Congressional Research Service.
These government-sanctioned programs have very little proof of being effective, said James Hamblin, a lecturer on preventative medicine at Yale’s School of Public Health. “Sex is never 100% going to be without risks of all sorts, from unwanted pregnancies to sexually transmitted infections,” Hamblin said. “The whole question is how you minimize harm and the conclusive evidence shows not by avoiding talking about these issues you actually make them worse.”
Evidence shows teens are more likely to delay sex and have healthy, responsible and mutually consensual relationships when they do become sexually active if they are subjected to comprehensive, rather than abstinence-only sex education, a 2010 study from Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) found.
Because of this, children should be taught about consent from a very young age, even if they are not old enough to learn about it in the context of sex, said Lucinda Holt, a sex-ed expert at ANSWERS, a national sexual education organization at Rutgers University and adviser for sex-ed platform AMAZE.
She recommended that when a relative wants to hug or kiss a child, make it clear to the child they can say no. If a kid on the playground says they don’t want to play right now, make sure your child knows to accept that answer the first time they say, “no.”
“If we start having people learn from a young age not only what consent is but to respect another person’s boundaries, that goes a long way in terms of creating a culture where we don’t stand for people hurting one another,” Holt said. “We shouldn’t wait until someone is sexually active to teach them about sex and consent.”
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