Comprehensive sex education is often overlooked as a feasible sexual assault prevention tool. Whenever educating against any kinds of negative or harmful behaviors, it’s important to provide examples of a healthy alternative. For example, when teaching nutrition, we would only paint half a portrait if we simply told people not to overindulge in sweets and fatty foods. It’s critical to also include the importance of consuming plentiful amounts of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, and highlight how fun and enjoyable healthy eating can be.
Providing an example of what healthy sexuality is and how to safely express sexuality is a powerful tool in the fight against sexual violence; it empowers teens to clearly define their own sexuality and know how to speak up if their sexual boundaries are violated. Abstinence-only education contributes to sexual violence, namely, by ignoring it. In addition to this, abstinence-only education reinforces gender stereotypes and discourages survivors from coming forward by teaching that premarital sex is corrupting, regardless of whether it was consensual or not.
Traditional abstinence-only education, which is practiced in thirty-seven states, emphasizes many different variations of the same message: that abstinence is the only true form of pregnancy, STI, and HIV/AIDS prevention. Other teaching points include educating students [primarily girls] on how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol/drug use increases vulnerability to sexual intercourse; reiterating that a mutually faithful, monogamous, heterosexual relationship is the only expected standard of human sexual activity; and emphasizing the social, psychological, and health gains abstinence provides for unmarried people (http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/understanding-sex-education-policy-and-funding). Under the Clinton and Bush administrations, between 1996 and 2007, over 1.7 billion state and federal dollars were channeled into abstinence-only education in public school. With the passage of Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, funding for abstinence-only education programs was extended for five more years but tapered to $50 million per year. The ACA now provides $75 million per year over five years for sex education programs that teach both abstinence and contraception as methods to prevent pregnancy and STIs. (http://lsrj.org/documents/factsheets/12_Abstinence%20Only.pdf)
Regardless of one’s personal beliefs towards premarital sex and abstinence, there are simple truths about abstinence-only education that must be recognized in order to forge ahead with sexual violence prevention education. For one, abstinence-only education completely ignores sexual assault and rape because programs do not discuss consent to any extent. These programs merely emphasize that premarital sex is wrong, but assume that all sexual encounters are consensual and never acknowledge the fact that consent may not be present in any sexual situation, marital or not. This undermines the idea of enthusiastic, communicated consent and makes no distinction between premarital sex that was consensual and premarital sex that was forced or coerced, which leads to a second point. Abstinence-only education encourages the notion that all premarital sex is wrong, which leads to victim blaming and a false sense of guilt among sexual assault survivors. A prime example of this is the case of Elizabeth Smart, a human trafficking victim and sexual violence prevention advocate who was kidnapped and continually raped at the age of 14. According to Smart, abstinence-only education prevented her from attempting to run away because the emphasis on sexual purity and virginity led her to believe that she was “dirty and filthy” for being raped. She cited an incidence of abstinence-only education in which a teacher who compared premarital sex to “a chewed up piece of gum”.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”
Abstinence-only education promotes a culture that further marginalizes sexual assault survivors and discourages them from reporting their incidents or speaking out against the violence. Similarly, abstinence-only education disempowers bystanders from stopping sexual violence when they see it by neglecting to set an example of healthy sexuality. Bystander intervention is one of the most successful forms of sexual violence prevention, but if young people do not understand the differences between healthy, consensual sexuality and sexual assault – if it’s all considered to be equally bad – they will not know how to step up and speak out.
Finally, abstinence-only education promotes stereotypical gender roles in a way that facilitates sexual assault. Abstinence-only education curriculums have infamously endorsed stereotypical gender norms by representing boys as aggressive sexual pursuers and girls as passive recipients that have the responsibility to resist all sexual advances. The language of the curriculum has changed slightly since the archaic Bush-era education manuals that advocated “assertive refusal skills” for girls and gentle breakup skills for boys; however, abstinence-only education curricula still portray girls as either the potential victims that need protection or manipulative temptresses that misuse their feminine wiles to achieve their goals. Gender norms, in any form, are known to perpetuate sexual violence as they generally promote male dominance and female submission, which are the tenants of stereotypical hetero-normative sexual violence. For example, in the original example of hyper-traditional gender roles, students are led to believe that men pushing sex on unwilling females is the norm, and healthy, enthusiastic, two-way consent is nonexistent. In the second example, the undertones of “benevolent sexism” promote the notion that girls need to be protected by “good guys” from sexual advances and once again, that they lack the agency to express their own form of sexuality. This kind of underhanded sexism creates a dichotomy of “good girls”, girls who abstain from sex and need protection from “good guys”, and “bad girls”, girls who freely express their sexuality and sexual desires and deserve to be abused by “bad guys” because they dare to initiate sex. Only good girls deserve protection from good guys. (Stereotypes in Four Current AOUM Sexuality Education Curricula: Good Girls, Good Boys, and the New Gender Equality, American Journal of Sexuality Education).
Enforcing stereotypical gender-roles also encourages victim-blaming and places the responsibility for managing “wild” male sexuality squarely on the shoulders of females. By teaching girls how to reject sexual advances and dress appropriately to discourage male attention, these curricula imply that girls are ultimately responsible for controlling male sexuality and therefore are to blame when sexual violence occurs. This discourages sexual assault survivors, male OR female, from coming forward and disclosing cases of sexual assault, as they feel like they will be held responsible for not controlling the actions of the perpetrator. (American Journal of Sexuality Education)
How, then, can comprehensive sex education serve as a sexual violence prevention tool? Comprehensive sex education is defined as covering the concepts of healthy and enthusiastic consent, both female and male contraception, protection from HIV/AIDS and other STIs, sexual assault, homosexual and queer sexual intercourse, sex positivity, and options to pursue in the case of an unplanned pregnancy. This kind of curriculum sets an example for what healthy sexual behavior is and differentiates between consensual sexuality and sexual assault, instead of labeling all premarital sexual behavior as wrong. By learning about healthy expressions of sexuality and consent, students will be empowered to speak out against acts of sexual violence inflicted upon them or their peers. Learning about the aforementioned topics in a neutral, educational venue like school will provide a clear impression of sexuality for teens that may be confused by the many conflicting messages perpetrated by our media and society. Instead of acting on the images of sexuality shown in the media that often do conform to stereotypical gender roles and promote a lack of verbal enthusiastic consent as “sexy”, teens will be empowered with a scholastic definition of healthy sexuality and will choose to express their sexuality ethically. Additionally, comprehensive sex education teaches sexuality without underlying tones of gender stereotypes, and encourages all genders to embrace and express their sexuality safely. (http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/SAAM_2012_An-overview-on-healthy-sexuality-and-sexual-violence.pdf)
One example of preventive legislation that is bound to have a tremendously positive impact on sexual violence, child sexual abuse in particular, is Erin’s Law. Erin Merryn is a survivor of child sexual violence and is now an advocate for child sexual abuse prevention and education. Erin’s Law, if signed in as a bill in any given state, mandates child sexual abuse prevention education for grades pre-K through 5. Merryn strongly advocates for education so that children will be empowered with a voice to speak out against the atrocities committed against them; according to her, students are exposed to information about child sexual abuse far too late for them to take action against the perpetrators. She claims that the only preventive measures taken in schools now emphasize “stranger danger”, which is misguided given the overwhelming percentage of child sexual abuse survivors that know and trust the perpetrator. Her vision involves a comprehensive, age-appropriate program that teaches students the difference between “safe secrets” and “unsafe secrets” and “safe touch” and “unsafe touch”, and gives them the resources to report sexual abuse that may be occurring in or outside the home. Illinois was the first state to pass Erin’s law in February of 2011 and five states have followed suit. The law is still pending in ten more states. (http://www.isbe.state.il.us/reports/erins-law-final0512.pdf)
Comprehensive sex education encompasses every other kind of predominantly utilized prevention tool. When looking at sexual violence as a public health issue, comprehensive sex education is one of the most effective tactics to reduce the prevalence and severity of sexual violence. When looking at sexual violence as a social issue, comprehensive sex education is one of the most effective ways to change apathetic, victim-blaming, or oppressive attitudes towards the issue. From any standpoint, comprehensive sex education would improve the healing processes of existing sexual assault survivors as well as prevent future assaults, uplifting the next generation in a sustainable, healthy way.