Sexual Assault Education Can’t Start in College

Most states’ emphasis on abstinence-only sex education programs leaves young people unprepared to cope with the possibility of sexual assault.

In her public middle school sex education class in Georgia, Draupadi was handed a rose, told to take a petal off, and pass the rose to the next girl. The passing continued until there were no petals left. The girl left with the stem walked up to the front of the classroom and handed the barren flower to the teacher.

The teacher stood up in front of all the girls and said, “Do you see how ugly this rose is? Every time you have sex before marriage, you give away a petal. If you have sex before marriage, you won’t be able to give your husband the beautiful rose that God gave you. You will give him a petal-less rose. Do you really want to give the man you are going to spend the rest of your life with an ugly, petal-less rose?”

Draupadi was taught to believe that having sex meant giving a part of herself away. When she was sexually assaulted during the summer after her eighth grade year, she felt dirty, gross, and impure. She felt like she lost a part of herself, that she had ruined herself, yet she was unable to define her experience as sexual assault. Instead, she blamed herself.

It took her three years to talk about her experience with an adult. After sharing her experience with a guidance counselor in the public school system, Draupadi was told, “You need to stop victimizing yourself and acting like something bad happened to you. You were just in this encounter with some guy and you regret it so you are trying to make it seem like you didn’t consent.” The response that Draupadi got from this guidance counselor not only invalidated her experience but contributed to her self-blame.

Draupadi’s abstinence-only education was not the cause of her sexual assault, but it led to added trauma that could have been avoided had she gone through more comprehensive sex education. It would have been life-changing for Draupadi if the guidance counselor she spoke with had gone through proper training in how to support survivors of sexual assault, if Draupadi had learned that survivors of sexual assault are not to blame, and if she had been taught that her self-worth was not defined by her “purity.”

In recent years, campus sexual assault has garnered nationwide attention. In 2014, Barack Obama launched the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, aimed at addressing rape and sexual assault on college campuses. Now, the statistic that one in five women is a survivor of attempted or completed sexual violence while in college is widely cited. While there is still a lot of work to be done, there has been real progress in making college campuses safer and in educating college students and faculty about sexual violence. Thanks in large part to student activism, colleges are finally starting to change their approaches to offer better education for students and support for survivors, while lawmakers are starting to work towards policy changes. These efforts are much needed and will help so many men and women in college who could be exposed to interpersonal violence.

But for many people, like Draupadi, college is too late.

According to RAINN, 44 percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 18. Survivors like Draupadi cannot wait until college to get the support they need, individuals who don’t go to college cannot rely on those resources, and potential perpetrators should not be learning about consent and healthy relationships for the first time after they get to college. Putting an end to interpersonal violence means acknowledging the many victims who are not college students and ensuring that long before college, all students receive a comprehensive sex education that teaches them about healthy relationships and consent.

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So why is it that nearly half of sexual assault and rape victims are not even college-aged, yet nothing large-scale is being done to support these victims and to prevent similar instances in the future? The truth is that before reaching an age where they can even thinking about going to college, much of America’s youth is being failed by an education system that refuses to be honest about sex and healthy relationships.

Sex educator Lanae St. John says that we should think about sexuality education like we think about any math or science class. “We do a poor job of making sure that the [sex] education that kids get is accurate,” she says. “I don’t think many parents would allow for science to be taught in an inaccurate way, but somehow that’s okay for sexuality.”

Right now, only 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education and like St. John implies, only 13 states require that sex education be medically accurate. What’s worse is that while only 20 states and D.C. require that sex education include information about “skills for avoiding coerced sex” (which sounds like information that would promote victim blaming anyway), 39 states require that abstinence be included in sex education and 27 states require that abstinence be stressed.

There is overwhelming evidence showing that abstinence-only education not only inaccurately informs students, but also leads to unhealthy sexual behavior. A study by Advocates for Youth, SEICUS, and Answer says “many abstinence centered programs teach gender stereotypes as facts” and that these gender stereotypes lead to intimate partner violence and unwanted sex, among other things. Yet more than half of states require that abstinence be emphasized to young people.

Not only are states’ policies about sex education heavily stacked against teaching an honest and comprehensive curriculum, but federal funding is too. A few months ago, Congress added $25 million more to the abstinence-only funding attached to the Affordable Care Act, bringing the funding source for abstinence-only education up to $75 million. At the same time, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees passed funding bills that would all but eliminate the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative program, which is a more comprehensive sex education program.

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Given the dire state of K-12 sex education, what can actually be done to teach kids about healthy relationships and prevent sexual violence early on? One solution is legislative, and the bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and revamp No Child Left Behind provided an opportunity for action.

In February 2015, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced the Teach Safe Relationships Act as a provision to the Senate version of the reauthorization bill, the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA). The Teach Safe Relationships Act had two major components. First it allowed schools to use Title IV funding to teach safe relationship behavior, which has never been done before. Second, it required schools that are receiving Title IV funding to report on what they are doing to teach safe relationships.

While ECCA – including the Teach Safe Relationships provision – passed in the Senate in July with overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans on a vote of 81-17, the House version of the bill, the Student Success Act (SSA), passed without inclusion of the Teach Safe Relationships provision. The eventual compromise bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act (or ESSA), passed in December with a few provisions of Teach Safe Relationships intact.

As the first federal attempt to incorporate education about healthy relationships into sex education, it’s just a small step toward an ambitious goal. The law lacks specificity and enforcement – it does not provide specific guidelines or a curriculum so that schools know what teaching safe relationships looks like, and it does not include any punitive measures for not teaching this topic or for teaching it poorly.

Without having a model to point to and without providing specific curriculum and training, federal legislation can only do so much. However, more can be done on a state-by-state level to implement specific, comprehensive curricula and programming.

Advocates for Youth is one organization that endorsed the Teach Safe Relationships Act and has been working for more than three decades to promote specific and effective adolescent sexual health programs on a grassroots and state level. “Because the bill is attached to use of Title IV there is an incentive for schools to comply,” President Debra Hauser says. “But what schools do to be in compliance needs to be informed on a grassroots level and be evidence and quality based.”

That’s where her organization steps in. Advocates For Youth, along with SIECUS and Answer, created the National Sexuality Education Standards (NSES), which provide a detailed outline of what students should learn in their sex education classes at each age. School district staff, state departments of education, and health educators from community-based organizations can reach out to Advocates for Youth or their partners to implement this curriculum. The curriculum is broken down into seven different topics (which include healthy relationships and personal safety) and eight different performance indicators.

By second grade, students can start understanding the complex concept of consent by learning what a healthy friendship looks like and how friends can express feelings toward one another. “So many characteristics that you talk about with friendships are the same with relationships,” Hauser said. The NSES show that healthy relationships, even friendships, are about a balance of power and respect for one another. Students would also learn that they have ownership of their bodies and that they can say no to touching that makes them uncomfortable. This education does not make kids feel shameful about their bodies, but empowers them to talk to a trusted adult if they are uncomfortable.

The NSES ensure that by eighth grade, the year that Draupadi was sexually assaulted, students would be able to distinguish between an unhealthy and healthy relationship and define different types of interpersonal violence as well as articulate why a person who has been sexually assaulted is not at fault. This eighth grade curriculum starkly contrasts with Draupadi’s middle school sex education, where she learned that her self-worth was tied to her virginity.

If schools implemented these standards, education on these topics would remain consistent throughout a student’s K-12 career. By the time students graduated high school, they would be able to define sexual consent, explain why a person who has been raped or sexually assaulted is not at fault, access resources for victims of sexual assault, and much more. Essentially, high school graduates would already have the education about interpersonal violence that activists are trying so hard to implement on a college level.

Another organization with a promising curriculum is Green Dot. Green Dot has made bystander intervention its main focus and has had success going into 13 high schools in Kentucky to train faculty and educators about bystander intervention and how to implement its program. Kristen Parks, a senior trainer and curriculum development specialist at Green Dot, explains that “we are all in different ways and at different times in the position to be a bystander” and that bystander intervention education is a great way to prevent violence without incriminating one group of people. It allows students to feel empowered to actively intervene in a situation of interpersonal violence.

If students entered college with the types of skills that the NSES and the Green Dot program teach, half the battle that college activists are trying to fight would already be won. These high school graduates would already have the solid education about interpersonal violence that so many campus activist groups are trying to teach at the college level and would be ready to step up as an active bystander during even the first few months of school (which are the highest risk time for sexual violence).

But this education would help more than just college students. Even if we do make progress on college campuses, only about 68 percent of high school graduates attend college. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that among college-age females, the rate of rape and sexual assault was 1.2 times higher for nonstudents. This is just another reason why teaching these topics in college is not enough.

By denying K-12 students an education about interpersonal violence and the tools to prevent violence or seek support, we are not only failing the 44 percent of victims who are under 18, but we are also failing the 68 percent of high school graduates who do not attend college and do not have access to the resources that colleges are beginning to provide.

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While there is a case to be made for including specific comprehensive laws about sex education in the ECAA, there are many people that are against a legislative fix for sex education. Aside from those who believe for moral or religious reasons that schools shouldn’t teach about sex education at all, there are people who believe that sex education in schools is not the most effective way to prevent violence and would just cause more divisions in congress.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history, is just one person who argues that sex should not have been included in the revamp of No Child Left Behind at all. First, he believes that sex education is a matter on which Americans disagree fundamentally and that including a specific approach to sex education in No Child Left Behind would cause too many schisms. Zimmerman is not opposed to sex education, but said, “I just don’t want No Child Left Behind – which is already politicized – to get even more politicized.” He says that while there is no coalition of people who are “pro-violence” and everyone can agree on the end goal of preventing sexual assault, Zimmerman is skeptical that there will ever be consensus on how to reach that goal.

Second, Zimmerman is not convinced that schools are the best place to teach students about violence prevention and other topics related to sex education. Zimmerman believes that today, sex education is often happening in the mass media and in peer relationships: “When you survey kids about where they get information, the answer is not in school.” In his article, “Why the Feds Should Butt Out of Sex Education,” Zimmerman says that since there is little evidence that comprehensive sex education helps prevent pregnancy and STDs, we wouldn’t see much progress in preventing violence through sex education either. “Frankly,”he said, “I think that we have a lot bigger fish to fry.”

But this is the attitude that anti-violence activists have been working so hard to suppress. Sexual assault prevention efforts need to be a priority, and they need to be made a priority in a universal place – schools. Making comprehensive sex education a priority shouldn’t be as much of an issue as Zimmerman thinks. A study conducted by Public Strategies, Inc. showed that 60 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of independents think that public schools should teach comprehensive sex education. If this is the case, then it seems that there is potential for programs like the NSES and Green Dot.

There has been evidence to show that comprehensive sex education about bystander intervention, healthy relationships, and personal safety does, in fact, yield positive results. Parks says that after implementing Green Dot in many Kentucky high schools, they found “a 50 percent reduction in sexual violence perpetration and a more than 40 percent reduction in total violence perpetration” over the course of four years.

Even if no evidence existed to show that comprehensive sex education programs were effective, there is overwhelming evidence to show that abstinence-only programs lead to increased sexual violence by promoting traditional gender roles. “What we know from research is that when young people are inculcated with traditional gender stereotypes, that is to the detriment of healthy relationships,” Hauser says.”Men have a strong definition of what it is to be masculine and that creates a power imbalance.”

A study by Advocates for Youth, SEICUS, and Answer concluded that traditional gender roles can also hinder girls in saying no to unwanted sexual encounters or insisting on condom use.

Putting an end to rape and sexual assault is not an easy task. Until we really focus on providing all students with a comprehensive K-12 sex education, we will continue to send students off to college (and onto adulthood) without a foundational education about healthy communication and respect for their peers. If we truly want to stop campus sexual assault and stop failing the many individuals who are exposed to these issues before or outside of college, we need to ensure that schools are appropriately educating students about these topics early on.

Abbie Starker

Abbie Starker was an intern at the Washington Monthly. She is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Political Science and Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies.