Higher Education

STUDENT VOICE: To stop campus rape culture, fix sex ed in high school

‘Even in our liberal bubble, no one taught us about consent’

“Cast of 1985 coming-of-age movie “The Breakfast Club.”

Cast of 1985 coming-of-age movie The Breakfast Club.

I formed my first expectations about dating and sex through classic films of the 1980s.

John Bender was an alternative Prince Charming, moody and delinquent but redeemable by the end of The Breakfast Club — even after sticking his head up Claire’s skirt. Nothing seemed amiss when Caroline woke up with a grin after a night of sex she could not remember in 16 Candles. Bug, Uncle Buck’s niece’s would-be-rapist boyfriend, was a horny teenage boy acting like horny teenage boys could be expected to act.

I carried these unhealthy scenes, and the messages they taught me about relationships, through graduation. It didn’t help that my school never encouraged me to think otherwise.

Utah, my home state, has a reputation for conservatism and, with it, abstinence-based sex education. I grew up in Summit County, a sliver of blue on the otherwise red electoral map. When I was in high school, students talked openly about feminism and sex and LGBTQ rights. If any part of the state could have been expected to teach sex education properly, it should have been here. But even in our liberal bubble, no one taught us about consent.

In middle school, we colored pictures of reproductive organs and were told that we could give someone a hug or a gift to show affection instead of having sex with them. That advice elicited laughter from the class.

In high school, as part of our general health curriculum, we talked a bit about healthy relationships and learned, briefly, about contraception. But the notions of bodily autonomy, bystander intervention and the fact that no one has the right to pressure you for sex, ever, were absent from the curriculum. We learned about alcoholism and drug use, but not about incapacitation as it applies to sex. Concepts like “victim blaming” and “rape culture” were never part of the lessons.

Over the past year, much of the #MeToo movement has focused on sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. The accusations of sexual misconduct levied against Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee, finally drew national attention to sexual violence in high school. But concern alone will not fix our broken culture. Comprehensive sex ed in middle and high schools might.

Related: Put more gender studies in schools’ sex ed courses

Incomplete sex education isn’t just Utah’s problem. A 2018 study from the Center for American Progress found that only eight states include consent and sexual assault in their standards for sexual education. One is Oregon, which includes specific mention of consent as it applies to establishing personal boundaries beginning in kindergarten. Another is California, which discusses sexual assault with students as part of its 2016 California Healthy Youth Act, legislation that mandated comprehensive sex education.

Other states are beginning to catch on. In May, Maryland passed legislation mandating that schools teach consent and personal boundaries.

Beyond teaching students how to better respect those with whom they wish to have sex, consent education can help victims understand their rights and give them the vocabulary they need to come forward and seek help. It can provide friends and peers with the tools to validate and support victims. It can help foster school cultures where students do not accept disrespectful or unpleasant sexual behavior as facts of life.

Allegations of sexually threatening behavior by Brett Kavanaugh while at Yale reignited campus fury about sexual assault. The day before his hearing, I stood in a crowd around the Women’s Table, a marble fountain commemorating the history of female students at Yale, and listened to speeches from activists about the ways that sexual violence has persisted at Yale decades after Kavanaugh graduated.

Related: Does single-sex education work?

Discussions of campus rape frequently center on important steps like changing a culture of sexual entitlement, ending power imbalances that protect perpetrators and increasing punishments for those who commit sexual assaults. But the sexual climates of U.S. universities cannot be disentangled from high schools, and the discussions should begin years before students start university.

When the boys I dated in high school failed to treat my body or words with respect, I thought they were behaving in a normal, if rude, manner. I first understood sex as an activity that required sobriety and enthusiasm from both parties, not just the absence of a “no,” when I joined Planned Parenthood’s Summit County Teen Council my senior year of high school. Teen Council met once a week for a year, and members were provided with comprehensive sex-ed lessons to help us educate our peers.

How different my high school experience might have been if I had received such information earlier on.

When future high schoolers watch coming-of-age movies from the 1980s — Kavanaugh’s youth — they will be well-served if they have the tools to reflect on the films with a more critical eye than I had.

This story on sex education in high school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and inovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Sara Tabin is an undergraduate student at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Sara Tabin

Sarah Tabin is a student at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. See Archive

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