Sex-ed is key in making sure people have the right information they need to make important health decision. This means it can help us lower STI rates and help make public health better. It also plays another crucial role. Sex-ed, when done right, can be a key intervention to prevent childhood sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence.
Educating children about their bodies, body autonomy, and safe/unsafe touch from a young age is an important way to keep them safe. By making sure that children learn about their bodies (including the correct names of their genitals) and about human reproduction and sexuality, we give them the tools and vocabulary to tell trusted adults and healthcare professionals when they need help.
Talking about consent and safe/unsafe touch also means raising children who understand that sexual abuse is wrong. It’s important to teach them that they have a right to be safe and to respect the rights and feelings of others. Beyond protecting children from scary possibilities, teaching proper names for all body parts also helps children to develop a healthy positive body image and to feel more respect towards themselves and sexuality in general. It helps counter the sense of shame and taboo that can be built around our genitals, desire, sexual pleasure, and sexuality generally.
Sex-ed is also an opportunity to support children and young people in developing the skills to initiate and nurture strong, respectful, healthy relationships. This means talking openly about gender and power within relationships since inequalities between men and women (and people of other genders) are one of the most persistent power dynamics. Understanding gender can help nurture more equality in relationships—a key way to prevent gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence.
What Causes Gender-Based and Sexual Violence?
Sexual violence is a broad term that describes any violence (physical or psychological) carried out through sexual means or by targeting sexuality.
Sometimes, sexual violence is deliberately used as a weapon to humiliate, scare, or punish. More commonly, people commit sexual violence because of sexual desire and entitlement. Important phenomena like how boys and men are encouraged to bond over aggressive sexuality or sexual conquests, patterns of who has power over other people (because of things like race and gender) and a lack of understanding around sexual consent also contribute to the high rates of sexual violence.
Sexual violence is not always captured by legal definitions of what is considered sexual assault in the courts. There is a range when it comes to sexually violent behaviors and we have normalized many of them even though they contribute to the permissiveness and prevalence of more extreme behaviours.
Research tells us that misogyny and sexual harassment are both widespread among young people. Many young people are either on the receiving end or perpetrating gender-based degradation and violence but most parents are not talking to their kids about it. In an American national survey of 18 to 25-year-olds, 87% percent of women reported having experienced gender-based violence but 76% of respondents said they had never been talked to by parents or teachers about how to avoid sexually harassing or degrading others. Many young people don’t see certain types of gender-based violence like cat calling, slut shaming, or sharing private texts, photos or experiences as problems in modern society.
One in five women will experience sexual assault in university. One in three in their lifetime. Sexual assault rates among young people are high but most parents and educators aren’t talking about consent with their kids.
What difference can sex-ed make?
There has been a lot of stories about sexual assault, sexual coercion, and sexual harassment in the media lately. The #MeToo movement has made it more of a public conversation and opened the door for more people to share their stories. Many were shocked at how common those experiences are. Part of the reason those experiences are so common is because of rape culture.
Rape culture is a term used to describe how normal we make sexual assault seem in our society. This means living in a culture where rape and sexual violence (usually against women and gender minorities) are common things and seen as inevitable and, in some ways, not that big of a deal. Rape culture is possible because of the ways in which we normalize, tolerate, or joke about sexual violence.
Rape culture relies on things like victim blaming, slut shaming, old ideas about gender norms and old-fashioned ideas of consent. Sex-ed is an opportunity and a tool to teach about consent and healthy relationships instead which helps keep young people safe.
Sex-ed is also a golden opportunity to shape young people’s understanding of sexuality as a whole. Teaching the positive aspects of sexuality and relationships can have profound impacts on the health and safety of young people and they’re also more likely to be engaged in their sex-ed if they are taught more than just the risks.
Talking about pleasure, about intimacy, about fun, and all of the reasons why people may want to have sex helps young people form a concrete picture of what a healthy sexuality is about.
How sexuality is expressed in new media (like widely available porn and social media), in sexual myths (like “real” men need to pursue lots of sex and “good” women need to stay virgins and/or be modest), and dangerous norms around how sex “should” play out (like, how guys always initiate and women must please their men) have serious effects on young people’s sexuality. The way we talk about sex without ever talking about pleasure (especially female pleasure) has meant that for young women, the lack of pleasure and painful intercourse are expected.
The stories young women tell of their first sexual experiences, those of young women in the United States often center around being driven by hormones and peer pressure, being unprepared, having to “satisfy him,” and having uncomfortable and silent parents. Meanwhile, young Dutch women talk about their first sexual experiences as motivated by love, “having control of my own body”, having parents as supporters and educators, and reading informative books at young ages.
To educate young people properly about sexuality, about their rights, about being respectful partners, and about consent is one the best ways we can end the epidemic of sexual violence and lead our kids into healthy relationships.