Sexual Assault Awareness Month with SIECUS and EducateUS
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which means it’s a great time to talk about sex and relationships education.
You may not think of sex ed immediately when you think about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but if you care about preventing sexual violence, let me tell you a little story about why you should:
Like most of you, I got woefully inadequate sex and relationships education in school. Having better sex ed would surely have helped me avoid emotionally abusive situations I encountered, set healthy boundaries sooner, and generally keep myself safe and happier.
But when I’m asked to share a story about why I’m so passionate about sex ed advocacy, I don’t tell a story about the sex ed I deserved but didn’t get. I tell a story about the sex ed someone else didn’t get, and that I deserved for them to have.
When I was 20 years old, I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew. He wasn’t someone I was dating or even liked, but we were at a party together, and he followed me back to my room uninvited.
In the aftermath, it became clear that this was not a guy who was used to thinking about how his actions affect other people, a guy who had never once considered the concept of consent, and one who definitely didn’t think he would face any consequences if he just took what he wanted. In other words, the guy who hurt me had been failed by his sex and relationships education, and I have been forever harmed by the education he didn’t get.
I’m not the only one. A 30 year meta-analysis of studies on the effectiveness of sex education found, among many other benefits, that quality sex ed reduces the odds that students will be the perpetrators or the victims of violence. It also increases the likelihood that students who see others being targeted will do something to interrupt the abuse. We can also say the inverse is true: failing to teach sex and relationships education in schools increases the odds that students will hurt and be hurt by each other, and that they won’t intervene when they see abuse happening.
It’s not hard to figure out why. The kind of sex and relationships education described by the National Sex Ed Standards teaches about boundaries – how to set them and how to hear and respect them. It helps students develop a sense of what healthy and unhealthy relationships are like, so they are prepared to tell the difference in their own lives and avoid unhealthy situations more often. It teaches that sex isn’t some zero-sum heteronormative game where men try to “get” sex and women have to resist until marriage or else be treated as people who “gave it up” too soon. Instead, sex ed teaches that we are fundamentally all co-equal in our humanity and our bodies, and how to treat each other that way.
I’ve spent most of my career working to end sexual violence and increase survivors’ access to healing and justice. And that’s precisely why I spend my days (and some nights!) fighting so hard for universal public school sex and relationships education. After my book Yes Means Yes came out and helped to popularize the idea of affirmative consent, I spent a lot of time on college campuses talking about it. And I heard the same story over and over: this idea is life-changing – if only I’d known this 6 years ago, or 8 years ago. If only we all had.
At first these stories made me feel good – here I was, delivering life-saving ideas! But as the years went on, those stories started to ring in my ears as a call to action: college is too late. The CDC’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey puts that insight in sharp relief: they found that 13.5% of teen girls and 4% of teen boys reported being forced to have sex – that’s over 10 million young people in this country, and those are just the ones who admitted it on the CDC’s survey. We clearly have to get sex and relationships education to young people much, much sooner.
That’s what we’re doing at SIECUS and EducateUS. I hope you’ll join us.