Editor’s Note: Nicole Cushman is executive director of Answer, a Rutgers University-based program that provides and promotes comprehensive sex education, and adviser to AMAZE, which creates age-appropriate animated videos for adolescents and provides sexual health resources to parents and educators. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
The black dresses symbolizing a stand against sexual harassment and assault we saw at the Golden Globes will make another appearance at the State of the Union, putting the nation on notice that Time’s Up for inappropriate behavior. We can’t expect President Donald Trump to speak to this crisis – nor does he have the credibility given his track record. But the onus is on all of us to transform the culture of sexual harassment and assault across America. We can change our culture for future generations, but this requires education, starting early – for children and teens, at school and at home.
Harvey Weinstein said, in response to allegations of sexual harassment and rape, that he came of age at a time when “all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” While this was a pathetic attempt to deflect responsibility, it’s clear that some of Weinstein’s perspective is still implicitly or explicitly infused into our culture today.
If young boys learn that taunting and teasing is a good way to show interest in girls, for example, will that behavior be left behind on the playground or will it subconsciously become the foundation for adult attitudes about women?
Sex education should be an educational priority, along with other critical subjects such as math and history. When done right, it’s not just a semester during PE freshman year; it’s an ongoing process throughout a student’s entire educational career, covering communication and decision-making skills, sexual orientation and gender identity as well as the basics of reproduction and contraception.
It may feel difficult to talk to very young children about sex and relationships, but this is imperative. And we can start by equipping them with knowledge about their bodies, the characteristics of healthy relationships – romantic and platonic – and what to do when lines are crossed. This knowledge and approach can have an incredible impact if practiced at a national scale. Imagine if every school across the country taught inclusive, comprehensive sex education, and if every family helped children to understand their bodies and their rights, and the breadth of different kinds of gender expressions, family structures and relationships. We would be raising a generation that could change our world for the better.
This dream is possible, but right now a lot of barriers stand in the way. We have a patchwork of state and local sex education policies and programs that vary widely across the country – some leaning on abstinence-only instruction, reinforcing Weinstein-esque (or worse) gender norms, and lies about the efficacy of birth control. Too many young people are forced to resort to internet searches and rely on rumors for supposed information about sex and sexuality. What they end up finding can be dangerous and misleading.
In this moment of reckoning about sexual assault and harassment, young people crave accurate information and want it on their own terms. An animated video created by a program I work with, AMAZE – titled “What is Sexual Assault?” – had its views spike above 100,000 after #MeToo took hold in the media. There are some terrific resources out there to help parents, teachers and teens fill in the gaps, but they need additional resources to cut through a saturated media landscape.
Sex education that covers not just the birds and the bees but also teaches skills for establishing boundaries, consent and healthy relationships is key to dismantling a culture that allows sexual harassment and assault to persist throughout every industry, street and school in America. This isn’t a pipe dream; it’s becoming the reality in places like California, where the recently enacted Healthy Youth Act requires comprehensive sex education in schools across the state, complete with factual and inclusive information about sex, consent, and healthy relationships.
Unfortunately, this is not the sex education most of our children receive. Far too many students face abstinence-only curricula that shame anything other than strict heterosexuality and gender conformity.
Studies show that abstinence-only programs don’t delay sexual activity, but do give young people false and dangerous perceptions about sexual health and relationships. Just last year, an abstinence-only program was banned from a New York district after it compared a girl’s virginity to chewing gum and asked boys if they would want used gum.
This common tactic used in abstinence-only programs spreads fear and stigma and fuels a harassment culture by promoting gender relations that devalue women and police their sexual activity. Now they’re resurging under the Trump administration, which hired a crusader for rebranding abstinence-only with a euphemism: “sexual risk avoidance.” But make no mistake; these are the same old ineffective programs masquerading under a benign name.
While it may seem impossible to gain support at the federal level for high-quality sex education, we can make big changes closer to home. More states can follow the lead of California and implement policies that require comprehensive, inclusive sex education. Others can find courage in New York’s example and challenge dangerous, misleading programs masquerading as sex ed. We can create a demand too big to be denied.
Our country is at a crossroads, and our children are watching closely. During Tuesday night’s address, they’ll see that some of our national leaders are taking the #MeToo conversation seriously. This conversation needs to happen at home, too. Now is the moment to make an impact on how young people approach interpersonal relationships for the rest of their lives. Let’s not let them down.