For my internship with the Feminist Majority Foundation, I get to talk about sex and sexuality just about every day. In the past two weeks alone, I attended a lunch series on sex positivity and a training session from the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence. At both events, there was one major takeaway: comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education is one of the most important things we can do today to put a halt on rape culture tomorrow.
Andrea Gleaves of the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence explained it best: “Overwhelmingly, we focus on what we’re fighting against instead of what we’re working towards, which is a society that respects self-determination and autonomy.”
Here are 5 ways we can improve sexuality education in an effort to work towards that goal, rather than working against preexisting patriarchal norms.
1. Have sex/sexuality education.
This is pretty self-explanatory, but unfortunately, only 22 states mandate any kind of sex and sexuality education, and just 13 of those states require the information to be medically accurate. Although I focus on the importance of a comprehensive sexuality education, I need to stress that having any medically accurate, culturally competent education at all is a major win.
2. Include all genders in one conversation.
Not only is separating students by gender harmful for those who do not fit into a binary, but we also live in a society that teaches children very different lessons based on gender roles and stereotypes. Traditionally, ideals of masculinity dictate that boys, from a young age, are supposed to want sex. Meanwhile, young girls are taught caution, shame, and fear. By keeping all genders together, students learn important lessons to work against the heteronormativity, shame, and silence that are often the center of current sexuality education programs. Comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education encourages students to understand that concepts like bodily autonomy and consent apply to all sexualities and gender identities.
3. Start early.
Starting early means teaching young people bodily autonomy from the time they understand what it means to have a body. This aspect is imperative for a more comprehensive curriculum. “Children are already learning about sexuality, whether or not we have an engaged conversation with them, “ says Gleaves. “By not engaging in conversations of sexuality, we are making it more difficult for them to engage with the world.” Teaching the basics of bodily autonomy will ideally build a foundation for teaching concepts like consent and coercion later on.
4. Talk about consent affirmatively, not just preventatively.
Often, students are lucky if consent is discussed at all in sexuality education. But when educators do talk about consent, there is a lot more to it than teaching young people it is okay to say “no.”
“Affirmative” consent is not only the difference between “yes means yes” and “no means no.” It also means asking questions like, “does this feel good?” or “is this okay?” Because consent is more than a one-sided conversation, it is important to teach students that consent is not just about saying “no,” but continuously and enthusiastically checking in with a partner about each sexual experience.
5. Talk about sex, baby.
I believe one of the major reasons why affirmative consent is not discussed is is because it leads to a conversation that is very taboo in our society, especially when centered on female sexuality— and that conversation is pleasure.
Too often, adults are reluctant to have these conversations with young people, and I find that very concerning; if young people are learning about sexuality (and they are), it is important for them to understand all aspects of sexuality.
Here are some great ways to start these conversations and policy changes on your campus:
- Know your university’s policies. Does the health center distribute condoms on campus? How do you discuss healthy relationships and sexuality with incoming students? Ask yourself these questions, and do some research. Change can start on your own campus.
- Follow policies around the country. There is almost always a battle somewhere over sexuality education. Keep track of these policies so if there is one happening near you, you can get involved.
- If the area you live in does have more progressive policies regarding sexuality education, learn about the curriculum. Does it start early? How is consent discussed? You and your club can create a fact sheet or talk to local officials about the benefits of a comprehensive sexuality education.
Comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education is about so much more than basic anatomy or putting a condom on a banana. It is about teaching the next generation what it means to have a body and interact with others, ultimately building a foundation for a culture of consent. Improving sexuality education is a way to ensure that inclusivity and respect for all identities and bodies is the new norm.
For more information and ideas on how to bring sex-positivity and a culture of consent to your campus, check out the Feminist Campus sex-positivity toolkit!