Addressing Sexual Violence through Sexuality Education

Dr. Karen Rayne

Parents and teachers need to have lots of difficult conversations about sex with their teens, where the "right" answer isn't clear.

This week the Internet has been buzzing with conversation about how to
teach about sexual violence — kicked off by an article in the New York Times about talking to boys about sexual assault.  The blog postings have ranged from
humorous to derivative to insightful, while the comments have included
far too much about man-hating women and about male chauvinists
whistling at women in the streets.  The only things there about which there seem to be
broad agreement are that both rape and date rape are bad.

The crux of the argument centers around whether to provide
gender-unspecific sex education or gender-specific sex education.   The
goal of gender-unspecific sex education is to provide the same
curriculum, information, and skills to males and females so as not to
stereotype girls into victims and boys into rapists.  Gender-specific
sex education say that because boys are more often rapists and girls
are more often victims, we must specify their education to some degree. 
But neither side seems to provide much in the way of practical details
on how to actually effectively educate girls and boys about sexual
violence.  And in any event, I disagree with the fundamental argument: We do not need either gender-specific or gender-unspecific
sex education, but rather gender-inclusive sex education.

I teach sex education to everyone from middle school age through
adulthood.  In every class I teach, we work our way through
conversations about sexual violence and assault.  I am bothered by how
the Times article and many following blog posts and comments merely
called on parents to "have that talk" with their sons and sometimes
their daughters too.  This is not enough.  Parents and teachers need
guidance in how to broach a conversation about sexual violence above
and beyond simple encouragement to do so.

Most parents (and many teachers) don’t think their children or
students would sexually assault another person.  So while parents and
teachers might have conversations with their children and students
about sexual violence, their conversations are often not effective
enough.  The problem is a common adult/child/teen dynamic: Children and
teenagers, by and large, want their parents and teachers to have a good
opinion of them or perhaps just to leave them alone.  The young people
know the "right" answers to questions, how to act the "right" way in
front of adults, to keep as much respect, or at least as much peace, as
possible.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Parents and teachers need to have lots of difficult conversations with
their teens, where the "right" answer isn’t clear.  Even when this is
done, the adult might not know if the youth has grasped the knowledge
and judgment needed to reduce sexual assault.  Another mistake, besides
not allowing for more difficult, more nuanced conversations, is that
adults tend to talk too much rather than listen too much.  We must pose
hard questions, and then stop to listen long enough for the hard
answers to begin form.  Through these questions and answers our
children and teenagers will have the experience of deep analysis and
thought and have the benefit of honest reactions from adults to their
honest grappling.

Middle school students are in dire need of this kind of
communication.  One of my male students recently said in class that he
was jealous of girls in relationships, because their boyfriends aren’t
ever going to hit them or yell at them.  A female student said she
didn’t really know what she wanted to do physically with boys when she
dates them – and said she didn’t really want to ever think about it
either.

These students have naïve cognitive models about relationships and
so benefit substantially from conversations about relationship
realities and sexual responsibility.  Dismissing the reality that girls
are abused by boys in relationships does not further inter-gender
understanding or deep relationships, and declining to make personal
decisions about sexual engagement does not serve one’s sexual health. 
Middle school students, however, often still have some time before they
become fully sexually active when they will hopefully increase their
knowledge and skills in the area.  Through my work with college
students, however, I have found that far too few of them have actually
done so.

College students are more sexually experienced, but far too often
have only a little more knowledge and skills about sexuality in general
and sexual violence specifically.  Yesterday a young woman asked me in
that slightly off-kilter voice that makes it clear she’s talking about
herself, “If you’re at a friend’s party and passed out because you’re
drunk, like really drunk, and you wake up at four in the morning, and
you’re boyfriend is having sex with you, is that okay?  Because he’s
your boyfriend?”  There is a substantial education gap that lasts far
into young people’s sexually active years.

Students’ misunderstandings and misconceptions about sexual
violence only come up in the midst of hard conversations about
relationships, personal goals, and sexual violence.  The gaps in
knowledge and experience surface in response to oblique scenarios that
initially left the students unsure of the “right” answer.  That is to
say, these conversations were born out of real life scenarios where I
stopped talking and let them muse.  After they got going, my students
loudly argued their points to each other about what is right and wrong
behavior, who holds responsibility for what actions, and how to keep
them and their partners safe.

High quality sex education is not gender-specific, but
gender-inclusive.  The girls in my college classes must hear their male
peers say they are confused by unclear signals of interest, that they
don’t know how to respond to or interpret them, in order to begin to
understand why they have to say no or yes clearly.  The boys have to
hear the girls talk about the social assumptions that are made about
them to begin to understand why girls sometimes offer ambiguous
signals.  Middle school students need to have the same conversation,
only on their developmental level of sexual and romantic involvement.

We all, girls and boys, men and women, need to sit together and
talk through our collective pain on this issue of sexual violence.  It
is not something that anyone feels good about, but we can all learn
from the task of being and feeling and hearing honestly from our peers
about their experiences.

Additionally, I have to ask: Why didn’t the New York Times article, or the follow-ups, talk about alcohol?

Alcohol
clouds judgment, for the young and the old.  If someone is uninterested
in sexual intercourse when they are sober, but become interested when
they are drunk, were they raped?  Will they feel raped or at least
taken advantage of when they are sober again?  Whose responsibility is
it to have stopped that sexual encounter?  This is one of those
all-important, nuanced questions that we must ask our young people to
grapple with, starting in high school.  They need to think about it and
talk about it among their peers so they can learn where other people
stand, and hear different perspectives in a setting where they can take
them in and let them ruminate.

By and large, people of all ages will be dealing with sex and
sexuality and the implications of their choices among their peers
rather than alongside their parents or teachers.  Therefore it is among
those peers, and with an inclusive gender spectrum, that these hard
topics must be tackled. 

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.