As powerful men and women from Hollywood to Capitol Hill are scrambling to answer for sexual harassment and abuse, more nuanced public conversations about gender, power, and consent are multiplying.
Now, as young people head back to school, advocates of sexuality education are dealing with two trends. While they brace for the return of federal funding for rebranded abstinence-until-marriage programs, rampant allegations of sexual violence are rallying some policymakers, school administrators, parents, and students themselves to revamp sexual education.
Most of the power to decide what young people learn in schools about sexuality is focused at the local level. School boards set budgets and choose curricula, but state laws can require schools to address some things and forbid them from discussing others. Even the federal government has some influence on sexuality education, particularly in the form of funding.
Jesseca Boyer, senior policy manager at the Guttmacher Institute, told Rewire.News that the issue of consent has been an important conversation starter with policymakers since #MeToo gained steam in late 2017.
“At the federal level, it’s opening some doors that were previously closed. In the past, talking about sex and adolescents was a nonstarter with some policymakers. But this is something people are willing to latch onto, and you can then say that sex ed is more than just abstinence and contraception.”
State legislatures are also taking on these issues in record numbers. A June report by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS) noted that “much like the 2017 legislative cycle, bills that include child sexual abuse, assault, and dating violence prevention instruction in sex education curricula as well as quality requirements (such as being medically accurate and age-appropriate) are by far the most common provisions.” For example, bills were introduced in Iowa, Georgia, and New Jersey that allow or require education regarding sexual abuse, assault, harassment, and exploitation, as well as issues such as consent and boundaries, human trafficking, healthy relationships, and violence to be added to existing health education curricula.
Some bills may have a noticeable, positive impact in the classroom this year. For example, a newly passed law in Maryland requires age-appropriate instruction on the meaning of consent and respect for personal boundaries to be added to the Family Life and Human Sexuality Education curriculum used by each county.
Others are less prescriptive. Rhode Island added language on consent to its sexuality education law, which essentially gives schools permission to discuss the meaning of consent and to explain that consent is required before sexual activity. This discussion, however, is not required in Rhode Island schools and the law still says schools should promote abstinence as the preferred method preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Still, even such incremental steps are progress, and the #MeToo movement should be credited with turning up the heat on lawmakers who are often content to avoid the issue of sex education.
Empowering Educators and Supporting Students
The push to discuss issues of sexual assault and harassment in school is not just coming from politicians, however. Brittany McBride, senior program manager for sexuality education at Advocates for Youth, told Rewire.News that she’s hearing it from teachers and administrators.
She recalled talking with a Florida teacher who wanted to start a conversation in her class about consent because she saw too many incidents of students snapping a young woman’s bra strap and running away. While this is a classic move among middle-school boys, recognizing it as an issue of consent is pretty new.
Some of the credit for this awareness among educators should go to the young activists who redoubled efforts to make colleges and universities deal with the issue of sexual assault on campus a few years ago. But the #MeToo movement and the national conversation it started has definitely touched educators and administrators.
Al Vernacchio, a veteran sexuality education teacher in Pennsylvania and author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health, told Rewire.News in an email: “In response to the #MeToo Movement, I’ve gotten many more requests from schools to do programming around consent, identifying and working to prevent sexual violence, and bystander intervention.”
Elizabeth Schroeder, a New Jersey-based sexuality education consultant who trains teachers around the country, agrees that there’s increased interest.
She said in an email: “I have heard a decent number of teachers looking for lessons on consent and talking about making sure consent and power are included in a curriculum.”
But while their intentions may be good, Schroeder worries that they’re taking a pretty narrow view of what needs to be taught: “In these situations, I also see that the vast majority, if not all, are taking a very gendered approach—cisgender guys exerting control over cisgender girls. Nothing about same-sex couples or young people who are trans or gender-nonconforming unless the educator is a strong ally, or a member of an LGBTQ+ community.”
She thinks part of the problem comes from a “topic du jour” view of sex ed: “People hone in on one topic, and then all of the classes focus on that and take time away from the other equally important topics. I keep trying to help schools integrate issues of gender and power and control throughout the curriculum, rather than having one or two classes specifically about consent—the latter of which is, unfortunately, what I think many individuals and schools are doing.”
Vernacchio, who teaches at an independent Quaker school, also points out that schools vary widely: “I’d say the #MeToo Movement has prompted progressive schools to review how they are talking about issues like patriarchy, feminism, political and social movements for change, and their own, internal structures and procedures for addressing these things. For other kinds of schools, it’s been a wake-up call that issues like these need to be addressed within the school curriculum and community life.”
Sometimes that wake-up call comes directly from students themselves. Rachael Gibson, a sexuality educator and teacher trainer in New York City, thinks the #MeToo movement is influencing students positively.
In an email, she wrote, “Students are having amazing discussions about consent, power, and privilege. While #MeToo is just a starting point of awareness, I see my young people to be making shifts in their behaviors and consciousness.” Gibson says she observes the biggest impact on some of the cisgender, straight,young men with whom she works.
Of course, Gibson acknowledges that much of her work takes place in New York City, where there is comprehensive sex education. She said, “I’m not sure if the same conversations are happening in places that hold large support for our current president.”
These experts agree that the #MeToo moment has the potential to improve sexuality education by helping policymakers understand the importance of discussing consent, sending teachers looking for lesson plans, and inspiring student activists.
But they also cautioned that these are not issues that can be relegated to be solved by sex education alone.
Boyer explained: “Consent is a core component of addressing and responding to these issues, but it has to be part of the broader context of understanding healthy relationships and challenging gender stereotypes, gender norms, the oversexualization of women, and the victim blaming that happens all the time.”
Schroeder added, “One class in consent will not do a whole lot to change attitudes, values, and beliefs that are being reinforced at home, by peers, and by our president.”
Some states are ahead of the game. The Oregon Health Authority works with partners in sexuality education and violence prevention to try to address issues of consent and violence from many angles. Shelagh Johnson, the agency’s youth sexual health coordinator, said, “Our motto has always been that sexual health promotion is sexual violence prevention.”
Issues of gender, power, privilege, and oppression are deeply ingrained in our society and play out differently in different schools and for different kids depending on gender, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic background, and wealth.
The #MeToo movement has brought these issues to light in a very public way. But it is up to advocates, educators, parents, and policymakers to make sure that these important conversations—and evidence-based content—spill over into sex ed classrooms.