To Move Forward, We Have to Go Back to Sex Ed
#86this: Main Menu
By McKenzie Schwark
I was out at a bar with a new friend recently when our conversation almost inevitably turned to our assault stories. Now in my early 20s, it feels like a right of passage, a bonding ritual, a blood oath to compare and contrast accounts of sexual assault with the new women I meet. I’m never surprised to find out that someone I know has been sexually assaulted anymore, and I am sick of having these conversations with women. That’s not because I think we shouldn’t talk about it—we have to—but because I am sick of realizing so many women I love are dealing with the consequences of living in a society that neither looks out for nor protects their bodies.
We take a lot of care in nourishing our bodies through food. When it comes to our physical bodies, there are all kinds of ways we can take care of ourselves. If you’re low on energy, there are vitamin-rich foods you can eat to feel better; if you’re losing sleep there is tea you can drink to relax. We turn to acupuncture, herbs, supplements, exercise classes, fresh air, and more to cure and strengthen ourselves. But knowledge and information can also be a source of nourishment and protection for our physical beings.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how we can move forward and do better. We have the numbers and the stories, so now is the time to take action. But to move forward we have to go back, all the way to sex ed. The failure to provide comprehensive sexual education for young people that includes information on consent, what constitutes sexual assault, and what resources they have if assaulted does them a disservice and perpetuates rape culture.
Abstinence-only education makes little or no room for discussion on these issues. This kind of teaching assumes that if students can’t or don’t get certain information in the classroom, they can turn to their parents or a trusted adult. We know this is not an option for every student. When one in nine girls under the age of 18 has already experienced sexual abuse, it is irresponsible to not include resources for victims in the curriculum.
In researching sexual education programs, I found one lesson emphasized over others: how to say no to sex. At my high school, I remember practicing ways to break it to a partner that our parents wouldn’t approve, or that we were waiting until marriage. Teaching young people how to communicate that they aren’t ready or don’t want to have sex is great and important. However, I never came across any information on why you shouldn’t pressure someone to have sex, or more simply, why and how to not rape someone. In fact, I barely saw the words consent or rape.
Giving young people information about these matters once they are in college is too late. For the nearly 63,000 children and teenagers who experience dating or sexual violence each year, the damage has been done long before they so much as fill out a college application.
During my time as a college Resident Advisor—or the dreaded RA—I handled or heard about sexual assault cases over and over where the perpetrator seemed to genuinely have no clue that they had assaulted someone. There is no better place to see the failings of our sexual education system at play than on a college campus. It was as if no one had ever mentioned to these students that a drunk person cannot give consent, or that it is against the law to share someone else’s nude photos.
If we want to prevent the next generation of young women and men from being sexually assaulted, we also have to prevent them from sexually assaulting.
The #MeToo hashtag has been used millions of times, by millions of people, since becoming the rallying cry for so many. The #MeToo movement has made its way around the world, and is being used by people of all ages, in all career fields, with all kinds of backgrounds. It’s inspired projects like Time’s Up, which has raised over $16 million for a legal defense fund for people affected by sexual assault and harassment.
All of this illustrates that somewhere along the line, we fail pretty much everyone in regard to sexual assault awareness and prevention. The anecdotes have been gut wrenching, and the numbers of those affected are immense. It is hard to look at this massive and deep problem we have created and see a way out. But by providing vocabulary and resources through education we can begin to chip away at the systemic problem and change rape culture. One bright spot? On November 9th, the Sexuality Information Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) partnered with #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke to launch the #TeachThem campaign, which promotes sexual assault prevention and consent education in schools across the United States.
I made two resolutions for 2018. The first is to take better care of my physical body by giving it what it needs, and the second is to support organizations that provide or fight for comprehensive sexual education throughout the United States. I hope others join me so we can grow stronger generations of men and women who don’t have to say #MeToo.
McKenzie Schwark is a freelance writer and editor whose work focuses on feminism and women's issues. Her writing is published or forthcoming in BUST, Bustle, bitch media, and Honeysuckle Magazine. She is the associate editor of Honeysuckle Girl, a magazine aimed at inspiring and empowering young girls through storytelling. Find her writing and contact info at www.mckenzieschwark.com or @schwarkattack.