In Which I Refuse to Put the “Sex Ed War” to Rest

A few weeks back, my friend KaeLyn sent me this article from Time called “How to Bring An End to the War Over Sex Ed,” and because I’m always behind on my emails, I just finally got around to reading it.

Now, you all know that Time Magazine is not my friend.  But, this article is for the most part pretty good.  After all, they do come down on the side of comprehensive sex education — even if they do have to dress it up in pretty language that makes it look like they are actually offering equal admonishments of comprehensive sex ed advocates and favoring something far closer to a compromise.

But, consistently unsatisfied and Time-hating harpy that I am, I unsurprisingly found something to get upset about.  The Impact program they profile is certainly better than most sex education programs I’ve come across.  But first of all, I’m unconvinced that we should be throwing our full and unmitigated support behind a program that uses a slogan like SELF-RESPECT: THE ULTIMATE CONTRACEPTIVE; I’m not 100% sure what that’s getting at, but my most educated guess leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth.

And secondly, there is this little, seemingly innocuous tidbit.

The program gives students escalating levels of information about STIs, pregnancy and contraception. But it also encourages them to delay sexual activity, works on building self-esteem and uses role-playing to teach them how to resist pressure from peers and partners.

Sigh.  Okay.  Here’s the thing:

As I argued in my essay in Yes Means Yes, I believe that I personally, and by extension most likely many other teenagers as well, could have indeed benefited from very frank and realistic talk about pressure to engage in sexual activity.  Indeed,  it’s because I believe this so strongly that I get really, incredibly angry when I see people fucking it up.

Because this was not what I had in mind.  This does, in fact, from the brief description, sound like more abstinence-only bullshit.  It sounds like teaching teens avoidance and escape techniques.  Which, while on some small level may be useful, won’t solve the wider problem.

What I had in mind was teaching boys and girls, potential victims and potential perpetrators, that pressuring someone into sexual activity is wrong.  That coercing someone into sexual activity is assault.  That refusing to listen to a “no” until you finally get a “yes” is not the same as consent.  And that sex without consent is rape.

The description above, on the other hand, actually sounds like what I did get in school.  Which proved absolutely useless.  It didn’t teach  my boyfriend/rapist that what he was doing qualified as a horrific abuse.  It didn’t teach me that, either.  It taught me only that I should have been better at saying no and shouldn’t have given up so easily, and because I sucked at it and eventually gave up, I had what was coming to me.

Teaching me how to “resist pressure” taught me that pressure was normal.

And it’s not.  It’s not and it never will be.  But here we are, living in a world where many are willing to argue that people, especially men and boys, of course, will always pressure their sexual partners — and that we need to prepare kids, especially girls, of course, for that reality.  Not by teaching them to recognize abuse and get help; by teaching them how to do a supposedly better job of saying “no.”

We assume that pressure is a natural, normal part of sex.  And seemingly, we teach teens to avoid it not because it’s wrong, but precisely because we associate it so strongly with sex and want teens to avoid that.

Basically, we want teens to avoid “sex” more than we want them to avoid sexual violence.  That’s what keeps teens like the one that I once was from recognizing abuse, seeking out and forming healthy relationships, and speaking out when abuse is committed.  Because we were, after all, supposed to be avoiding that which got us in trouble.

This is an elephant in the room for the entire article.  When it cites the high number of teens who wish they’d delayed sexual activity sooner, how many of them actually had a choice in the matter?  How many of those “first experiences” qualify as rape?  I’m willing to bet that the number is really scary.

But it’s not discussed.  It’s ignored.  In fact, that single note about “pressure” is the only time the article even hints at the fact that not all teens are engaging in sexual activity and getting pregnant and infected with STDs just because of crazy hormones and an inability to resist them, or just plain old impulsive decision making.  And the lies about raging hormones that teens (especially teen boys) supposedly can’t resist is exactly why we excuse the sexual violence that is being shrouded in the language above.

Why do so many people remain unconvinced that we can do more than just teach teens to “resist pressure”?  Why do they not understand that we can also teach them to not enact it?  Do they even want to?

I’d like to see the war over sex education end just as much as the next person.  If we came to an agreement, after all, we’d get a hell of a lot more done.

But I’m not willing to make important concessions in order to reach a consensus.  Lessons about consent, lessons which will work to dismantle rape culture, cannot and never should be lost in a “compromise.” Our lives are too important for that.

0 thoughts on “In Which I Refuse to Put the “Sex Ed War” to Rest

  1. Lemur

    That slogan leaves a bad taste in my mouth too. “Self-Respect: The Ultimate Contraceptive” sounds like “If you had any self-respect, you wouldn’t go around having Teh Secks, you dirty slut. And if you do, anything that happens is a just punishment for your lack of selfrespect and now you are worthless as a human being.” Oh, and it also erases the idea that someone can be raped, which makes all the ‘self-respect’ in the world a lousy ‘contraceptive’. There’s a LOT wrong with that effing slogan, actually. Damn.

    1. Cara Post author

      Haha, yeah. That first interpretation was also mine. “People who have self-respect don’t have sex. So have self-respect, and you won’t get pregnant!”

  2. Donna


    Uh-huh. So any woman who actually wants to have sex is probably a whore who has no self-respect. What other way is there to read that? Because, the ultimate contraceptive is not engaging in intercourse. Although that leaves many other sexual activities like oral, that won’t get a woman pregnant. So I guess pressure to engage in those sexual activities doesn’t involve self respect. No worries. Not to mention the assumed heteronormativity.

    I think self-respect is a good thing to be taught, simply loving yourself and knowing yourself enough to know what you want and what you are ready for and being able to communicate that. But you talk about the other important aspect, it’s not just self-respect that makes a good intimate relationship, but respect for your partner too.

  3. SunlessNick

    “Self-Respect: The Ultimate Contraceptive” sounds like “If you had any self-respect, you wouldn’t go around having Teh Secks, you dirty slut.

    And conveniently ignores all the ways that girls are taught that sex is their purpose (and self-respect is a tough thing to maintain when you’ve abandoned what you’re constantly told your purpose is in life).

  4. karak

    How about, “Respect Others–The Ultimate Anti-Rape Solutions”? Why does sex education, a mutual act, always focus on the self instead of your partner? How does respecting yourself be a contraception? I respect myself plenty– my wants, desires, mental state, and as a part of that understanding, I engage in consensual sex. Does that mean I hate myself?

    1. Cara Post author

      I respect myself plenty– my wants, desires, mental state, and as a part of that understanding, I engage in consensual sex. Does that mean I hate myself?

      Well obviously. I mean, how could one have sex and not hate themselves? Don’t be ridiculous now, karak — that doesn’t even make sense!


  5. Isabel

    But, consistently unsatisfied and Time-hating harpy that I am, I unsurprisingly found something to get upset about.

    I knew there was a reason I read you 😛 seriously though, Time magazine kinda blows pretty often. & also seriously, this post & your previous one are both totally amazing.

    Self-Respect: The Ultimate Contraceptive? uh, does anyone else find it sort of sad-hilarious that this is basically implying that parents have no self-respect?

    also re: people wishing they had delayed sex: that’s a great point about the consent issue, Cara, but I’m also curious about the way that research was conducted – it says this is how many sexually active teens wish they had waited, & I have to wonder if all of them will still regret it in a few years when the agony of teenagedom is behind them. How many of them, for example, (consentingly) had sex for the first time with someone who later gave them a heartbreak they’re still smarting over, but will be able to remember without such a strong negative emotional rush by the time they’re 25? how many, in other words, are really saying they regret having sex with a specific person – something a lot of adults, I’m sure, would also admit to – who happened, for whatever reason, to be their first sexual partner? or how many of them are responding to the conflicting messages over sex (do it or you’re a prude! wait you did it? SLUT)? maybe none of them – but I find this statistic to be sort of vague in a shock-value kind of way, & in any case, wouldn’t it be easier to try & lower that number if we had some idea of WHY teens felt that way? if they wish they had waited because later, they were able (for whatever reason that didn’t exist before) to use contraception and therefore avoid pregnancy/STDs, that indicates a different route of intervention (i.e. increased emphasis on condom use) than does their saying they felt pressured into it (which indicates a need for more of this type of education as well as the kind you advocate for, Cara) which in turn indicates something different than if they say because it was with the wrong person (which… honestly, I’d say indicates nothing other than sometimes teenagers, like adults, make poor choices and sleep with people they later wish they hadn’t and unfortunately sometimes that happens to be the case for their first time. maybe something that could be useful here is talking about how to emotionally deal with that sort of thing).

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  8. Kat

    I interpreted the clever little slogan differently (I think it could be used to mean “value and respect YOURSELF, rather than seeking worth and value through sex”), and I was all set to argue it with you.

    Then I got to the sentence: “Teaching me how to ‘resist pressure’ taught me that pressure was normal. And it’s not. It’s not and it never will be”

    That stopped me cold and really, really made me think. Bickering over a little slogan is inconsequential compared to the point that you made above. It hadn’t occurred to me (because it’s been ages since I thought about the sex ed classes that I took as a kid), but holyshityes, all the focus on “pressure” that a girl “will” face makes it seem commonplace and normal. That’s really scary.

    So thank you. Thank you for making me think about the consequences of words.

    And for being able to stop me mid-argument 🙂
    (it’s no easy feat!)

  9. Megan

    I really appreciate you writing this post, because I think that it is the one of the most important parts of sex ed and it’s never even mentioned in the classroom. A form of assault (but rarely recognized as such,) intense, systematic “pressure” has long been part (if not the defining part) of womens’ sexual experiences, and yet is not recognized as a problem. Boys are simply expected to want sex and to do whatever they can to get it, perhaps save for forcibly pinning a woman down and entering her. While this type of rape is better known as being wrong, coercion through almost any other means is still fair game. For years, my sexual experiences were made up of systematic and manipulative “pressure” so severe it led to a host of physical and emotional consequence. Today I have learned to call it abuse. For years I blamed myself for everything that happened against my will, for the reasons you stated in this post. The worst part is that I know it happens to almost all women at some point and that this is never acknowledged by school boards, media, law or public opinion as a crime or even a problem. It is always put as the women’s responsibility to say no. But what if you say no and that’s not enough? Men are taught that if she says no, to just keep trying.

  10. esd123

    So i’ve never even been on this site till tonight, but i found it through stumble upon and am really interested and active in topics like this. Being 15 years old, Sex education is really important to me and i don’t like it when people act as if its not. Although i agree with what your saying, i don’t think that saying all sex ed teaches kids to resist sex completely, and doesn’t differ between peer pressure and assault. I’m currently taking sex ed at school, and we talk about safe sex as well as what defines sexual assault, and how to avoid it. Maybe some school teach a looser version of sexual assault, but not all or even most to my knoledge. I just wanted to give the perpective of someone who is going through sex ed right now.

    1. Cara Post author

      Hey Esd123, thanks for sharing. What concerns me is this:

      we talk about safe sex as well as what defines sexual assault, and how to avoid it

      Maybe I’m misreading or you’re not phrasing quite right, but this is what I’m talking about in my post. You’re say that you’re being taught how to avoid sexual assault. But are you also being taught how to not commit it?

  11. Anna

    If only private schools were made to do this too – the school I attended basically went 1. abortion is the butchering of innocent children by the very person who should protect them (and we were shown videos of late-term abortions and handed out little badges with hands and feet on them.) 2. these are zygotes, this is the female hormone, this is the male hormone, this is a penis, this is a vagina, penis goes in vagina and baby is made. 3. only sluts have sex before marraige. if you have sex outside marriage you will get an STI, be totally scarred for life both internally and externally and you will probably get pregnant and bring much shame on your family and ruin your life when you Do Not Have That Abortion.

    .. probably helps to explain why I didn’t really have a consensual sexual experience with a boy until I was eighteen (became sexually active at 14). it’s such, such a big deal.. and, well, schools get away with murder. I truly believe *all* the difference could be made if more emphasis was placed on emphasising love, trust, and more importantly consent (because you don’t have to love everyone you fuck, but consent is non-negotiable). It’s sad.

  12. Kat

    Perhaps you mean parochial schools, not private schools?
    I went to secular private schools and my experiences in sex ed were the polar opposite of yours.

    I’m sure, however, that Catholic and other religious schools are allowed to “get away with murder” as you put it. I’ve actually heard of sex ed being used as a reason not to send children to public schools (by both evangelical and catholic parents)…..god forbid we should learn anatomy and biology (at the VERY least).

  13. Anna

    I’m not sure of the difference between the two – I’ve never heard the other term used. Google informs me it definitely wasn’t though – just a private school. I am over in the UK, if that makes a difference.

  14. esd123

    To answer your question Cara, we are taught the punishment of rapists, the intense recovery and depression of some victims, and how “no means no” always. So yes, we are essentially taught to not rape. That is not the classes focus, but stopping violence as well as teaching how to deal with it as a victim as well is part of the curriculum.

    also, to respond the Anna, i go to a private school and they are all definitely not like that. I go to a school with a fantastic health educator that never judges anyone for the choices they make, just gives us all the information we would need to have safe sex if we choose, and covers what i talked about before regarding sexual assault. I do come from a very liberal and unique private school, so my situation is fairly rare, but privates school should not be all put in one category.

    1. Cara Post author

      To answer your question Cara, we are taught the punishment of rapists, the intense recovery and depression of some victims, and how “no means no” always. So yes, we are essentially taught to not rape.

      Well it’s certainly better than nothing, but not quite the kind of intense lessons in consent I had in mind.

  15. Anna

    I’m sorry if I gave the impression they were all like that – i certainly did not mean to. Not much of an idea what it’s like over there, but I know here they’re pretty much exempt from every secular law (i.e. should teach about sex ed, consent, abortion, etc)

  16. Dan Norfleet

    Those who are offended by aspects of this program should understand three things.

    First, South Carolina Law imposes restrictions on how “comprehensive” a school-based sex-ed program can be; believe it not, this one pushes the limits. Second, the alternative to this program is Heritage Community Services which has received about $37 Million in state and federal funds in SC over the last ten years with nothing to show for it. (Google the name “Heritage Community Services” to see what a nightmare this program presents.) And third, the program is an effective school based program which is a lot to say in a State that has the second highest unemployment rate in the Country, some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates, STD rates, and cervical cancer rates in the country, and is 50th (or 49th) in education.

    1. Cara Post author

      … which is all to say that if there are good things to say about a program, even when you openly and explicitly acknowledge that it’s a lot better than what most students get, you can never, ever criticize the negative aspects of it. Even when it enforces the ideas that made you think that you deserved to be raped.


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