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.