Let’s talk about sex education, but when?

Veronica Haywood, NLC San Antonio

20 million people tuned in last week as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, sharing her story of sexial assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.The alleged incident from three decades ago, when they were in high school, has sparked the discussion of what schools’ responsibilities are to teach young adults about relationship boundaries, intimate partner violence, and what sexual assault means.

Sex education in schools is often seen as taboo and unneeded as most conversation focuses primarily on abstinence — in fact 26 states require that abstinence be stressed and 18 states require schools to teach that sex is only appropriate within marriage. However, during adolescence the emergence of human sexuality, sexual identity, and the initiation of intimate relations is within context to be discussed. Having sex education that only promotes abstinence until marriage is problematic and often fails.

The Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program, a grant program created by the Obama administration in 2010 to reduce teen pregnancy rate, has substantial decreased teen pregnancy rates. However, America’s public school curriculum still don’t equip teachers, counselors, or students to know how to discuss sex. There is value in having a comprehensive sex education that is also LGBTQ-inclusive. It may also help prevent sexual violence when it teaches students how to value their own bodily autonomy, ask for consent, and identify unhealthy relationship behavior. The curriculum must break the taboo around the fact that sex is done for pleasure too. The truth is students are having sex at a young age and if we continue to not prepare them with early understanding of sex mechanics, methods to avoid pregnancy and disease, and discussions of intent they will continue to be uneducated of the predatory society we live in.

The national new headlines have not even peaked with sexual assault conversations surrounding around well known men such as Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby and now Brett Kavanaugh. If a child does not know what to call her vagina, how can we expect her to describe molestation if it happens. If a boy does not understand that he can only touch someone with their consent and he must provide consent for someone to touch him, sexual abuse can easily be confused with normalcy.

A study conducted by the Center for American Progress found only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in public schools. California, Hawaii, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, the District of Columbia, and West Virginia are the only nine states that require mention of consent or sexual assault. States vary in the requirements for sex education in public schools. Rhode Island, the District of Columbia, and West Virginia categorized topics based on age group. For example, The District of Columbia Office of Public Instruction requires schools teach how “individual bodies are different” in third grade, how “talking … about sexuality can be helpful” in fourth grade, and how people “have sexual feelings and the need for love, affection, and physical intimacy” in sixth grade.

Strides have been made to improve better sex education to adolescents in various states such as California, New Jersey, and Oregon to set good examples of teaching healthy relationships as part of sex education. All three states require educators to use materials that are medically accurate and include instruction related to healthy relationships or consent. Missouri recently passed legislation to require lessons on sexual harassment, sexual violence, and consent to sex education. Maryland’s governor also approved a bill requiring age-appropriate instruction on the meaning of consent.

The #MeToo movement has sparked a national conversation around sexual assault along with the hearings of Dr. Blasey Ford sharing her story of sexual assault, makingit impossible to ignore the need for public policy around better sex education for adolescents. At minimum, lessons learned from the past weeks showcase the need to better prepare young people to make safe, healthy choices for their future emotional wellbeing. Time is up.

Veronica writes a column for The New Leader entitled Keeping Her Safe. Check out all of her articles here.

Veronica Haywood is a registered nurse,lactation consultant, women’s health nurse practitioner student, and co-founder of her nonprofit Latched Support. She is also a member of the New Leaders Council-San Antonio Executive Board, a 2017 NLC San Antonio fellow, and a NLC Life Entrepreneurship trainer. She can be reached at veronicahaywood@gmail.com.