Sex Education that Goes Beyond Sex

Why schools and families need to talk about relationships, caring, and consent as part of a comprehensive approach to sex ed

November 28, 2018
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Historically, the measure of a good sex education program has been in the numbers: marked decreases in the rates of sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancies, and pregnancy-related drop-outs. But, increasingly, researchers, educators, and advocates are emphasizing that sex ed should focus on more than physical health. Sex education, they say, should also be about relationships.

Giving students a foundation in relationship-building and centering the notion of care for others can enhance wellbeing and pave the way for healthy intimacy in the future, experts say. It can prevent or counter gender stereotyping and bias. And it could minimize instances of sexual harassment and assault in middle and high school — instances that may range from cyberbullying and stalking to unwanted touching and nonconsensual sex. A recent study from Columbia University's Sexual Health Initative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) project suggests that comprehensive sex education protects students from sexual assault even after high school.

If students become more well-practiced in thinking about caring for one another, they’ll be less likely to commit — and be less vulnerable to — sexual violence, according to this new approach to sex ed. And they’ll be better prepared to engage in and support one another in relationships, romantic and otherwise, going forward. 

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Giving students a foundation in relationship-building can enhance wellbeing and pave the way for healthy intimacy in the future, experts say. It can also prevent or counter gender stereotyping, and it could minimize instances of sexual harassment and assault in middle and high school.

Introducing Ethics Into Sex Ed

Diving into a conversation even tangentially related to sex with a group of 20 or so high school students isn’t easy. Renee Randazzo helped researcher Sharon Lamb pilot the Sexual Ethics and Caring Curriculum while a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She recalls boys snickering during discussions about pornography and objectification. At first, it was hard for students to be vulnerable.

But the idea behind the curriculum is that tough conversations are worth having. Simply teaching students how to ask for consent isn’t enough, says Lamb, a professor of counseling psychology at UMass Boston, who has been researching the intersection between caring relationships, sex, and education for decades. Students also to have understand why consent is important and think about consent in a variety of contexts. At the heart of that understanding are questions about human morality, how we relate to one another, and what we owe to one another. In other words, ethics.

“When I looked at what sex ed was doing, it wasn’t only a problem that kids weren’t getting the right facts,” Lamb says. “It was a problem that they weren’t getting the sex education that would make them treat others in a caring and just way.”

She became aware that when schools were talking about consent — if they were at all — it was in terms of self-protection. The message was: Get consent so you don’t get in trouble.

But there’s more at play, Lamb insists. Students should also understand the concept of mutuality — making decisions with a partner and understanding and addressing other people’s concerns or wishes — and spend time developing their own sense of right and wrong. 

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“If a young person is not in a healthy relationship, they can’t negotiate sex in a meaningful way. Even if they’re not having sex yet, they’re grappling with the idea of what a healthy relationship is.”

The curriculum she developed invites students to engage in frank discussions about topics like objectification in the media and sexting. If a woman is shamed for being in a sexy video, but she consented to it, does she deserve the criticism? Regardless of what you think, can you justify your position?

“How do they want to treat people, what kind of partner do they want to be? That takes discussion,” Lamb says. “It’s not a skill-training thing.”

The idea behind the curriculum isn’t that anything goes, so long as students can discuss their reasoning. Instead, the goal is that students develop the critical-reasoning skills to do the right thing in tricky situations. 

After Randazzo’s students got over their cases of the giggles, the conversations were eye-opening, she says. “You give them the opportunity unpack their ideas and form their own opinions,” she says.

Healthy Relationships — and Prevention

Most sexual assault and violence in schools is committed by people who know their victims — they’re either dating, friends, or classmates. Regardless, they have a relationship of some sort, which is why a focus on relationships and empathy is crucial to reducing violence and preparing students for more meaningful lives.

And while it might seem uncomfortable to move beyond the cut-and-dried facts of contraception into the murkier waters of relationships, students are hungry for it. A survey by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common initiative found that 65 percent of young-adult respondents wished they had talked about relationships at school.

“It’s so critical that kids are able to undertake this work of learning to love somebody else,” says developmental psychologist Richard Weissbourd, the director of Making Caring Common and lead author of a groundbreaking report called The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment. “They’re not going to be able to do it unless we get them on the road and are willing to engage in thoughtful conversations.”

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Nicole Daley works with OneLove, a nonprofit focused on teen violence prevention. She previously worked extensively with Boston Public Schools on violence prevention. She echoes Lamb and Weissbourd: A focus on relationships is key to keeping students safe.

“If a young person is not in a healthy relationship, they can’t negotiate sex in a meaningful way,” she says. “Really discussing healthy relationships and building that foundation is important. Even if they’re not having sex yet, they’re grappling with the idea of what healthy relationship is.”

And it’s critical to start that work before college.

Act Now

Shael Norris spent the first two decades of her career focusing on college campuses, but now is focused on younger students with her work through Safe BAE. By college, many people’s ideas about how to act when it comes to sex or romance are entrenched, she says. The earlier young people can start interrogating what they know about sex and relationships, the better.

Safe BAE is led by Norris and young survivors of sexual assault. The organization works to educate students about healthy relationships, sexual violence, students’ rights under Title IX, and other related topics.

Movement to change middle and high school curricula to include a focus on healthy relationships and consent has been slow, Norris notes. In 2015, Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced the Teach Safe Relationships Act, which would have mandated secondary schools teach about safe relationships, including asking for consent, in health education courses. It didn’t go anywhere. And while eight states now mandate some sort of sexual consent education, there’s no consensus about what that should entail.

Instead, the momentum for a more comprehensive sexual education that considers relationships and violence prevention is coming from individual teachers, students and parents.

“We don’t have to wait for politicians to start having conversations about this,” Norris says.

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A New Approach to Sex Ed
  • Develop an ethical approach to sex ed. Place emphasis on helping students learn how to care for and support one another. This will reduce the chance they’ll commit, or be vulnerable to, sexual violence.
  • Don’t just tell students how to ask for consent; prompt them to consider why concepts like consent are important. It’s not just about staying out of legal trouble — it’s also about respecting and caring for others.
  • Respect students’ intelligence and engage them in discussions about who they want to be as people. Serious dialogue about complicated topics will hone their critical-thinking skills and help them be prepared to do the right thing.
  • Even without access to a curriculum, students, parents and educators can work together to facilitate conversations around sexual violence prevention through clubs, with help from organizations like Safe BAE.

Part of a special series about preventing sexual harassment at school. Read the whole series.

Illustration by Wilhelmina Peragine

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