Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Brett Kavanaugh pinned her down, covered her mouth and groped her in high school is a common story.
Every teenage girl has been treated like prey, whether by some handsy boy at a party, misogynistic classmates on Instagram or an inappropriate science teacher who stares at her chest in class.
So how do we help girls keep from being prey? It can feel like a hopeless battle with no solution. But there’s one change that could make a big difference: reforming sexual education curriculums.
By the time most young people start sexually experimenting, they have not been taught about consent, a concept often missing from sex ed curriculums. The majority of programs in the U.S. don’t discuss the issue, and students enter high school thinking that snapping someone’s bra without asking is acceptable behavior.
If states would adopt progressive sex ed programs that discuss respect, body language and affirmative consent, they could minimize the type of criminal behavior Kavanaugh is being accused of.
“If [young people] are not learning these lessons earlier on, we are then steeped in a culture essentially where men have access to women’s bodies without any consequence,” said Chitra Panjabi, the president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “That really is harmful.”
Teenagers are prime targets are for sexual violence. Citing a 2017 study by the National Women’s Law Center and Lake Research Partners, Glamour said that 21 percent of girls age 14 to 18 “reported being sexually assaulted — defined by NWLC as being kissed or touched without their consent.”
According to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, an American is assaulted every two and a half minutes, and about 44 percent of sexual assaults happen before a victim turns 18. Yet sex ed is mandatory in just 29 states and the District of Columbia, and of those states, only California and Maryland specify that consent must be part of the curriculum.
Though curriculums vary from state to state and, in many cases, from school district to school district, teachers generally focus on the biological nuts and bolts rather than power dynamics and consent. In fact, only 14 percent of middle schools cover all the topics that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers “critical sexual health information.”
Most people, when they hear of sex ed, think of the very typical condom on the banana demonstration, said Brittany McBride, the senior program manager of sexuality education at the nonprofit Advocates for Youth. “A lot of kids don’t even get that bare minimum.”
Lauren Atkins said she was raped by a male classmate after drinking too much at a high school party last year. After the alleged incident, which she spoke about in Rolling Stone and Babe.net, she helped write a bill called Lauren’s Law, which would give high school teachers in Oklahoma the training and resources to teach students about consent. (It has yet to pass the state Senate.) Atkins, who is now 18 and a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, said her middle and high school sex education consisted of basic lessons in anatomy.
While she said a lack of education does not excuse her alleged perpetrator’s behavior, she wishes he had known more about consent.
“I was too drunk to say no. I was too drunk to move,” she said. “I wish he knew that just because I wasn’t saying no doesn’t mean I was saying yes.”
I was too drunk to say no. I was too drunk to move. I wish he knew that just because I wasn’t saying no doesn’t mean I was saying yes. Lauren Atkins, inspiration for the proposed Lauren's Law in Oklahoma
Ideally, sex educators think, discussions about consent should begin in kindergarten. No, that doesn’t mean 5-year-olds would be learning about sex. But they could start thinking about how to respectfully borrow a toy from someone and learn that they don’t have to kiss or hug a relative if they don’t want to.
McBride said it’s important to have these kinds of conversations with kids as soon as possible so that when they start middle school or high school, they have a solid grasp of the basics. “[By that point] we are talking about drugs being involved and [asking] ‘Can a person give consent?’” she said. “I can’t go into deep, detailed conversations on consent if we never got that first lesson on what does consent actually mean and what does it look like.”
Panjabit said sex ed curriculums for teenagers need to go beyond explanations of biology, safe sex and diseases. According to her, schools need to implement holistic programs that include LGBTQ students and discussions about how harmful gender stereotypes, power dynamics and unhealthy relationships all contribute to high rates of sexual harassment and abuse.
She said one of the biggest issues is that many teenagers still think consent amounts to “No means no.” “Enthusiastic consent needs to be the standard,” she said. “And [people] need to understand the role alcohol can play [and] understand how consent can’t be given.”
While experts want to see consent-based sex education programs mandated at the federal level, passing that kind of law is a hard sell. Rather than focus on the importance of consent, politicians have framed sex ed as a moral referendum on whether young people should be having sex.
Abstinence-only programs that peddle false science are often supported by conservative legislators and religious groups, especially in Southern states. Experts say abstinence-only backers hold the false belief that sex ed programs encourage children to have sex, when in reality, they give young people the information to make healthy choices.
“We are not encouraging young people to go out and have sex,” said Oronde Cruger, the program coordinator for Speak About It, a nonprofit that promotes sexual education. “We’re encouraging them, when they are making decisions about intimacy in whatever form that takes, to be responsible and to be respectful, both of their own emotions and of the people they are interacting with.”
Until these discussions evolve past a standstill on the morality of sex, sex ed curriculums throughout the country will not evolve past basic biology. And teenage girls will continue to have traumatic sexual experiences that haunt their adult lives.
“We are having a national conversation about sexual assault and consent, but we are not following with a national curriculum about sexual education and consent,” said Catherine Buxton, the communications and marketing coordinator at Speak About It. “In our eyes, sex education isn’t comprehensive until it includes affirmative consent.”
If you were the victim of sexual assault in high school, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.