Michigan college students are organizing to fight for a sustainable and equitable future in our state—not because we want to fight, but because we have to fight. If we want to save Michigan from crushing the labor force, disenfranchising voters, marginalizing identities, oppressing low-income communities, destroying the environment, and undermining public safety, health, and education, our students and young people must come together to rebuild Michigan now. The Michigan Student Power Network has called for a statewide March in Lansing this March 26th to demand a state that is not only economically strong, but egalitarian and just. Join Michigan students as we present a list of 10 concrete demands on the steps of the capitol, one of which includes mandatory age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education for middle school, high school, and college students that is focused on affirmative consent—the crux of my own personal crusade against sexual and relationship violence.
As a Ph.D. Candidate in the MSU Neuroscience Program, I research the effects of traumatic stress—like rape, sexual assault, and relationship violence—on the brain. I know first-handedly, on both a personal and professional level, how sexual violence can destroy individuals, communities, and societies as a whole. One-in-five women in the U.S have been raped at some time in their life, and more than 40% of those occur before the age of 18. That comes out to be about 25 million girls—children—who have been raped in this country. This is not okay. We need to do something to protect our children from sexual violence and that includes raising children who know how to respect each other’s boundaries, who know how to consent to sex and how to accept a “no” to sex, and who know what healthy social norms are in regards to sex. We will never be able to address rape if we can’t even talk about sex—rape is not sex, but it’s hard to know what sex isn’t if you don’t know what it is. Only 18 states in the U.S. require schools to provide sex education, but it is left up to the schools what they want to teach. Some schools teach abstinence-only, some only teach how to put a condom on a banana, and some have a more effective comprehensive approach.
Ontario, Canada just passed a new sex-education curriculum that has sparked much controversy. This sex education will begin in first grade with teaching children to identify body parts using their correct terms and to recognize behaviors such as inappropriate touching. In grade two, children will be taught to say “no” to inappropriate behaviors, and the first discussion of sexual intercourse is not discussed until fifth grade. Children will also be taught to accept people’s differences in regard to sexual orientation and gender identity. As children get older, they will discuss relationships, abuse, and disease-transmission, and these discussions are highly age-appropriate.
Some parents are afraid the Ontario sex-education curriculum will sexualize children at a younger age and encourage them to experiment with sex. The World Health Organization found no evidence that comprehensive sex-education programs encourage sexual activity. Knowledge does not equate with a risk of sexual experimentation.
The only real flaw I see in this program is that it is not mandatory—parents can choose to opt their children out of Physical and Health Education. I say shame on them for doing so. Some people say that it should be up to the parents to teach these concepts, not the schools. But it takes two to have a sexual encounter, and parents should be comforted by the fact that their kids’ classmates are receiving the education that will help them foster healthy relationships with their peers. The first exposure many young people have today with sex is on the internet, and we all know that what you see online isn’t necessarily exemplary of a healthy or realistic relationship. We need to allow educated, responsible adults to get to our kids before the internet does—and unfortunately, that doesn’t always include a child’s parent.
It is hard for parents to accept that their child could be a victim of sexual violence, and even harder to accept that their child could be a perpetrator of sexual violence, but these things do happen and it has to start somewhere. In surveys of 500 Detroit-area men and 800 college men, over one-third of them committed some form of sexual assault and these men could be distinguished from non-offenders by hostility toward women, stereotypic attitudes about women, rape myth acceptance, antisocial personality traits, and childhood adversity/abuse. These are important factors that distinguish those who will engage in sexual violence from those who will not—it’s not a drunk accident, it’s not a misunderstanding, it’s not sexual experimentation. Could these men have benefited from a comprehensive sex-education program as children that taught them how to respect women and how to engage in healthy sexual activity? We will never know, but I don’t see how an education curriculum could possibly make things any worse.
There are several programs that can be completed in middle- and high-school that have strong evidence of a positive effect on sexual violence prevention, including Safe Dates, Shifting Boundaries, and Coaching Boys Into Men. The U.S should follow Ontario’s lead and implement a comprehensive sex-education program that begins at least by middle school. College-age adults need education as well, especially during the years it will take before kids who were part of a primary and secondary-education based curriculum matriculate into college. In the 2011-2012 school year, the MSU Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence education workshop found that only 19% of incoming freshman men were able to correctly identify a way that someone could give them consent for sex. And even after the workshop, only 64% of men could identify ways to get consent. We clearly need more consent-based education for teenagers and college students.
While the majority of these discussions focus on male-perpetrated violence, we know that men are victims of sexual violence too. Sadly, the stigma for men to come forward as victims of sexual or relationship violence is just as strong, if not more so, than it is for women. We need to implement these education programs to get people comfortable talking about these issues, to get people to understand that it can happen to anyone, and to move forward in creating a violence-free society. Education might be our only real shot at changing our future.