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For Some With Intellectual Disabilities, Ending Abuse Starts With Sex Ed


Katy Park, who runs arts and wellness programs for Momentum — a community service program for people with intellectual disabilities — starts a class on healthy sexuality by asking her students to define what they want in a relationship.

by Joseph Shapiro

In the sex education class for adults with intellectual disabilities, the material is not watered down. The dozen women and men in a large room full of windows and light in Casco, Maine, take on complex issues, such as how to break up or how you know you’re in an abusive relationship. And the most difficult of those issues is sexual assault.

Katy Park, the teacher, begins the class with a phrase they’ve memorized: “My body is my own,” Park starts as the rest join in, “and I get to decide what is right for me.”

People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate more than seven times that for people without disabilities. NPR asked the U.S. Department of Justice to use data it had collected, but had not published, to calculate that rate.

At a moment when Americans are talking about sexual assault and sexual harassment, a yearlong NPR investigation finds that people with intellectual disabilities are one of the most at-risk groups in America.

“This is really an epidemic and we’re not talking about it,” says Park, a social worker who runs arts and wellness programs for Momentum, an agency based in Maine that provides activities in the community and support services for adults with intellectual disabilities. Those high rates of abuse — which have been an open secret among people with intellectual disabilities, their families and people who work with them — are why Park started this class about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality.

Because one of the best ways to stop sexual assault is to give people with intellectual disabilities the ability to identify abuse and to know how to develop the healthy relationships they want.

“Let’s talk about the positive parts of being in a relationship,” Park says, holding a marker while standing at a whiteboard, at the start of the class. “Why do we want to be in a relationship?”

“For love,” says one man. “And sexual reaction.”

“Romance,” adds a woman.

“How about support?” asks Lynne, a woman who speaks with a hushed voice and sits near the front of the class.

“Having support, right?” Park says, writing the word on the board. “We all want support.”

A participant helps Park hang the agenda on the wall at the start of class.

From working with the men and women here, Park realized they want to have relationships, love and romance. They see their parents, siblings and their friends in relationships. They see people in relationships when they watch TV or go to the movies. They want the same things as anyone else.

But it’s harder for them. When they were in school, most of the adults in this room say, they didn’t get the sex ed classes other kids got. Now, just going on a date is difficult. They probably don’t drive or have cars. They rely on public transportation. They don’t have a lot of money. They live at home with their parents or in a group home, where there’s not a lot of privacy.

And then there’s the one thing that really complicates romance for people with intellectual disabilities: those high rates of sexual abuse.

“Oftentimes, it actually is among the only sexual experience they’ve had,” says Park. “When you don’t have other healthy sexual experiences, how do you sort through that? And then the shame, and the layers upon layers upon layers.”

This class, she says, is about “breaking the chain, being empowered to say, ‘No. This stops with me.’ “

“I Think People Take Advantage”

The women and men come to Momentum during the week for different programs. They go kayaking and biking; they go to the library and do volunteer work at the local food bank. There’s a range of disability here. You can look at some of the men and women — maybe someone with Down syndrome — and see they have a disability. Others, even after you talk to them, you might not figure out they have an intellectual disability.

Like one small woman with short, choppy dark hair, streaked red.

She’s 22 now, but when she was 18, her boyfriend was several years older. She says he was controlling. He didn’t let her have a cellphone or go see her friends.

“He was strangling me and stuff like that,” says the woman. (NPR is not using her name.) “And he was, the R-word — I hate to say it, but rape.” She says he raped her eight times, hit her and kicked her. “So I don’t know how I’m alive today, actually. He choked me where I blacked out.”

She thinks she was an easy target for him, because of her mild intellectual disability. “I think people take advantage,” she says. “They like to take advantage of disabilities. I have disabilities, not as bad as theirs. But I think they like to take advantage, which is wrong. I hate that.”

A student takes notes in Park’s Relate class.

She says the class helped her better understand what she wanted, and had a right to, in a relationship. She’s got a kind and respectful boyfriend now.

Her friend Lynne listens and says she would like to find a boyfriend. But in her past, she has experienced repeated sexual abuse.

She talks about a time when she was 14 and “this older guy that knew us” forced her to have sex. She says she told people but no one believed her. The next year, when she was 15, she was sexually assaulted — this time by a boy at her school. “I was trying to scream,” she says, “but I couldn’t because he had his hand over my mouth, telling me not to say anything to anybody.”

Lynne, who is 38, says those rapes and others left her unable to develop relationships. “I couldn’t trust anyone,” she says. Lynne (NPR has agreed to identify her by her middle name) says this class has helped her realize she wants a real, romantic relationship and has taught her how to better find one.

“There’s A Lot Of Loneliness”

Katherine McLaughlin, a New Hampshire sex educator, developed the curriculum used by Momentum. She wrote it so that it uses concrete examples to describe things, to match the learning style of people with intellectual disabilities. It shows pictures and uses photographs.

McLaughlin says the main desire of adults with intellectual disabilities is to learn “how to meet people and start relationships. There’s a lot of loneliness.”

That loneliness leaves them vulnerable to getting into abusive relationships, she says, or to rape.

Sometimes, especially when they’re young, they can’t name what happened to them as a sexual assault. Because they didn’t get the education to identify it. “We don’t think of them as sexual beings. We don’t think of them as having sexual needs or desires,” McLaughlin says. “Often they’re thought of as children, even when they’re 50 years old.”

Sheryl White-Scott, a New York City internist who specializes in treating people with intellectual disabilities, estimates that at least half of her female patients are survivors of sexual assault. “In my clinical experience, it’s probably close to 50 percent, but it could be as high as 75 percent,” she says. “There’s a severe lacking in sexual education. Some people just don’t understand what is acceptable and what’s not.”

Most of the women and men at the class in Maine say they didn’t get sex ed classes, like other kids, when they were in school. Or if they did, it was the simplistic warnings, like the kind given to young children. “It’s easy to fall back on ‘good touch-bad touch’ sex ed,” says Michael Gill, the author of “Already Doing It: Intellectual Disability and Sexual Agency.” “That’s a lot of what they get.” And the usual warning about “stranger danger” can be unhelpful, because it’s not strangers but people they know and trust who are most likely to assault them.

Most rapes are committed by someone a victim knows. For women without disabilities, the person who assaults them is a stranger 24 percent of the time. NPR’s data from unpublished Justice Department numbers show the difference is stark for people with disabilities: The abuser is a stranger less than 14 percent of the time.

“Parents get this; professionals don’t,” says Nancy Nowell, a sexuality educator with a specialty in teaching people with developmental disabilities, an umbrella term that includes intellectual disability but also autism.

Park asks her students to weigh in on agreements with a thumbs up or a thumbs down during class.

Parents have significant reason to worry: Figuring out what’s a healthy relationship is difficult for any young person, and it can be even trickier if a person has an intellectual disability. People with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable to problems from rape to unwanted pregnancy. Some people with intellectual disabilities marry. A small number have children — and rely on family or others to support them as parents.

Still, says McLaughlin, parents often are reluctant to talk to their children with intellectual disabilities about sex. “Parents often feel, if I talk about it they will go and be sexual,” she says, and they fear that could make them targets for sexual assault.

But educators such as McLaughlin, Gill and Nowell argue the reverse: that comprehensive sexuality education is the best way to prevent sexual assault. “If people know what sexual assault is,” says Gill, an assistant professor of disability studies at Syracuse University, “they become empowered in what is sexuality and what they want in sexuality.”


Gill argues that a long history of prejudice and fear gets in the way. He notes early 20th century laws that required the sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities. That came out of the eugenics movement, which put faith in IQ tests as proof of the genetic superiority of white, upper-class Americans.

People with intellectual disabilities were seen as a danger to that order. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote in a 1927 opinion that ruled the state of Virginia could forcibly sterilize a young woman deemed “feebleminded.”

Carrie Buck was the daughter of a woman who lived at a state institution for people with intellectual disabilities. And when Buck became pregnant — the result of a rape — she was committed to a state institution where she gave birth and was declared mentally incompetent to raise the child. Buck was then forcibly sterilized to prevent her from getting pregnant again. There was evidence that neither Buck, nor her daughter, Vivian, was, in fact, intellectually disabled. In the first half of the 20th century, impoverished women who had children outside marriage were often ruled by courts to be “feebleminded.”

There was another myth in popular culture that people with intellectual disabilities were violent and could not control their sexual urges. Think about that staple of high school literature classes, John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The intellectually disabled Lennie can’t control himself when the ranch hand’s wife lets him stroke her hair. He becomes excited, holding her too tight, and accidentally strangles her.

The class in Maine aims to help these adults know what’s a healthy relationship and how to communicate how they feel about someone.

The main way this class differs from a traditional sex ed class is that — to help people with intellectual disabilities learn — the material is broken down and spread out over 10 sessions. Each class lasts for 2 1/2 hours. But the adults in the class are completely attentive for the entire session.

They do take a couple of very short breaks to get up and move around, including one break to dance. Everyone gets up when Park turns on the tape recorder and plays — just right for this group asking to be treated like adults — Aretha Franklin singing “Respect.” There is joyous dancing and shouts. And when the song is over, they go back to their seats and get back to work.

Complete Article HERE!


Japanese macaques grinding on deer can teach us to be more open-minded about sex


So if macaques do it, dolphins do it, birds and probably even bees do it, why do humans still have so much difficulty talking about sexual pleasure?

by Lux Alptraum

If you grew up in America, there’s a good chance that you learned that sex is, first and foremost, a reproductive act. Sure, it feels good, but that’s just a way for our bodies to trick us into breeding. Many church doctrines will inform you that any sexual experience that doesn’t stand a chance of resulting in pregnancy is sinful, perverse, and unnatural.

But someone might want to tell that to nature.

A recently released study documented multiple instances of adolescent female macaques in Japan having “sexual interactions” with sika deer – or, not to put too fine a point on it, macaques humping the backs of deer like a pre-teen girl with a pillow. Researchers are still trying to figure out why the monkeys are doing this, as NPR explains: “It might be a way for a less-mature monkey to practice for future sex with other monkeys,” or an option for a monkey that doesn’t have any other sexual partners at the moment. It’s also possible that the monkeys, which hitch rides on deer for non-sexual reasons, too, simply discovered by accident that grinding on the deers’ backs felt good.

The discovery has prompted a lot of marveling from the media. But if you’re surprised to learn that animals like to pleasure themselves, you’re not paying attention. There are numerous documented instances of animal masturbation, a habit enjoyed by primates as well as creatures including dolphins, elephants, penguins, and bats. (Although the role of the sika deer adds a layer of complexity: Can a deer consent to interspecies frottage? “Most deer were nonchalant, continuing to eat or stand passively during the thrusting,” Quartz observes.)

It’s impossible for us to know exactly what the deer think about all this. That matter aside, there are a lot of animals out there who are, if you will, spanking the monkey. So if macaques do it, dolphins do it, birds and probably even bees do it, why do humans still have so much difficulty talking about sexual pleasure?

Even those of us who’ve gotten past the idea that sex outside the bonds of heterosexual marriage is a one-way ticket to hell still have difficulty talking about pleasure. Sex education curricula rarely venture beyond discussions of condoms, birth control, and puberty (if they even cover condoms and birth control); for many of us, the idea of discussing masturbation seems particularly prurient and unseemly. It’s been twenty-three years since Jocelyn Elders was forced to resign from the post of surgeon general in the US after daring to suggest that young people be taught to think of masturbation as a form of safer sex. And in spite of all the progress we’ve made since the early 1990s, it’s still hard to imagine a government official coming out in favor of masturbation. (Not that I necessarily want to hear a member of the Trump Administration talking about double-clicking the mouse.)

Our reticence on the subject of masturbation is particularly damaging for women. Copious amounts of ink have been spilled about the gender orgasm gap, with lots of hand-wringing about how straight men are letting their female partners down in bed. But it’s not just straight male selfishness that fuels the orgasm gap. One of the main reasons why women are less likely to find pleasure in bed is that we rarely discuss the tools to access our own pleasure, or even an understanding that pleasure can, and should, be a primary goal in our sex lives.

When sexual pleasure is discussed, it’s almost always from a straight male perspective, rationalized as an added bit of biological incentive intended to encourage men to spread their seed. As Peggy Orenstein writes in her recent book Girls & Sex, American culture teaches girls that men pursue sex and pleasure, while women passively provide it. “When girls go into puberty education classes, they learn that boys have erections and ejaculations and girls have periods and unwanted pregnancies,” Orenstein told Quartz in 2016. And when women do experience orgasms, it’s frequently positioned as the result of a partner’s skill, rather than something we’re naturally wired to actively pursue, all by ourselves, for our own selfish reasons.

These macaques throw all of these assumptions into disarray. Not only are they animals getting off just for fun, they’re female animals going to unusual lengths in pursuit of their own sexual pleasure. What we should take away from this is that sexual pleasure isn’t an also-ran to reproduction; it’s an essential part of many animals’ life experiences—regardless of our species, sex, or gender.

So instead of getting Puritanical on the macaques, let’s use them as a jumping-off point for discussions about just how natural it is to pursue sexual pleasure. Whether we’re monkeys or men—or women!—we’re all wired to seek out sensations that feel good.

Complete Article HERE!


7 contraception options that won’t screw with your hormones


Plus the pros and cons of each.


Hormones are what make the world go round. They play a massive part in influencing your bodily functions, your mood, your behaviour, and of course, your sex life – which is why, when yours are out of whack, it can have an enormous impact on your whole damn existence.

Hormones can also be a big factor in the type of contraception you use, and increasing numbers of women are looking for non-hormonal methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If you’re one of them, here are seven contraception methods you could consider:

1. Male condoms

What is it?
Probably the most familiar method of non-hormonal contraception, male condoms are thin latex sheaths that go over the penis during sex.

Pros and cons:

“They’re really easy to use and you only need to use them when you have sex,” says Sue Burchill, head of nursing at sexual health charity Brook. “They protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as well as pregnancy. Plus, they are available for free from Brook services (for under 25s), some youth clinics, contraception and sexual health clinics and some GPs. You can also buy them at any time of day from supermarkets, vending machines in public toilets, petrol stations etc, even if you’re under 16. They also come in different shapes, sizes, textures, colours and flavours which can make sex more fun.”

Condoms are the only type of contraception that a man can use to control his own fertility, but they do also have some potential disadvantages. “Some people are allergic to the latex used in condoms. This is rare but if you or your partner is allergic, it’s possible to use latex free polyurethane condoms,” Sue adds. “Sometimes they can split or slip off – if this happens or you are worried you may need emergency contraception.”

2. Female condoms

What is it? Female condoms, sometimes known as ‘femi-doms’, are similar to male condoms, except they’re worn internally, inside the vagina, instead of going over the penis.

Pros and cons:
Like their male counterparts, female condoms also protect you against STIs and pregnancy, and are available for free within many of the same services. You can also put them in before you have sex (up to eight hours before).

If they’re not used properly, however, female condoms can slip or get pushed up into the vagina – and again, if this happens, you might need to seek emergency contraception. “You need to make sure the penis goes into the condom and not between the condom and the vagina,” advises Sue. It’s also worth noting that female condoms are not always available at every contraception and sexual health clinic and can be more expensive to buy than other condoms.

3. IUDs

What is it?
Intrauterine devices, or IUDs, are t-shaped plastic devices that contain copper, and stop an egg from implanting in your uterus. They need to be fitted by your doctor or nurse.

Pros and cons:

IUDs are often recommended for women who cannot use contraception that contains hormones, like the pill or the contraceptive patch. They provide a long-term solution that once fitted, can prevent pregnancy immediately, and for up to 10 years (depending on what type of IUD you go for). They don’t interrupt sex, or mess with your fertility, and, crucially, you don’t have to remember to pop a pill every day for it to be effective. “The IUD is not affected by vomiting, diarrhoea or other medicines like other methods of contraception,” Sue notes – in fact, it can even be fitted as a method of emergency contraception.

This is not to say that the IUD has no potential pitfalls – “it does not protect against STIs, and your periods may be heavier, more painful or last longer,” she adds. There are also several risks, although slim and unlikely, that come with fitting and using the IUD – you may get an infection when it’s inserted, it can be be pushed out or displaced, and there is very minor chance of perforation of the uterus. If you do somehow get pregnant when you’re using one, there is also a small risk of ectopic pregnancy.

4. Cervical caps or diaphragms

What is it? These are dome-shaped devices which look similar, but diaphragms fit into the vagina and over the cervix, whilst caps need to be put onto the cervix directly. They need to be fitted by a professional on the first occasion, and used in conjunction with spermicide for maximum effectiveness.


Pros and cons:
“They can be put in before sex so they don’t disturb the moment (you will need to add extra spermicide if you have sex more than three hours after putting it in),” says Sue. “They are not affected by any medicines that you take orally, and don’t disturb your menstrual cycle” – although it is recommended that you do not use the diaphragm/cap during your period, so you will need to use an alternative method of contraception at this time.

And the downsides? As with pretty much all methods except condoms, they don’t provide protection against STIs, and they’re also not as effective at preventing pregnancy as other methods (around 92-96%, compared with 98% for male condoms, for instance). “They can take a little getting used to before you’re confident using them,” Sue admits, “Some women can develop the bladder infection cystitis when using diaphragms or caps – check with your doctor or nurse if you need further advice. Some people may be sensitive to latex or the chemical used in spermicide.”

5. Sponges

What is it? As you might imagine from the name, the sponge is a… well, sponge, which contains spermicide to help to prevent pregnancy. They’re a single use option, and cannot be worn for more than 30 hours at a time.

Pros and cons:

Sponges provide protection from pregnancy on a two-fold basis – the spermicide slows sperm down and stops them from heading towards the egg, and the sponge itself covers your cervix, to block them if they do get there. They are easy to use, but require a little bit of prep – you have to wet the sponge to activate the spermicide, and then insert it, as far up as you find comfortable. They also need to be left in your vagina for at least six hours after having sex, so you have to remember to include this in your 30 hour calculation. It shouldn’t happen, but if the sponge breaks into pieces when you pull it out, you need to contact your doctor right away.

Once again, there’s no STI protection, and you can’t use them when you’re on your period, or have any form of vaginal bleeding, as this could increase your chances of getting toxic shock syndrome. They’re also not recommended for women who’ve had physical trauma in the area, or given birth, been through miscarriage or abortion recently. If you’re unsure, talk to a professional before making your purchase (because unlike many other options, sponges aren’t given out for free).

6. Natural family planning

What is it? Natural family planning involved monitoring your fertility signs, such as cervical secretions and basal body temperature, to find out when during the month you can have sex with a reduced risk of pregnancy.

Pros and cons:
It can be used to plan pregnancy as well as avoid pregnancy, if you’re thinking of starting and family – and if you’re not, it does not involve taking any hormones or other chemicals or using physical devices, like many other methods do. The NHS states that it’s up to 99% effective if the method is followed precisely – but you need proper teaching about the indicators, and because it can be tricky to master, mistakes happen, so it’s generally around 75% mark instead.

You’ll still need to consider protection from STIs, and use a different form of contraception if you want to have sex during your fertile times. “You need to keep daily records, and some things such as illness or stress can make results difficult to interpret,” says Sue. “It can take longer to recognise your fertility indicators if you have an irregular cycle, or have stopped using hormonal contraception. It demands a high level of commitment from both partners.”

7. Tubular occlusion

What is it? Tubular occlusion, or female sterilisation, is a surgical method of contraception that involves using clips or rings to block your fallopian tubes. It is thought to be more than 99% effective, and doesn’t effect hormone levels – you’ll still get your period if you have it done.

Pros and cons:

If you’re certain that sterilisation is the right option for you, it means that you no longer have to worry about pregnancy (although the same can’t be said for STI’s, which you’ll still need protection from). There shouldn’t be any impact on your sex drive, and rarely has any other long-term effects on your health.

However, as with any operation, there are potential complications, including internal bleeding, infection, or damage to your other organs. The chance of sterilisation failing is around in 1 in 200, but it can happen, and if it does occur, there’s a higher chance of the pregnancy being ectopic. Surgeons are generally more willing to carry out sterilisation on women who are over 30 and have already had children, but you can request it whatever your circumstances. It’s likely you’ll be referred to counselling before making your final decision, because of the permanent nature of the choice that you’re making.

Complete Article HERE!


A new prescription for tackling sexual violence


How some advocates are looking to dismantle rape culture using public health strategies.


When Tahir Duckett talks about consent with elementary and middle school boys, he often talks about video games first.

“If I just hop on your Xbox without your consent, what’s your response?” Duckett says he asks the boys. Almost always, the young boys he’s talking to say they’d fight him.

“They recognize something about their consent has been violated,” he says, speaking with ThinkProgress. “We ask them to interrogate how it feels to have your consent violated. Is that anger? Are you hurt? Are you betrayed?”

And usually, that’s exactly how the boys say they feel. The question, then, is why those answers often change when Duckett presents a romantic or sexual situation where someone doesn’t consent.

“A lot of times we’ll talk about it in those types of concepts, and then we’ll shift to maybe saying, ‘OK, you’re going out with someone, your partner for two months, and [they invite] you over to their house, right? And their parents are out of town, have they consented to anything?’” Duckett says. “That’s where you’ll start to get more pushback.”

When presented with this situation, Duckett says the boys sometimes start to say things like, “Well, she knows what she’s doing by going over to his house while his parents are out of town.”

“And then you can dig in, and…talk about what we were just talking about,” Duckett says. “What’s the assumption, can [you] still say no?”

Duckett is the founder and director of ReThink, a group that works with adolescent boys (and, in some cases, older men) to help them rethink cultural norms about toxic masculinity and rape culture. The group has been working in schools in the Washington, D.C. area, holding sessions in which the ReThink team spends several days with adolescent boys talking about rape myths, consent, and toxic masculinity.

In recent weeks, their work has begun to feel prophetic.

Last month, a wave of allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein opened the door for a subsequent avalanche of accusations against other powerful men, including James Toback, Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), just to name a few. While a few have been punished or reprimanded, the majority have been able to escape any major consequences.

Additionally, a recent study done by researchers at Columbia University makes clear that the issue isn’t confined to rich and powerful titans of industry. The study found that 22 percent of students surveyed had experienced sexual assault since starting college, with particularly high rates for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, as well as for gender-nonconforming students and those who had difficulties paying for basic necessities.

In other words, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, backtracking after defending Conyers on Meet the Press Sunday, we’ve reached “a watershed moment on this issue.” It’s also prompting questions about what comes next, what avenues are available for justice, and how to cut rape culture’s long, toxic tentacles — which is exactly what ReThink is trying to do, starting at adolescence.

A public health approach

ReThink uses traditional public health strategies — data collection, treating high-risk individuals, changing behavioral norms — to address sexual violence with young boys, working to control the “disease” and change behaviors and beliefs of those who might catch it.

It’s a strategy that the authors of the Columbia study recommend, based on their findings.

“Our findings argue for the potential of a systems-based public health approach — one that recognizes the multiple interrelated factors that produce adverse outcomes, and perhaps particularly emphasizes gender and economic disparities and resulting power dynamics, widespread use of alcohol, attitudes about sexuality, and conversations about sex — to make inroads on an issue that stubbornly persists,” the authors write.

When ReThink visits schools, one public health-style tool they use is the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale (IRMA). IRMA presents different situations and myths to students, such as, “If girl is raped while she is drunk, she is at least somewhat responsible for letting things get out of hand”, or “A lot of times, girls who say they were raped agreed to have sex and then regret it.” Students are asked to rate the rape myths from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

“If you accept all these rape myths you’re more likely to commit an act of sexual violence,” Duckett says. “When we work with boys, after we do these exercises…[and] consent education, breaking down stereotypes, working on a wide range of healthy masculinity ideas…they reject these rape myths at much higher rates.”

This finding, Duckett says, is both discouraging and encouraging.

“We do pretests and posttests, and the pretests show the extent of the problem,” he says. “This is the kind of stuff that our culture has taught them… It’s everywhere, it’s in the TV that we watch, it’s in the music that we listen to.”

“To be completely honest we’ve failed a lot of these boys,” Duckett adds. “Very few even comprehensive sex ed programs have serious conversations about consent, what consent looks like and doesn’t look like, how to ask for it, how to listen for it, [and] how to look for it.”

ReThink’s mission, in public health terms, is primary prevention: trying to stop sexual violence. But, Duckett says, there’s still much more that needs to be done.

“I’ll tell you what,” he says, “I believe strongly, if we invested in sexual violence prevention as a public health issue — like we did with drunk driving campaigns, anti-smoking campaigns, teen pregnancy campaigns — if we put that type of money and emphasis into sexual violence prevention work, I strongly believe that we could cut our rates in half in a generation.”

The good news is that Duckett and ReThink aren’t alone in their efforts. Jessica Raven, the executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), is working to address sexual violence as a public health issue as well.

CASS has a partnership with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to run awareness campaigns about harassment and assault on public transit; it’s also working on the Safe Bar Collective, which is a program that trains bar staff to recognize sexual harassment and stop it before it turns into assault.

Raven tells ThinkProgress that it’s not enough to call out and take down powerful men in Hollywood. “We have all had these experiences where we witness incidents of harassment,” she says in an interview. “It’s our responsibility to call that out in our friend groups, in our families, in our neighbors.”

Raven says it’s crucial to implement more programs like CASS and ReThink, which work with men to unpack preconceived notions of rape culture and masculinity, as well as safe rehabilitative spaces for aggressors.

“There are really no services for these men to heal,” she says, explaining that it’s vital to “create an environment where they’re able to be open about the changes they’re going to make.”

It’s important to treat the problem like any other disease, Raven adds. “How are we going to address alcoholism without providing rehabilitative services to alcoholics?” she says.

The problem with prisons

While Raven believes in providing more rehabilitative spaces, those spaces shouldn’t be inside prison walls, she says.

Both Duckett and Raven have chosen to focus on public health strategies to address the epidemic of sexual violence rather than the criminal justice system for several important reasons.

“I think we have to be really, really, really careful about our kind of knee-jerk [conclusions]…when it comes to some of these particularly tertiary sort of prevention questions, like increased incarceration, tougher sentencing,” Duckett — a lawyer himself — explains. “There’s not much about our incarceration system that is feminist.”

Prisons, Duckett notes, are one of the major centers of sexual violence in the United States. According to the Bureau of Justice, about 80,000 people are sexually abused in correctional facilities in the United States every year.

The actual number is almost certainly higher than official tallies. Just as a significant majority of rapes and sexual assaults in the United States go unreported, it’s highly likely that the same is true in the prison system. Statistics do suggest that rates of rape and sexual assault are higher among male inmates than female inmates; the same is likely true among African American inmates, who statistically experience higher rates of sexual assault than Caucasian inmates.

“The prison system is and will forever be biased against black bodies and to the extent that we create tougher sentencing laws,” Duckett says, adding that people of color will ultimately be punished much more harshly than their white counterparts.

“Sending someone to prison as we understand it right now, I have a hard time thinking of that as an objectively feminist act,” Duckett argues. “It’s not to say that someone who causes trauma and pain shouldn’t face consequences, but just from a prevention standpoint, I don’t think that prison is the answer there.”

Raven is of the same mindset. “CASS has always had an anti-criminalization position. We don’t see the criminal legal system as a strategy,” she says.

“For starters, we recognize that the communities most affected by gendered and sexual violence are the communities most affected by police violence,” she continues, specifically mentioning women, people of color, gender minorities, and LGBTQ people among those communities. “Prison is punishment, but it’s not accountability, [and] there are no studies that show that prison is increasing safety. The public health approach actually tackles the problems at the root.”

Expanding legal avenues

As ReThink and CASS work toward furthering progress on a public health front, other advocates are looking to expand legal avenues for victims, including abolishing statutes of limitations and expanding affirmative consent laws.

“The abolition of the statute of limitations is a tool,” Jill Stanley, a former prosecutor and district attorney who now focuses on celebrities and the legal system, tells ThinkProgress.

As Stanley explains, “We understand that there are times you can’t recall [an incident]. When you are strong enough or when you have a clear picture of who your assaulter is, we can have evidence.” At that point, Stanley says, no matter how long it’s been since an assault took place, the victim should be able to go to law enforcement.

Stanley also points to the expansion of affirmative consent standards as a possible way of strengthening legal avenues for victims. At present, affirmative consent — a “yes means yes” standard rather than “no means no” standard — applies only to certain colleges and universities.

“[Affirmative consent standards] are very narrow,” Stanley says. “It only applies to state-funded colleges in New York and California.”

Some private universities — including each of the Ivy League schools other than Harvard — have adopted the standard, but so far, New York and California are the only states to have enacted laws mandating all state funded universities use the affirmative consent standard.

Stanley notes that the expansion of affirmative consent laws could be especially valuable because victims often don’t have the capacity to consent.

“The bigger issue in all of these laws is that we need capacity to say no,” she says.

While she believes such a standard could be helpful, Stanley doubts changes will come on a national legislative level. “The country is very slow,” she says.

One way she believes affirmative consent could become the standard? By putting it in employment contracts.

Here, California State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D), who co-authored California’s affirmative consent law, agrees.

“That might be a great thing,” Jackson tells ThinkProgress. Like Stanley, she has her doubts, but remains optimistic. “Could we get that passed? We could try!” she says.

Jackson also believes it could be beneficial to pass laws aimed at making educational initiatives — similar to ReThink’s curriculum — the standard for children, starting from a young age.

“What we really need is…education, whether it’s in the workplace or with our youngest children,” Jackson says. “Our culture has frequently rewarded men behaving badly…. We have to change it.”

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Lessons In Love For Generation Snapchat


Tatiana Curran, right, and her boyfriend Jake Cowen-Whitman say their three-year relationship is an anomaly amongst their peers. But they readily concede that even they have serious issues around intimacy.


Along with explicit sexual education classes, some schools are beginning to offer more G-rated lessons on love. Experts say the so-called “iGen” is woefully unprepared to have healthy, caring romantic relationships and young people need more guidance. So schools are adding classes that are less about the “plumbing” of relationships, and more about the passion.

At Beaver Country Day School, a private school near Boston, Matthew Lippman has taught whole courses on love and relationships. He loves teaching about love so much, he finds ways to delve into it every chance he gets.

In his American Literature class recently, he launched into a discussion about love songs.

“This is my favorite” he announces as he blasts “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi. The students howl.

“Are you kidding me?!”

“It’s so dirty!” the students say.

“Just kidding!” Lippman laughs. But now that he’s got their attention, he starts drilling them on what the song says about love — and lust.

Senior Tatiana Curran wades in cautiously. “It’s sexual,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s love … y’know what I mean?”

“I understand,” Lippman reassures her, gently buttressing what may be a subtle distinction to some.

Lippman then introduces the class to what really is one of his favorites: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your

Matthew Lippman loves teaching about love so much he finds ways to slide in a lesson comparing contemporary and decades-old love songs during an African-American Literature class.

Face” by Roberta Flack. The song starts to unfurl so slowly, you can literally see these millennials getting antsy. Several seem relieved when Lippman finally stops the song, and starts pressing them on its underlying message.

“It’s showing that love takes time, that it’s not something that you rush into,” offers Joddy Nwankwo, noting how incongruous that is in today’s culture of high-speed everything and blithe hook-ups.

“A lot of (students) have short attention spans,” says Aiden Geary. “People don’t have a lot of long term relationships because we want everything like now, and then once we have it we’re bored with it.”

Curran and her boyfriend Jake Cowen-Whitman, who’ve been together for three years, are something of an exception. “I was asked literally the other day … ‘Aren’t you bored?'” Curran laughs.

But as one of those “iGen” teens who tend to text more than talk, even Curran readily cops to having some serious issues with intimacy.

“I get really uncomfortable, when it comes to like really romantic things,” she says. “Like I hate eye contact. It took me almost two years to actually fully make eye contact with Jake for a full sentence.”

The struggle to be present

“I think that’s the biggest piece to all of this,” says Lippman. “So much of this intimacy thing is being present, and that is hard for them.”

For sure, not all of them. Some young people are persevering and managing to forge meaningful, intimate relationships. And in some ways, technology can actually enable some difficult conversations. Some teens text things they wouldn’t have said at all if they had to do it face-to-face.

But, Lippman says, a significant number of young people are clearly struggling to make those real connections, and classes like his dovetail with a trend toward whole-child education.

He doesn’t pretend that one class can be a cure, but his lessons do seem to be resonating with his students.

“Walking into the class, I felt like I knew a good amount about love,” says Jade Bacherman. “But now I’m realizing that there’s a lot more to learn.”

“I don’t think we’re prepared to know what a healthy relationship looks like,” says Lisa Winshall. While kids get instruction on things like consent and sexual violence, she says they desperately need more coaching “on a much deeper level [about] what really taking care of someone else means.”

It’s exactly what Harvard Graduate school of Education Senior Lecturer Rick Weissbourd has found. His recent research shows young people are struggling with how to conceive of romantic relationships, let alone how to actually navigate them. “It’s a deep underlying anxiety,” he says, “so they’re looking for wisdom.” And it’s not enough to just give them “disaster prevention” kinds of sex ed classes, that only deal with pregnancy, STD’s and sexual violence, he adds.

“I think we are failing epically to have basic conversations with young people about the subtle, tender generous, demanding work about learning how to love,” he says. According to his data, about 70 percent of young people crave those conversations.

For them, the motivation may be a more fulfilling love life. But Weissbourd says the societal stakes are high; healthier relationships, he says, will pay dividends on all kinds of social ills, from sexual harassment and domestic abuse, to depression and alcoholism.

Relationships beyond Snapchat

Another school that’s trying to answer the call is The Urban school, a private high school in San Francisco. Health teacher Shafia Zaloom says she too was alarmed by teens’ social struggles and their belief that they “can build relationships over Snapchat or Instagram.” So she started a kind of “Dating 101” curriculum that covers things as basic as how to ask someone out. In one recent class, students brainstormed out loud.

“Like ‘Do you want to, like, go see a movie some time?'” suggests Sophomore Somerset Miles Dwyer with a nervous giggle.

“Yeah,” Zaloom nods, but then reminds the student to add “with me” at the end of the question, “to clarify things, because it’s not like ‘Oh, come hang out with us’ and chill with the group.” When you say “with me,” she explains, “that communicates more clearly your intentions that you want to be spending time together and getting to know each other.”

Zaloom’s course also tutors the kids on everything from how to break up to how to take things to the next level.

In one lesson they critique Hollywood love scenes. “That’s totally unrealistic,” says Miles Dwyer, as multiple romantic kisses and dreamy declarations of love unfold seamlessly, over a dramatic musical soundtrack . It all unleashes a slew of confessions about how much more awkward their own encounters usually are, and how insecure that makes them.

“On TV, the awkwardness isn’t there,” says Dominic Lauber. So when things don’t go as smoothly “in your real life, it feels like you’re doing something wrong,” he says. “So it could just feel like something you’d want to avoid. Kids nod and snap their fingers in agreement.

“Yeah, that’s definitely a fear,” says Abby Tuttle. “It’s all about vulnerability.”

Pushing through awkwardness

Boston College Professor Kerry Cronin says the insecurity and aversion to taking risks persist, so even the older students she sees on campus, still struggle with basic dating protocol. “You know they’re really just sort of numskulls about basic social steps,” she says. “They really aren’t sure how to handle themselves.”

It’s exactly why she now gives students a homework assignment — in an introductory Philosophy and Theology course — to actually ask someone out, in person.

“It’s mostly about pushing thru awkwardness,” Cronin says, “and finding out that even if you get rejected isn’t going to kill you. Because [this generation is] terrified of failure. And resilience is a major issue.”

Data is hard to come by, but anecdotally, private schools seem more apt than public schools to expand the usual “reading writing and ‘rithmatic” to also include romance.

“Our teachers are already burdened enough,” says Ashley Beaver, a public school substitute teacher and mom in San Diego. She says educating kids about love should come from parents, not schools, especially given how schools have handled sex ed.

“I mean they talked to middle schoolers about flavored condoms,'” she says. “It’s just too much too soon. So, no, I just don’t trust the institution to do it correctly.”

Indeed, G-rated discussions are not likely to be any less controversial in schools than the old-school X-rated ones says Jonathan Zimmerman of University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. He agrees that the instruction is critically needed, but he says “we shouldn’t pretend that we have anything like agreement on these subjects.”

“Frankly, it’s a lot easier to get consensus on the sperm and the egg than it is on lust vs. love,” he says. “These are issues of values and ethics and culture, and in a country that is so irreducibly multicultural, we should expect there to be profound controversy and disagreement about this approach.”

Ideally, Harvard’s Weissbourd says, the lessons should come from school and home. And while many parents may think their kids don’t want to hear it from mom or dad, Weissbourd’s research shows they actually do.

As Professor Cronin put it, this generation was raised by helicopter parents — they expect to be coached on everything.

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