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LGBTQ kids are missing out on sex education—and it’s up to schools to change that

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Last year, California officially mandated LGBTQ history lessons in public schools, vowing to teach “the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans” and their impact on both the state’s and the country’s history.

This was a victory for LGBTQ rights, because it’s a rarity; in most states—in all but nine to be exact—schools don’t even cover LGBTQ sexuality, let alone queer history.

When surveyed by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), only 12 percent of millennials said they received sexual education material that covered sex between gay partners—even though 20 percent of millennials consider themselves LGBTQ. American sex ed is “primarily or exclusively focused on heterosexual relationships between cisgender people,” according to a different study conducted by Planned Parenthood and the HRC.

This hetero-specific focus creates a multitude of problems for all young people sorting through their anxieties and questions about sex and sexuality. For one, straight students aren’t being forced to acknowledge other sexualities, which can foster bullying and promote a culture of intolerance. For another, a lack of school discussion means most LGBTQ students are being inadvertently told to stay in the closet. And with that messaging, there is the shame and hiding, and then there are the health risks.

Proper safe-sex education is important for all students, and LGBTQ people are no exception: 22 percent of all transgender women are HIV positive, and queer men face a higher risk of contact with HIV or a sexually transmitted disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While ignoring queer students may not be a new phenomenon, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be remedied. And perhaps school districts can start by listening to the stories of queer people who have gone through the country’s lackluster sexual education systems. Through them, activists can learn how to fix such a massive gap in sex education.

This is what the queer sex ed gap looks like

Larissa Glasser, a librarian and writer living in Massachusetts, grew up in the 1980s, an era whose approach to sex ed was based in fear and simple authoritarian phrases like “Don’t do it.” Glasser, whose transgender, obviously couldn’t rely on schools to teach her about queer life.

“I was in public school until fifth grade and we had no sex education whatsoever,” she told the Daily Dot. “This was during the Reagan presidency, so all we ever heard about sex was AIDS as a scare tactic to be abstinent.”

Very little accurate information existed about transgender women outside of schools. Glasser was only exposed to trans people through filmmakers like John Waters and Ralph Bakshi.

“Finally, during the 1990s, trans issues were addressed somewhat respectfully in about 10 percent of the films I saw,” Glasser said. “Then I discovered writers like Jean Genet, Angela Carter, and Hubert Selby Jr., who were willing to portray queer femme sexuality in a somewhat positive light.”

Glasser’s experiences mirror many other LGBTQ students’ struggles. Sophie Searcy grew up miles away in Kentucky during the ’90s and 2000s, attending Catholic school all the way through high school, and she too had virtually no experience with LGBTQ education. Queer and trans sexuality just wasn’t discussed.

“The Catholic system I belonged to had a program called ‘family life,’ which was a religious health and sex education program,” Searcy told the Daily Dot. “Very basic facts about anatomy and puberty were explained in gender-separated rooms. There was no mention of safer sex methods, navigating consent, or any LGBTQ issues whatsoever.”

Searcy knew early on that her church wasn’t LGBTQ-inclusive. But looking back on those early years, she realized that queer people were treated as if they simply didn’t exist at all.

“The class explained sex as exclusively between a man and a woman, as if only heterosexual orientations existed,” Searcy said. “Similar to how the class erased all non-hetero orientations, the class explained gender, sexual development, and sexual intercourse in a way that didn’t even acknowledge the possibility of trans people. Boys had penises, girls have vaginas, boys develop into men, girls develop into women, etc., etc., etc.”

In particularly conservative areas, sexual education isn’t just biased—what it is lacking can induce violence. LGBTQ activist and writer Sarah Bess grew up in southeast Missouri in the 1990s, and she was repeatedly harassed, bullied, and physically assaulted across school districts.

“I was this awkward, autistic, queer kid from the middle of nowhere, so I got picked on a lot,” Bess explained. “I dropped out in the seventh grade because I was getting beat up so much and my home life sucked and I really didn’t care about school.”

Bess’s classes didn’t provide a respite from the attacks. “Being gay wasn’t really mentioned as a possibility in my sex ed classes. The existence of trans people definitely wasn’t acknowledged. There was a lot of fear-mongering about pregnancy and STIs, and that’s mostly what I remember,” Bess explained. “I don’t remember anyone at school even mentioning trans people. Beyond transphobic Jerry Springer and Maury Povich episodes, I don’t think we were on anyone’s radar.”

In one case, her sex education teacher enabled a physical assault.

“My seventh-grade sex ed class was taught by a gym coach who watched two boys beat the shit out of me after school one day,” Bess said. “He just laughed, got in his car and drove off.”

When anti-LGBTQ sentiments take hold in a school, then queer students live in an ongoing state of fear. This not just impedes their education, it can be debilitating for their growth and self-esteem—and it can separate queer people from one another by forcing them to stay hidden. For someone like Bess, this was extremely alienating.

“I was in my late teens the first time I knowingly talked to another trans woman online,” Bess explained. “I was in my twenties before I knowingly met anyone like me in person.”

For others, sex education classes could have possibly saved their lives. A 2014 report published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the UCLA Williams Institute reveals that suicide attempt rates are particularly high among transgender and gender non-conforming students who face harassment or bullying at school. Through sex education, though, students could have a better understanding of gender transitioning or normalizing queer sexuality. The more that classrooms validate LGBTQ experiences, the more likely students are to treat their fellow classmates with respect.

“Gender was always conflated with assigned sex and body parts,” Searcy said. “It wasn’t that trans people were portrayed as evil or misguided, but that the possibility of being trans was never even acknowledged.”

Then came the internet

So if LGBTQ students aren’t able to learn about their bodies from primary and secondary schools, where do they go for information about queer sexuality? Many turn to the internet.

But the internet is a luxury, one that not everyone is able to access—especially those in previous generations. In Bess’s case, this directly impacted her exposure to trans material.

“I didn’t have consistent internet access for most of my life, so I picked up bits and pieces where and when I could,” she said. “I watched a lot of porn with trans women in it and read a lot of gross forced fem erotica, none of which was very helpful for learning about sex.”

Even when internet access is available, its resources aren’t always helpful. Sometimes they can be damaging.

Shortly after Glasser graduated from library school, she stumbled across a gender transitioning guideline called tsroadmap, also known as “Transsexual & Transgender Road Map.” Glasser felt even worse about herself while using the website, in part because the guide relied on rigid stereotypes and generalizations for trans women. In one case, the site demanded that trans women undergo surgeries in order to properly transition, when many trans people prefer not to undergo permanent surgery.

“It was useful at the time,” she said, “but in hindsight, I think its normativity had a fairly toxic effect on my self-esteem when I was at my most vulnerable point.”

Searcy, on the other hand, saw internet access as a major source for learning more about non-hetero sexuality. Some of her biggest resources for her transitioning were writers who have gained significant prominence thanks to the internet’s impact on the trans community.

“Ultimately, a close friend came out as trans which led me to question my own gender and explore resources on my own,” Searcy said. “Julia Serano and Morgan M Page were particularly helpful, as were Imogen Binnie and Casey Plett.”

So while online resources aren’t exactly perfect, the internet has advanced far enough that it can connect trans and queer people with the online communities they need to learn more about themselves. On Reddit, there are subreddits like /r/asktransgender that let trans people learn about undergoing gender transitioning. Sites like Sites like Keshet and Queer Theology provide resources for religious queer and transgender people. Resources like TJOBBANK host employment listings for LGBTQ folks searching for inclusive workplaces. And services like Discord and Slack allow queer and trans users to create their own closed groups where LGBTQ members can hang out, talk about queer life, or get together and play video games. The internet has changed over time, and that means there are more ways for queer and trans people to meet each other than before.

But it’s unfair to relegate LGBTQ students to the internet for advice, often in secret. It can stall LGBTQ kids from coming out, make trans and queer sexuality feel like a taboo, or send the message that queer and trans life isn’t important enough to understand.

Schools are supposed to provide students with learning opportunities that help young kids grow into productive adults. That’s why third graders learn basic reading comprehension skills, and high schools teach American history (albeit often from a very straight, white, male perspective), and middle schoolers get a whole class dedicated to sex and their bodies—so they can go out into the world informed and prepared.

But if schools leave out LGBTQ sexuality and force queer students to learn on their own time, then those schools are failing at their jobs. Why must the burden be on LGBTQ youth to educate themselves?

The solutions that exist

Casey Plett, author of A Safe Girl to Love, lived in an upper-middle class suburb in Oregon during her high school years. At the time, she enrolled in an “internationally-focused hippie-ish sub-program” that seemed more like “actual sex ed taught by Planned Parenthood.” And yet like Glasser and Searcy, she says, “I cannot recall LGBTQ issues ever coming up. Negatively or positively.”

And as for trans issues? “Ha,” she told the Daily Dot. “No. Zero.”

This was in 2001. But she recognizes things have changed since then. LGBTQ equality has become more mainstream, trans rights have entered the news cycle, and queer sex ed has turned into a serious activist rallying point. Today, she thinks there’s solutions that school districts can take to bring LGBTQ education to kids, instead of forcing them to turn to the internet. That is, if they’re willing to put in the effort.

“There are plenty of gay sexual health resources out there,” Plett said. “I’d get a hold of them, pay them to come, and let them take the wheel. And be open and loving and willing to learn.”

Plett is right. Today, many local LGBTQ organizations host workshops for queer youth, providing the resources students need to learn more about their sexuality. Long Island’s Pride for Youth, for example, facilitates workshops on fighting transphobia and working with LGBTQ youth. Other community centers, such as New York City’s Apicha Community Health Center and the Los Angeles LGBT Center, provide training segments for educators, giving them the skills they need to teach LGBTQ-inclusive material in classrooms. And in recent years, Planned Parenthood has both criticized the lack of LGBTQ sex education in public schools, and begun taking a more LGBTQ-inclusive approach to sex education.

Gender therapists and counselors traditionally host workshops for teens as well, allowing them to explore LGBTQ topics in an affirming environment. And programs like the GSA Network even give students the training they need to host workshops and class sessions that can debunk damaging myths about the queer community.

For those who don’t live in “gay-friendly” metropolitan areas, there are also online resources available for classrooms. TED hosts a variety of TED Talks covering LGBTQ issues, from coming out to helping transgender teens. And many educators host lesson plans and teach-ins that are available for free online, allowing students to engage in queer sex education topics through a vetted workshop environment.

These programs and groups normalize LGBTQ sexuality. Workshops talk frankly and openly about what it means to have sex as a gay or transgender person and provide safe sex education to prevent STIs. They also give educators the training they need not just to respect queer students, but to include LGBTQ topics in future lesson plans. If school districts aren’t sure how to approach queer sexuality, here is where they can start.

“It would have been incredible for me to hear the simple facts that sex is complicated and messy but that there are a few universals that we should consider (consent, safer methods, exploration),” Searcy explained, “or that gender is independent of assigned sex and that it might be helpful to consider if my assigned sex did not fit.”

That’s something echoed by Bess, who knows all too well that many school districts are still avoiding LGBTQ topics in their entirety. She insists that the federal government should take a more active role in protecting LGBTQ youth, especially in areas where people are particularly bigoted toward queer students. Many school districts simply aren’t evolving anywhere near the rate of young people’s attitudes toward sexuality.

“It’s been awhile since I was in school, but it doesn’t seem like things are much better now in the places I grew up,” she explained. “Federal intervention is absolutely necessary to protect queer and trans students and educators, especially in rural school districts.”

Safety is where educators need to start if they want to facilitate an open, tolerant conversation about sex and sexuality. With transgender students under attack through outrageous “bathroom bills” across the U.S. and the Trump administration officially rescinding any federal guidelines for protecting trans youth, state and federal intervention is more important than ever.

For example, in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo officially outlawed all forms of discrimination against transgender people in 2015. Discriminatory fines for “willful, wanton or malicious” discrimination is up to $100,000. Massachusetts offers the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, a joint initiative that provides training for school administrators on queer topics and gives students the tools they need to become activists in their school settings.

Fostering change and giving schools a legal incentive to end discrimination is important. Seeing how 42 percent of all queer youth feel their community is not accepting of LGBTQ people, promoting tolerance and opening constructive discussion are the keys to getting there.

Schools teach basic sex education for a reason: Most adults will have sex, and the repercussions of sex are often far-reaching and far-ranging and can be life-changing. But if sex education doesn’t address the current population and the culture, then it’s time for administrators to recognize they’re doing youth a disservice. Making things right could actually save lives.

Complete Article HERE!

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How did evolution change our sexual organs? It’s time to learn the history of sex

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Porn images are everywhere but we need better ways to teach children about love, intimacy and yes, masturbation

evolution

At the start of this third millennium, sex seems to be all around us – within easy reach, on our screens, constantly talked about in the media. What used to be concealed, shameful and forbidden only a century ago is today regarded as evidence of progress in the freedom of thought. Artists use sex to push the limits of creativity: Paul McCarthy’s “butt plug” sculpture, for example, was installed at the Place Vendôme in Paris in 2014, even though it provoked outrage among residents.

The sexual metaphor is ever-present. Paradoxically, however, sex is rarely explained and almost never taught. Do you know how our sexual organs changed when we evolved from animal to human? When did the first couple show up? Where does our sense of modesty come from? Or eroticism? Or love, that most momentous of human concerns? What about our earliest customs? Which ancient civilisation championed equality between men and women? And why was masturbation frowned upon?

Sex is one of those realities that for a long time we neither wanted to see nor hear about. The sexual liberation of the 1970s – which was, in my opinion, the biggest social revolution in the history of humanity – signalled the transition from a traditional male-dominated society to one in which sex with all its nuances could finally be examined openly and understood. But as sex has dared to uncover itself, to live, to speak, we face the challenge of expressing what for so long has been kept under wraps. How are we to communicate what so recently caused so much shock and outrage?

In the west, the union of two individuals is in complete flux, with a drop in those getting married (in France 57% of births now happen outside marriage); same-sex marriage; and the option of “slices of life”, relationships with different partners in the course of a lifetime. But however free our customs may be, censorship persists when it comes to the communication of sex, the words, the particular way of defining sexuality and the idea of sensuality. Literature and fiction have always attempted to push the boundaries of this censorship: in the 18th century we had Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons; and in the 21st, EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. But mostly our discussions fall somewhere between sincerity and provocation as we attempt to understand intimacy and the fullest expression of sexual pleasure.

intimacy

No history book will delve too deeply into the sexual realm, yet it’s clear that history is a timeline of instructions and condemnations about sexuality. Each culture, each religion, each era has defined its own normality.

But without learning the history of love and intimacy, how can we understand the extraordinary evolution in customs that has led us from an existence ordered by family and society, and reinforced by religion, to the freedoms we know today? In his collection of aphorisms, Monogamy, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says that “most people would not live as a couple if they had never heard of it”. In this, he is reflecting the artificial nature of our customs and the need for a way to express our thoughts on sex, intimacy and being with other people.

We know today that human sexuality is not innate: it is learned and constructed through the images that society offers us. Even among our cousins, the primates, who live in a natural habitat, sexuality is learned through experience – young monkeys witness the courting and frolicking of the adults. The need for a model is evident: a young chimpanzee isolated from its peers is incapable of mating when it reaches adulthood.

Yet there is a fundamental difference: we invented modesty. Humans always make love away from the group. This is one of the great problems with sexuality: on the one hand it requires education; on the other, culture and religion collude to suppress sexual education.

The physician Thomas Beddoes was probably the first person to teach a course in sex education, complete with public demonstrations on the differences between men and women, in the early 19th century. But in the following two centuries, sex education failed to gain ground. Opposition was widespread and aggressive, on the part of the church as well as among teachers.

Sex education classes were subsequently written into law, but, in reality, rarely delivered. Sex education is today well established in Quebec and the Scandinavian countries, where primary school-age children are educated about gender differences and roles, as well as sexual orientation. In the Netherlands, where a complete programme of sex education is delivered from primary school, the rates of teenage pregnancies and abortions are among the lowest in the world.

But other western countries such as France and the UK provide little more than a perfunctory discourse on contraception and safeguarding against STDs. In France, a 2001 law stipulates three classes of sex education a year in middle and secondary school. However, as teachers have no training in this very particular field, it is often organisations such as those devoted to family planning that ensure these classes go ahead. In most cases, they rarely take place at all, and when they do they are limited to the three Ps: “prevention, pill, protection”, in other words, information on fertility and STDs. In this educational void the internet and porn offer themselves as models.

This is quite evidently the worst possible model, and the reason why a more reliable source of knowledge is indispensable, from primary school through to the last year of secondary. The average age at which children are first exposed to pornography is 11. Such an artificial vision of sex has altered our most intimate behaviour and has become the frame of reference not just for our teenagers but for us all. It makes us ask ourselves: am I sexy enough, am I the best lover?intimacy2

Nothing could be more damaging than these images devoid of explanation. We can’t stop young people from encountering porn, but a formal, educational approach would allow our society to explain its context and prevent misunderstandings that could otherwise compromise a fragile or still developing personality.

A genuine sex education should take the bio-psychological, emotional and social aspects of sexuality into account, should allow children to understand differences between the sexes, interpersonal relationships, the importance of developing critical thinking, an open mind and respect for the other. We must banish negative terms (sin, adultery, prostitution, Aids and STDs) in favour of positive schooling that allows children to understand desire, pleasure and excitement; the importance of sensitivity in love; the importance of masturbation, even. We must understand that everything can be taught, even the practicalities of how people live together, and we should start in primary school with discussions not only of genital differences but about the variations between boys and girls, the significance of love and of respect that may help with later relationships, notions of gender equality and domestic violence.

Only by speaking frankly, lightheartedly and wide-rangingly about sex, love and intimacy can we provide an education that enables adolescents, both boys and girls, to begin their lives with a better understanding of human relationships.

Complete Article HERE!

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How sex education videos have changed over the last 50 years

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By Amelia Butterly

sex education

Sex and relationship education (SRE) in schools isn’t good enough – at least, that’s what a lot of you often say.

From not being taught early enough, to lacking information about LGBT relationships and issues of consent – SRE gets a lot of criticism.

But, looking back at the archives, experts say there have been improvements when it comes to telling young people about relationships.

We’ve looked at posters and films once used to explain the birds and the bees.

And we asked sex and relationships teacher Caroline Stringer, a specialist from the charity Brook, to talk us through them.

1970s

This video – which was shown in schools – was also aired as part of a televised discussion about whether this kind of material was suitable for children to see.

Caroline says the way the penis is described as going “hard and straight” so that it can go into the woman’s vagina could be a problem.

“How confusing to young men having involuntary erections through puberty – they may have thought they need to go and find a vagina,” she explains.

Nowadays, says Caroline, good sex and relationship education will include topics such as consent and same-sex relationships.

Elsewhere in the videos, a man and woman are shown modelling nude in an art class.

“I thought it actually started off quite well, saying: ‘These people aren’t embarrassed’,” says Caroline.

“But for me, it was all about reproduction and a man and a woman. That’s the bit that is easy to talk about. It’s fact.”

In modern educational materials however, real people would not be shown posing nude, says Caroline.

“We would show diagrams, rather than the real thing.”

1980s

This film, which depicts a naked man on a beach, is the other one to feature full nudity.

It depends on the context, Caroline says, but seeing real-life naked bodies can serve a really useful educational function.

“If we’re showing people what STIs, for example, look like. How do they know what private parts look like without those STIs, if we only ever show them ones with?”

Like other films, it focuses on committed relationships.

“It’s all about making love. That’s what we would want to promote but that’s not always the case for people,” says Caroline.

Sex-Education

1990s

Caroline says in her classes she talks about all the different words which people use to describe sex and the body, including slang for the genitals.

“You can use those words,” she tells the students.

“But you need to know the proper words as well because if you’re going to talk to a doctor, you need to know what they’re saying back to you.”

Again, this video would not fit with “inclusive” modern sex education, Caroline explains.

“I did like that they talked about pleasure. It’s the first time in these videos they talked about it, for both a man and a woman.”

She adds: “It’s really important that it’s taught with a positive attitude. We don’t want scare messages.”

Nowadays

The sexual health charity Caroline works for, Brook, goes to in one in 10 UK schools to teach SRE.

“Brook believes SRE should start early in childhood so that children and young people learn to talk about feelings and relationships from a young age and are prepared for puberty before it happens,” they said in a statement.

“As children get older, we advocate SRE focusing on the positive qualities of relationships, such as trust, consent, body-positivity, commitment and pleasure.

“We also discuss the different forms relationships and sexuality can take.

“In addition to this, we also believe in ensuring that SRE is relevant and appropriate to the lives of young people so that it relates to other issues such as mental health, sexting, porn and staying safe online.”

Complete Article HERE!

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We May Have Just Identified Genetic Evidence of Male Sexual Orientation

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But that still doesn’t mean there’s a ‘gay gene’.

By PETER DOCKRILL

Scientists are reporting what could amount to be the firmest evidence yet of genetic links to male sexual orientation, in the first published genome-wide association study (GWAS) examining the trait.

Researchers recruited more than 2,000 men of both homosexual and heterosexual orientation and analysed their DNA, identifying two genetic regions that appear to be linked to whether individuals are gay or straight.

“Because sexuality is an essential part of human life – for individuals and society – it is important to understand the development and expression of human sexual orientation,” says psychiatrist Alan Sanders from NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Illinois.

“The goal of this study was to search for genetic underpinnings of male sexual orientation, and thus ultimately increase our knowledge of biological mechanisms underlying sexual orientation.”

To do so, Sanders’ team studied 1,077 homosexual men and 1,231 heterosexual men of primarily European ancestry, who were respectively recruited from community festivals and a nationwide survey.

For the purposes of the study, the men’s sexual orientation was based on their self-reported sexual identity and sexual feelings. Each individual taking part provided a sample of their DNA in the form of blood or saliva samples, which were genotyped and analysed.

When the researchers sifted through the data, they isolated several genetic regions where variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) signalled single-letter changes in the DNA, with two of the most prominent congregations located near chromosomes 13 and 14.

“The genes nearest to these peaks have functions plausibly relevant to the development of sexual orientation,” the researchers explain in their paper.

On chromosome 13, the variants were located next to a gene called SLITRK6, which is expressed in the diencephalon – a part of the brain that’s previously been shown to differ in size depending on men’s sexual orientation.

While the mechanisms here aren’t fully understood, the researchers explain the SLITRK gene family is important for neurodevelopment and could be of relevance for a range of behavioural phenotypes, not just sexual orientation.

On chromosome 14, the strongest associations were centred around the thyroid stimulating hormone receptor (TSHR) gene, and it’s thought the cluster of SNP variants here could conceivably affect sexual orientation due to altered expression in the hippocampus – in addition to producing atypical thyroid function.

It’s not the first time scientists have examined our genetic code looking for hints as to predictors of sexual persuasion.

While there are numerous environmental factors to consider, previous research – that has not yet been replicated – linked a genetic marker in the X chromosome called Xq28 to male sexual orientation back in the 1990s.

This gave rise to the idea of the so-called ‘gay gene’, even though that’s technically a misnomer, since the Xq28 band actually contains several genes, and the science on the region remains unclear.

More recently, a controversial study presented in 2015 by UCLA researchers suggested an algorithm analysing epigenetic markers that affect gene expression could predict male sexual orientation with up to 70 percent accuracy, but the findings were never published.

Similarly controversial – but in a completely different field of science – researchers from Stanford University made headlines in September when they claimed an AI they had developed could correctly distinguish between gay and heterosexual men and women (81 percent of the time and 74 percent of the time respectively).

While those findings produced an uproar, the claims – if true – serve as another illustration that our biology may contain innumerable clues about things like our sexual orientation that science is only beginning to reveal.

In terms of the new results, there’s bound to be a lot of interest in the study, but the researchers are eager to emphasise their findings are largely speculative for now, since there’s still a lot we don’t know about what these genetic variations really mean.

There’s also the relatively small size and skewed European basis of the sample – not to mention the fact that it’s all men – which limit what it can tell us about genetic underpinnings to sexual orientation more broadly across race and sex lines.

Despite those shortcomings, there’s a lot for other researchers to consider here, and the team hopes this could lay the groundwork for future investigations that could more deeply penetrate the genetic factors that help influence our sexual identities.

“What we have accomplished is a first step for GWAS on the trait, and we hope that subsequent larger studies will further illuminate its genetic contributions,” says Sanders.

“Understanding the origins of sexual orientation enables us to learn a great deal about sexual motivation, sexual identity, gender identity, and sex differences, and this and subsequent work may take us further down that path of discovery.”

The findings are reported in Scientific Reports.

Complete Article HERE!

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A new prescription for tackling sexual violence

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

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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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