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Why Nevada Students Should Continue to Fight for Comprehensive Sex Ed

6 minute read

Students in a Nevada school district are taking sex education into their own hands by pushing for a comprehensive curriculum that touches on anatomy, contraception, sexual identity and gender identity–a far cry from the usual practice of rolling condoms on bananas and calling it a day (the highlight of my own sex-ed experience.)

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) published guidelines that many Clark County students hope will inform their sex-ed curriculum, specifically discussing rape and sexual assault–both of which are increasingly pervasive on college campuses. One in five women will experience sexual assault while attending college, and there are many programs (including The White House’s It’s On Us public service campaign) that are actively working to reduce this alarming statistic. But what are high schools doing to teach students about physical boundaries before sending them off to college? Thanks in part to parental opposition, not nearly enough.

Sex Ed Books Through the Ages

“Those who look at our bodily dwelling can gain a very good idea of what we are... The care of our body, then, adds to our value,” advised Barbara Wood-Allen in 1897's "Self and Series: What a Young Girl Ought to Know."
"When the organs peculiar to woman are displaced or disordered ...pangs shoot through her like winged piercing arrows or darting needlepoints" wrote mail order doctor Lydia Pinkham in 1907.
Published by the Christian Education Service, of Nashville, Tennessee, during the 60s, it was written by one of the founders of SIECUS
"When the natural God-designed and God-honored sex instinct is perverted and base desire supplants love, in the choice of a companion, the home instinct is degraded, love dethroned and inharmony prevails," wrote Thomas Washington Shannon in 1913.
"It is probably best, that the life-like illustrations, some of them photographic, in books of human anatomy be kept away from boys of early adolescent age" counseled Maurice Alpheus Bigelow in 1916.
"... the woman so under the influence of liquor is, for the time being, little more than a "cave woman," or barbarian, with all the lax sex morality of the latter," wrote R.B. Armitage in 1917
This 1928 volume was directed to the "young man whose aim is to be sturdy, strong and successful."
"Dr. Norman Carr," the pamphlet informed readers in 1934, "is probably the most widely read author on this subject in the entire world."
First issued in 1949, this booklet warned: "Don’t forget that any woman who lets you use her, or who consents easily, is not safe."
From 1941, "An intellectual and frank discussion of subjects of Social Hygiene, Physiology, the Science of Sex, Moral Living, Character Building, Motherhood and PreNatal Care."
This 1941 manual includes a diagram entitled "Facts you Should Know for Defloration on Bridal Night."
This 1943 book kept in simple with little line drawings accompanying text like: "Here is the way you looked when you were ready to be born..."
The author of this 1944 guide, Belle Mooney, was touted as "a well-known physician pioneer and lecturer on hygienic and sociological subjects."
"Sooner or later your children are going to learn about sex. They ought to. They must," wrote Fathers Rumble and Carty in this 1950 textbook for Catholics.
Written in 1950 by pioneering sexologist David Cauldwell, who's credited with inventing the term transexual.
In cheerful 1950 parlance it reads: "Lucky boys and girls whose parents, teachers and leaders provide this book for them! It would be a good idea for the old folks to read it too."
"The smart writer... who says flatfootedly or insinuates cleverly that sex experience before marriage is necessary for happiness in marriage is a plain liar and an elaborate traitor to young people," cautioned Daniel Lord in 1951.
"Here is a complete analysis of young people's sexual problems and mores—from kindergarten to college —a comprehensive case-history study of the new rebellion," promised this 1962 paperback.
"Before boys are ready to get married and start a family, they must at least be able to earn a living," claimed this otherwise very hip Lutheran church publication in 1967.
"At the most basic level, a concern with sex education must stem from the recognition that human socio-sexual development is a learning process," said this scholarly 1974 journal.
This 1974 pamphlet was part of a collection of self help books from Ms. Landers including: “Teen-age Sex. And 10 Ways to Cool It!” and “Love or Sex. And How to Tell the Difference.”
From 1983: "Ugly women have boyfriends, mean women have boyfriends, hopelessly insecure women have boyfriends, stupid women have boyfriends, women covered with hideous warts have boyfriends."
This 1993 book claims that "classroom sex education is always wrong and always harmful; that it destroys modesty; awakens the passions; promotes sexual activity and fosters acceptance of sexual sins."
"Sex is many different things, and people have many different feelings and opinions about it," says this 1994 classic, in admirable understatement. Read more: Why Schools Can't Teach Sex Ed

Students in Nevada are hoping their voices will be heard in Clark County’s open forums, which occurred as a result of parents being outraged over the proposed SIECUS curriculum. The program’s expansive coverage includes information about harassment and rape (as well as ultra-controversial information on masturbation), and goes too far for many parents who believe these issues shouldn’t be taught in the classroom. Sure, educating children about their bodies is generally considered to be an effective way of preventing assault, but some parents feel “uncomfortable” about the new sex-ed curriculum, and emphasize the need to educate kids on their own terms, in the comfort of their own homes. Parental concern was reason enough for Clark County superintendent Pat Skorkowsky to ditch SIECUS and offer up a public apology, but students aren’t giving up the fight.

“As a rape survivor myself I know firsthand what I received in my sex-ed classes here in Nevada, and what I didn’t,” Nevada Learning Academy student Caitlyn Caruso tells TIME. “And I know that in my sex-ed classes I received a lot of scare tactics, a lot of shaming, a lot of information that made me feel ‘othered’ and didn’t really arm me with any real knowledge to protect myself.” Caruso believes sex-ed courses can help educate teens dealing with this issue. “I’ve had so many other students confide in me about sexual assault and rape, and how they didn’t know what had happened to them with rape or sexual assault because they were never given those words and they were never given those skills from their sex-ed courses.”

Despite the fact that sex-ed programs like that of SIECUS offer the tools needed to deal with sexual assault head-on, only 22 states and the District of Columbia actually require schools to teach sex-ed– meaning students in 28 states aren’t necessarily learning how to use condoms, let alone being taught not to sexually assault their peers. (Note: Nevada has an “opt-in” policy, which means parents may choose to have their children attend sex-ed). “High schools have been very resistant to taking on the issue,” says Oklahoma State University professor and rape-prevention researcher Dr. John D. Foubert. “But if we’re going to make any progress in ending sexual assault, we’ve got to get them on our side.”

Brenda Aguilar, coordinator of Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada’s Responsible Sex Education Institute Program, reinforces this belief, telling TIME that “open communication about sexual activity is a skill that needs to be learned,” and that “sexual assault prevention requires in depth education, [as well as] talks about consent, communication, negotiation and refusal skills, which is included in comprehensive sexuality education.”

Al Jazeera recently published a by-the-numbers breakdown of sexual assault instances among teens, reporting that 58% of students per year in grades 7-12 experience sexual harassment (typically defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature”), while 1 in 5 girls report being sexually assaulted at school, and 1 in 8 girls report being raped. “The risk for sexual assault goes way up for high school aged folks,” says Scott Berkowitz, Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) president and founder. “[Ages] sixteen through twenty-four are in general the highest risk years, so it is too late to wait until college [to talk about this]. I think it’s an appropriate thing to include in high school curriculum.”

About two thirds of sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the victim, so it stands to reason that peer-level education is vital to prevention. And while Nevada’s controversial sex-ed guidelines do discuss sexual assault and rape at length, there’s still an underlying feeling that teens are primarily being taught how to avoid getting sexually assaulted, as opposed to being taught not to sexually assault. The SIECUS guideline advises students that “avoiding alcohol and other drugs” is a valuable protective tool, but Dr. Foubert’s research shows that teens (specifically men) can actually be educated on how to prevent assault.

“The approach I take is to appeal to men as potential helpers, both in terms of helping a friend who’s survived sexual violence, and in terms of intervening to prevent a sexual assault from occurring,” says Foubert. “It has multiple benefits…it actually does decrease sexually violent behavior on the individual level in men, but [also] when we train men to intervene as bystanders, it can help them become part of the solution. When we approach them through that learning channel, it tends to encode in their minds more strongly.”

The White House’s recent It’s On Us Public Service Announcement is a great example of the growing effort to educate college students about bystander intervention, but again, the message is clearly targeted toward an older crowd. The fact remains that most high schoolers just aren’t learning assault prevention or bystander intervention as part of their required curriculum. “There are obviously a lot of areas where there’s resistance to teaching sex-ed,” says Berkowitz. “In those areas, our approach has been to find another place to incorporate the sexual assault messaging. Even if you’re uncomfortable with talking about birth control and other topics in a birth control class, that’s not an excuse for ignoring sexual violence.”

Not only will sex-ed programs like that of SIECUS teach kids about birth control, they’re also a vital opportunity for high schoolers to be taught the sexual and physical boundaries that help prevent sexual violence. Sure, on some nostalgic level I hope my kids learn how to roll a condom onto a banana (contraceptive education is important!), but sex-ed has the equally important ability to prevent sexual assault at a developmental level…if we give it the opportunity to do so.



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