Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sex Education Revisited

Courtney Martin has written an interesting article on the possible connections between date rape, abstinence education and the need for sex education of a slightly different sort from the one teenagers are traditionally given at schools:

Every two and half minutes someone is sexually assaulted in America. Many of these assaults take place on college campuses; 80 percent of rape victims are under age 30. Two-thirds of all rapes are committed by someone who is known to the victim, not a stranger in a dark alley. (Though rape statistics are notoriously inaccurate, we can assume that these, from the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) are at least close to the truth, as they are derived from a survey of multiple studies, including the National Crime Victimization Survey from 2005.)

The lack of public, comprehensive, and complex sex education in this country contributes to this toxic sexual culture on most college campuses. The abstinence-only sex education that most young men and women receive does not teach them how to articulate their own sexual needs and respect those articulated by their partners. Teens who are merely told "Just don't do it" are lacking more than an anatomy lesson or information on contraceptive choices. They are also missing out on essential communication skills and life-saving knowledge about sex and power. Which is bad news for teenagers in our paradoxically hyper-sexual and hyper-conservative contemporary America who are in desperate need of wise mentorship.

I think the focus on abstinence education is too new to explain most of these problems, but it certainly doesn't help in teaching students how to negotiate a relationship safely, given that it assumes there will be no relationship until the wedding night and then a wedding fairy appears and miraculously tells what to put where.

This whole topic just screams with feminist implications, but I'm going to be ornery, and address something not especially linked to feminism: the need for generally agreed on language and terms about sexual activities. This is a boggy ground to put my dainty goddess foot on, given that it is so often trampled by wingnuts and anti-feminists, but I think you will find my take on it slightly different. For much better and more feminist interpretations of the article and the issues it provokes, see the links at the end of this post.

To return to the communication question: I remember moving to the U.K. and being invited for coffee fairly late at night by a guy. All my internal alarm clocks went off at the same time and I said no, because I wasn't certain if "coffee" meant "sex" in that culture or not and I didn't want sex with him. To this day I have no idea if I lost a possibly good friend that night, but I was only carrying out the proper task for women and girls: Traditionally we have been taught all the various codewords which really mean sex (want to see my etchings?) and it has been our responsibility to shy away from anything associated with those codewords. If we failed to catch one of those coded expressions, well, we said yes, didn't we?

This was not a good system of communication. More like a system where it was up to some men to invent more and more codewords and for their prey to try to figure them out. Now, the wingnut cadre believes that such a system would work fine, with the dainty little women as the gatekeepers of morality. But it never worked fine. It hardly worked at all, and it left the women fairly silent about their desires as well as responsible for all the refusing.

None of this means that we don't need a generally accepted set of rules about how to communicate sexual desires and sexual refusals, rather the reverse. We need to have a discussion about what such rules are and we need to disseminate them widely so that everybody knows how to play by the same rules.

This wouldn't solve problems such as date rape but it might make date rape less common.
For more takes on the Martin article, see Campus Progress, Mamacita (with a very useful link to a Guttmacher study about why Europeans do better here), Pinko Feminist Hellcat, Feministe, and feminist law professors. Also Shakes and punkassblog and the reclusive leftist. And tikvahgirl.