In its efforts to revise its human sexuality class, the Austin Independent School District (AISD) in Texas has asked parents, students and even the community for input, holding focus groups and sending out surveys. While certain topics came up seemed clearly marked for the 21st century — such as the impact of social media on body image —others opened students' eyes to everyone involved, including topics related to consent.
While National Sexuality Education Standards — created by the Future of Sex Education organization as guidance for setting sex ed curriculum — says students should be able to define consent by grades 9-12, only eight states require sex education classes to mention consent as of September.
Knowing how to handle your emotions when someone says "no," however, wasn't part of the curriculum, Kathy Ryan, AISD’s director of academics, told Education Dive.
“As soon as we read it, we were like, ‘Of course, we need to teach that,'” she said. “We need to have the skills, tools and language to say, ‘No, I am not comfortable.’ On the flip side, we also need to have the skills, tools and language to accept when someone said, ‘No,’ in an appropriate way, and move forward.”
Sex ed grows up
Sex education classes have long moved out of gymnasiums, where girls and boys were moved to separate corners and made to watch celluloid reels solely about how their bodies are changing. While some of those experiences may still be in play, other districts are weaving in topics parents may never have heard of when they were K-12 students.
Issues around sexting, digital technology, gender identity and sexual orientation are some of the topics Planned Parenthood of New York City focuses on when it visits middle and high schools during the school year. The organization holds about 20 to 30 workshops in October and November alone, Randa Dean, associate vice president of education and training for Planned Parenthood of New York City, told Education Dive.
Dean notes, however, that some questions the group fields during school presentations would sound familiar to their parents, and they can tell that students are still hungry to get accurate answers.
“We’re getting questions around relationships, about how pregnancy happens, and what’s happening to their body and if it’s normal,” she said. “These are questions we’ve always gotten, and it tells us how eager young people are for trusted, reliable information about the basics.”
Educators also ask the group to come in and speak about consent to students. The topic plays a role in Planned Parenthood of New York City’s curriculum today but will be expanded for the 2019-20 school year to look at ways “consent is active on all sides,” Dean said.
Consent, and knowing how to grant or not grant it, may have a bigger role in a student’s life than educators previously knew.
A study published this month from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, “Sex ed before college can prevent student experience of sexual assault," looked at answers from 1,671 students at Columbia and Barnard College, and 151 interviews with undergraduate students. Researchers found that students who underwent sexual education before the age of 18 that included “refusal skills training … were less likely to experience penetrative sexual assault in college,” they wrote.
Researchers looked at different kinds of sex education that students typically have while in middle and high school, including topics around abstinence, contraceptive use, HIV, and learning or knowing how to refuse sexual advances. Refusal skills-based education was shown to have what researchers called a "protective impact."
“Education about refusal skills seemed to be the one aspect of sex education that seemed to be the one that was protective,” John Santelli, lead author, pediatrician and population and family health professor at Columbia's public health school, told Education Dive. “In other parts of sex education, for instance, skills seem to be important around young people using condoms. If you know how to communicate with a partner, you’re more likely to get them to use a condom. So it fits into that, as well.”
Giving students more opportunities to use and find their voices is something Planned Parenthood of New York City also advocates for, Dean said. That’s one reason the group gives students in its workshops a way to role play through interactive activities designed to help them engage with the content in their own voice. So, if a time comes when they need to use these skills, they’re ready.
“We teach people how to have a difficult conversation,” Dean said. “But until they practice in their own words, it’s hard to make it their own and then be able to do it in the future.”