The reliably controversial question of adolescent sex education has long revolved around birth control and abstinence education. But for parents of children raised on smartphones and social media, the new sex-ed conundrum has more to do with issues like sexting, bullying, and porn. A three-year study on teen sexting published in 2012 found that 57 percent of the high schoolers in the group had been asked for a naked picture of themselves. More than a quarter of those in the study (28 percent) had complied and almost a third (31 percent) had asked for such photos themselves.
But as anyone who’s heard the name Steubenville knows, such photos can also be circulated for reasons far from romantic. In the case of the Ohio town, pictures of a drunken teen assaulted and photographed without her consent at a party helped lead to rape convictions for two high school football players who cavalierly described the incident on social media.
A similar case in California, in which a 15-year-old shamed by photos of her assault committed suicide, led to the recent introduction of a bill that would significantly toughen penalties for teens like those who took advantage of Audrie Potts’ defenselessness. The boys convicted for assaulting and photographing her served less than two months in detention.
If the California bill dubbed “Audrie’s Law” passes, both assault and the taking or sharing of explicit photos of those incapable of consent would be grounds for felony prosecution. Juveniles who commit rape (including sodomy and oral sex), or take or distribute explicit photos in such circumstances would be treated as adults.
So how can parents and communities usher their sons and daughters into the world of sexual relations while protecting them from harm or hurting others? Since 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken a multi-pronged approach that leverages parents, schools, local health departments, and positive peer pressure in a preventive program called Dating Matters.
During its five-year, four-city pilot, the CDC is focusing on preventing dating violence among middle-schoolers in Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland, and Fort Lauderdale. As part of follow-up research to assess the program’s effectiveness, the pilot will compare an eighth-grade-only program in schools with a comprehensive approach spanning three grades and multiple spheres of influence.
The latter model starts in sixth grade, when students—and their parents, as necessary—start learning about healthy relationships. From there, the program expands to topics like unhealthy relationships (with both romantic partners and substances), concluding with a section on “safe dates” in eighth grade.
While the Dating Matters trial (which concludes in 2016) focuses on stopping violence before it starts, the authors of Mating Intelligence Unleashed want to stop violence upstream by changing the attitudes it stems from. In the concluding chapter to their book, evolutionary psychologists Glenn Geher and Scott Barry Kaufman argue that “sex education for adolescents should shift to mating education.”
“Understanding sex without understanding human mating, along with its social and evolutionary origins, is comparable to understanding how a bicycle tire works without realizing why a bike was made and what its ultimate purpose is,” they write.
In the book, Geher and Kaufman describe a plan to study how their “mating education” approach affects student measures like “attitudes toward women” and “sexual objectification.” However, they told me in a 2013 interview that they had to revise their initial research proposal to instead study college students. They hope to later test mating education at the high-school level.
While Geher and Kaufman’s approach stresses the purpose of sex, Jane Fonda emphasizes personal purpose and goals in her new book, Being a Teen: Everything Teen Girls and Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity and More. (If Fiona Apple helped with the subtitle, she’s not credited.)
Though the actress may be better known for advocacy on other topics, Fonda has worked with teens for almost 20 years through two programs she founded, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential and the Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory University.
For Fonda, healthy sexuality starts with self-reflection and a commitment to become the good, kind people she assumes her teen readers want to be when they grow up. She stresses that a good relationship is “healthy,” “committed,” and defined by trust and honest communication. “Ideally, any amount of physical intimacy should be matched with an equal amount of emotional intimacy.”