The New Sex Education Focuses on Preventing Violence

The trend in instilling the importance of healthy relationships and mutual respect, not just how to use condoms

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.”

While Fonda largely downplays her celebrity in Being a Teen, WiseGuyz, a boys-only sex-ed program in Calgary, relies in large part on the charisma of the ones teaching it. In fact, as Rachel Giese writes in a recent cover story for The Walrus, part of the WiseGuyz program’s success comes from giving boys likable male role models whom they can trust with embarrassing problems like ill-fitting condoms.

Like Dating Matters, the WiseGuyz program focuses on boys entering their teens. The weekly sessions in Calgary intermediate schools cover many of the topics Fonda does—anatomy, bullying, sexual identity, healthy relationships—but the emphasis is different.

From the start, WiseGuyz parent agency, the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, saw a connection between trends in violence and sexually transmitted infections and “cultural and media messages about what it meant to be a man.” Thus, WiseGuyz director Blake Spence tells Giese the program both challenges and affirms traditional masculinity. As with many of these approaches, the WiseGuyz program doesn’t yet have data on long-term results, but Giese reports that anecdotal feedback from past graduates has been positive.

If there’s one sex-ed source we have researched, it’s that unsanctioned, but ubiquitous teacher: porn.

In an article last year describing his research for the British Channel 4 documentary Porn on the Brain, former “lad’s mag editor”-turned-father Martin Daubney reported that teens’ knowledge of porn shocked him.

When he sat in on a class led by a “sex-education consultant,” Daubney said “it turned out that the children's extensive knowledge of porn terms was not only startling, it superseded that of every adult in the room—including the sex-education consultant himself.”

While Daubney’s story turned on a compelling anecdote, the authors of a detailed 2013 research review for the Children’s Commissioner for England found that “a significant proportion of children and young people are exposed to or access pornography.” (As a review of more than 400 studies, the report focused more on general themes in the literature than specific numbers.)

In their section on how porn “affects children’s and young people’s beliefs,” the authors note, “Some of these studies have also found links with less progressive gender role attitudes (e.g. male dominance and female submission).”

Fonda warns teens that those for whom porn is the “main source of sex education … risk learning from porn how to be in a sexual relationship, what is sexy, how to look and act.” Yet though she stresses the mutuality of healthy relationships (contra the fictions of porn), Fonda’s section on “girls … who don’t have an orgasm” concludes with men’s sexual problems:

“If a man has not had an orgasm but his partner has and wants to stop, the man can masturbate himself (or ask his partner to masturbate him) until he reaches orgasm. (Or he can simply allow his erection to subside.) A woman could do the same.” 

For help teaching mutuality in healthy sexual relationships, educators and parents might have to consult religious advice on sex. While said advice often assumes a married audience, books like The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy (written for conservative Orthodox Jews) offer far more specific, practical advice on ensuring both partners’ pleasure.

“Remember that your tongue is not a battering ram,” authors Jennie Rosenfeld and David Ribner write, a reminder no doubt as apt for teenage boys as virgin bridegrooms. They suggest the male partner give oral sex before receiving it. And for cases where the woman doesn’t climax, their suggestions include both manual stimulation and other sexual positions that may provide more pleasure.

Such advice can’t just be yanked from its religious and ethical context, of course. Yet in their emphasis on self-giving love, religious sex guides might provide a helpful complement to other efforts to foster healthy, respectful sexual relationships among the young.

If the Dating Matters model is right, teens stand the best chance of developing healthy relationships when they’re hearing similar messages from several sources. No one approach or book can provide a silver bullet, but these movements toward teaching healthy relationships in addition to safe sex may help counteract some of the negative beliefs and habits technology enables.