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How Sex Education Is Evolving In The #MeToo Era

Editor’s Note: This story includes some frank discussion of sexuality that may make some readers uncomfortable.

An illustration by Michael Emberley in the book

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: An illustration by Michael Emberley in the book "It's Perfectly Normal" by Robie Harris shows girls saying, "Stop," Jan. 25, 2018.

How Sex Education Is Evolving In The #MeToo Era

GUEST:

Jeffrey Bucholtz, director, We End Violence

Transcript

When it comes to #MeToo movement, the sexual misconduct allegations against comedian Aziz Ansari are hazy. There wasn’t a hard “no” from the woman who accused him of aggressive sexual behavior. But according to the report on babe.net, there also wasn’t consent.

Blame wasn’t easily placed.

“She had a terrible night of sex. She had a bad hookup,” said New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss on MSNBC.

“The thing I keep hearing is, ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ Nobody is really asking, ‘Why didn’t he stop?’” countered HuffPost Women writer Emma Gray.

This is Debra Hauser’s take:

“My guess is they both could have used some good quality sex education.”

Hauser is president of Advocates for Youth, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit behind San Diego Unified’s new sex education curriculum.

“The abstinence-only curricula will literally say — many of them — ‘Boys are like microwaves. They heat up quickly. Girls are more like crockpots, so girls have the responsibility to slow boys down.’ It’s this idea that boys will be boys. So yeah, of course he’s going to keep trying and of course he’s not going to hear her cues,” Hauser said of the allegations against Ansari.

Her organization’s curriculum, called “Rights, Respect, Responsibility,” challenges those ideas about gender and talks broadly about everything from sexual orientation to masturbation. Hauser said the goal is to prevent the kind of guarded communication and fuzzy boundaries that have come to light in the #MeToo movement by laying the groundwork — beginning as early as age 5 — for healthy sexual relationships in adulthood.

“When I started my career 35 years ago, a lot of the sex ed curriculum was really around what people would call ‘plumbing.’ It was really about your reproductive parts,” Hauser said. “That’s still in the curriculum, but so much of what helps young people use that knowledge is really related to other, sort of, social emotional skills around communication, around self image, around body image, around understanding what a healthy relationship looks like.”

Hauser said those messages begin to take root in the early grades by talking with students about friendship, bullying and asking for permission.

“You just don’t steal a pencil. You would ask for it. You’re asking for consent to borrow someone’s pencil,” she offered as an example.

That emphasis on social emotional learning isn’t limited to the Advocates for Youth curriculum. It’s peppered throughout the National Sexuality Education Standards updated in 2007 and San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s 2015 California Healthy Youth Act.

San Diego Unified adopted Rights, Respect, Responsibility in 2016 to comply with the Healthy Youth Act, which, in addition to requiring curricula discuss sex as a normal part of life, also requires parents who don’t agree with the curriculum to opt their children out of sex education, as opposed to the old opt-in model.

At a July 2017 school board meeting, a handful of parents and community members discussed their plans to opt out, pointing to another key way the Advocates for Youth curriculum is different from lessons past. It doesn’t hold back.

One speaker called the supplemental material that comes with the curriculum a “misogynistic porn primer masquerading as sexual health.”

Many zeroed in on a particular video from AMAZE.org that seeks to help children understand that many of the messages in pornography are unrealistic and potentially damaging. It cheekily, but graphically, shows animated characters engaging in sexual behavior.

“The stated intent sounds so good — to develop healthy attitudes about sexuality,” said former San Diego Unified parent Judy Neufeld-Fernandez. “In reality, (Advocates for Youth) is putting students in harm’s way by promoting porn as normal and exposing kids to graphic content not suited to their stage of development.”

San Diego Unified refined its list of supplemental materials, retiring the cartoon on pornography, but kept much of the curriculum in place after many parents and community members spoke in favor of it.

Robie Harris penned “It’s Perfectly Normal,” a book described by Amazon as "the definitive book about puberty and sexual health for today's kids and teens." She defends the breadth of today’s sex education. Her own book includes a section on the internet, and no-holds-barred illustrations by Michael Emberley of the human body and human behaviors, including masturbation.

“I will put anything in these books if it’s in the best interest of the child,” she said. “I feel that kids deserve and have the right to have the most honest, latest, up-to-date information about their bodies.”

Both Harris and Hauser said today’s sex education aims to give kids a broad vocabulary that’s free of shame, so that tomorrow’s adults can talk openly about what they want and don’t want instead of testing boundaries or playing gatekeeper.

Harris said in the wake of #MeToo, her next edition of “It’s Perfectly Normal” will include a new word: harassment.

It’s due out next year.

The #MeToo movement has forced Americans to reckon not only with the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct, but also hazy communication about sex. Will the next generation fare better?

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