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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


We Must Answer #MeToo with Comprehensive Sexuality Education

sex ed presser ppnyc

As a coalition of health educators, advocates, students, community service providers, and teachers, we know that the stories behind #MeToo are not new. For many of us, it is what led us to this work. Our own stories of assault, harassment, or discrimination, and the stories of the people we love drove us to want to create a better world for the next generation. So that women are not always asked what they were wearing, and so that LGBTQ youth are not told their true self and gender is ‘just a phase’ they’ll grow out of with conversion therapy.

We also know that “Time’s Up” for providing all young people with the tools and information they need to build healthy communities and relationships—and that New York City should be a leader when it comes to sexuality education.

The #MeToo movement has unearthed the extent to which sexual harassment, assault, and the devaluing of women, both cis and trans, pervades our society. No workplace or institution is free from these realities and we are just beginning to take a hard look at the societal systems in place that enable such continued abuse.

This reckoning is long overdue, but we are ready for it.

We are called now to ask ourselves what needs to change. What do we truly want to be different than it was?

Workplace accountability and equal pay, survivor protections to safely report abuse, better representation of women and people of color in positions of power. These are all urgent needs, and yet they don’t fully get to the root of what’s needed for a societal shift to meet the scale of the #MeToo movement.

If we are going to commit to the values of gender equity, trusting women, and enthusiastic consent, it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of learning.

Luckily, we have an unprecedented opportunity in this current moment to invest in that learning. But we need to start from the ground up. We need to teach our young people from an early age how to identify and cultivate healthy relationships, how to ask for and give consent freely, and how to respect and love one’s own body and respect the bodies of others, with sensitivity to people’s backgrounds and experiences different from their own. These are not one-off conversations or hour-long school assemblies. This requires continual skills-building around communication, empathy, and inclusion, and for us to embed these lessons and tools in our educational system from day one through an interdisciplinary approach.

Truly comprehensive sexuality education requires that students learn about safe sexual practices and wellbeing, body autonomy and positivity, consent communication, anti-bullying measures and bystander intervention, where to access trusted confidential health care, how to navigate technology and social media in intimate relationships, and must include lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming students in each topic.

Comprehensive sexual health education also requires that these lessons be taught in all grades K-12, enabling schools to incorporate social and emotional learning skills and core values into the classroom from an early age and start with foundational lessons around respect and positive relationships that allow for more complex and critical discussions to be had later on.

The latest revelations of the #MeToo movement have shown us how ill-equipped we are in our understanding of consent and positive sexual behavior. We need to teach people of all genders how to engage in healthy relationships, and how to ask for consent, rather than putting the burden on one person to shout “no” loudly enough.

We know that comprehensive sex ed works; study after study has shown the positive health and emotional benefits sexuality education provides young people. But right now in New York City, it’s too little too late. According to the Department of Education’s own findings, almost half of last year’s graduated 8th-graders never received a semester of health in middle school, when lessons on sexual health are supposed to be taught. A recent report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and the creation of a Mayoral Task Force on sexual health education, highlight the extent to which this issue needs to be urgently addressed in New York.

At Sexuality Education Alliance of New York City, we’ve heard from teachers who have great models for sexual health education at their schools, and we know it’s possible. All students deserve comprehensive, inclusive, and skills-based sexual health education. And they deserve it at every grade and stage of life.

If we’re truly committed to addressing the ways our society enables a culture of discrimination and gender-based violence, and to saying #TimesUp, then we need to commit to large-scale educational change and do our part to honor the people who have come forward to share their stories. This is one of the biggest and most pervasive issues we’re facing today--no investment is too big to build the future we want.

Elizabeth Adams is the Co-Chair of the Sexuality Education Alliance of New York City and director of government relations at Planned Parenthood of New York City. On Twitter @ElizaBAdams.

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