Connecting Sexual Violence with the Need for Comprehensive Sex Education

Comprehensive sex education provides young people the tools they need to build healthy relationships and prevent sexual violence in our communities.
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The highly publicized surge of sexual assault cases on college campuses has inspired the White House and a number of legislators, including New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, to push for policy solutions that provide for better reporting and enforcement mechanisms. Rates of sexual violence are indeed astounding, with nearly one in five women in the United States having been raped, and one in four women having experienced unwanted sexual contact. Yet these policy solutions are too often reactive and limited. A comprehensive solution must aim to prevent sexual violence before it ever starts. This means that policy makers must connect the norms that perpetuate sexual violence with the need to prepare young people to engage in healthy relationships from an early age, which is a core component of comprehensive sex education.

Sexual violence and harassment start early. One out of 10 high school students reports being hit, slammed into something or injured with an object or weapon by someone they were dating, according to the Center for Disease Control's 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. The same portion of students reports being forcibly kissed, touched or made to engage in sexual intercourse. These statistics are not only alarming, but have wider implications for our communities, public health and the future of our young people.

To be sure, a problem as prevalent and deeply rooted as sexual violence requires a multi-dimensional, multi-sector response. At the core of any such policy response must be a comprehensive sex education program in our schools. While young people need to learn how to protect themselves against the triple threat of HIV, sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies, comprehensive sex education includes more than these bare essentials. Comprehensive sex education provides young people the tools they need to build healthy relationships and prevent sexual violence in our communities.

Released in 2012, the National Sexuality Education Standards establish a thorough catalog of essential sex education content. The standards promote healthy relationship-building skills as one of seven fundamental components to a comprehensive sex education curriculum. Lessons focus on safety, respect and consent, sexual decision-making, self-efficacy, sexual orientation and gender identity, and awareness about cultural messages that support gender norms and sexual violence. These curricular standards are essential to challenging societal messages that implicitly and explicitly condone misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and the violence and sexualized bullying that too often result. Further, the learning is age-appropriate and cumulative so that all students from Kindergarten through high school are receiving and building on information that is right for their level of cognitive and social development.

As recent reports and events have shown, preventing sexual violence must be a priority for our policy makers and educators. Too often, comprehensive sex education is pushed to the back burner, and our communities and young people pay the price. However, over 90 percent of high school parents support teaching comprehensive sex education, and 72 percent describe it as very important. Fortunately, some states and cities across the country, including Chicago and Washington DC, are leading the movement by requiring comprehensive sex education in schools. New York, however, is being left behind. While efforts have been made to pass meaningful reform on the state level, Albany is locked in a political stalemate. It is up to localities, including New York City, the largest school district in the country, to do right by our youth and communities.

More than two years ago, former Schools Chancellor Walcott announced that New York City would require middle and high schools to provide sex education. It is time for the de Blasio Administration to take the next step. The New York City Department of Education should pass a Chancellor's Regulation that adopts the National Sexuality Education Standards and requires comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education to be taught in Kindergarten through High School; require those who teach sex education to receive appropriate training; and create a meaningful implementation and monitoring plan.

New York City has the opportunity to be a leader in high quality, comprehensive sex education that teaches not just the basic prevention lessons, but also provides young people the skills necessary to build healthy relationships and communities. A safe, healthy New York requires nothing less.

Pamela Zimmerman is Chair and Katharine Bodde is Incoming Chair of the New York City Bar Association's Sex and Law Committee.

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