Teaching Kids about Rape

How can we lessen the horrible frequency of sexual assault in colleges? The New York Times wants us to start in middle school. Their proposal suffers from a terrible case of Manhattan-itis.

NYT editors pointed to studies from Illinois and New York that seem to bolster their case. When kids learn to communicate their feelings, when they learn explicitly about safe places and violence, the amount of “sexual harassment” and “inappropriate touching” drops.

Manhattan, Kansas

Manhattan, Kansas

It makes sense to me personally. As a teacher and a parent, I’ve seen the positive results when young people learn to speak openly and frankly about all aspects of sex.

But as a historian, this proposal seems to willfully ignore reality. The NYT editors note that “some parents may object to their children learning about sexuality in middle school and even before.” Yet they seem not to worry about such predictable objections. If such programs succeed in the Netherlands, the editors assert, they can work here.

As I argued in my recent book, folks like these NYT editors (and me) have always woefully misunderstood the true political and cultural equations of schooling in the US of A. Things that may seem possible in a clinical trial are just not possible on a wider scale.

Consider just a few examples from recent history. In March, for instance, Kansas considered a law that would open teachers to prosecution for teaching children about sex—even from an approved sex-ed curriculum. That’s right: Teachers who taught explicit sexual terms could be prosecuted as sexual predators if they taught their classes as those classes were designed to be taught.

This is not just another case of something being the matter with Kansas. Last summer, parents in the San Francisco Bay Area protested about a sex-ed textbook that taught their middle-schoolers about sex. The problem was not that the textbook was not accurate. The problem was not that the material might not help students get a fuller and better understanding of sexuality.

The problem, rather, was more fundamental. Parents in these United States do not want their children to learn about sex in an explicit way. They do not want their children to know about rape, sexual assault, and other things.

And this is the problem with the New York Times editorial. The central question is not whether or not such programs are effective. The central question is not whether or not such programs work in the Netherlands. Rather, the most important question—and one that the New York Times sidesteps—is how to implement such programs in the face of the predictable and powerful opposition they are sure to elicit.

Too titillating?

Too titillating?

We have a difficult time understanding a seeming paradox: Americans want their schools to do more than teach kids things that are true. In many subjects, Americans insist that their schools help keep children ignorant. Or perhaps a better term is innocent. Sex, evolution, lynching . . . there are a host of truths that public schools are meant to un-teach. Not only can schools not do a good job teaching these things frankly and fairly, but in practice—considering the political realities—many schools are expected to do a good job of keeping children ignorant of such things.

Rule of thumb: schools won’t do anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in a formal toast at a church wedding. Is it possible to use such a platform to speak frankly about sexual assault? Yes, and in some schools (and some weddings) it is done. But by and large such tactics are not considered acceptable by Americans. Teaching a child to say “vagina” and “penis” is difficult enough. Any hope to convince parents of the need to teach kids to say “rape” and “sexual assault” must be far more fraught with difficulty than the New York Times admits.

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  1. When I was in fifth grade, we were assigned to find 5 words in printed media, that we did not know. We were required to look up the word, write out the definition, and turn it in. This was a weekly requirement. I don’t remember any word I learned except “rape”. It was in a crime story in the newspaper. My parents were hysterical when they saw it (they looked at my list before I started looking up the words). Of course, they stammered about its meaning, and of course I looked it up on the sly, but I was not permitted to use it in in my assignment. My lack of sex ed in school really harmed me. I didn’t get the facts of life until college. All the time, my great uncle was touching me inappropriately, and when I got older, he tried to rape me. Parents who oppose these programs are setting up their children for heartbreak and, possibly, becoming victims of assault. It’s really sad.

  2. Agellius

     /  July 14, 2015

    What would bother me is not having my kids learn about sex in a factual way, but having it taught in a way that implies that there’s nothing wrong with them having sex so long as they do it “safely” and don’t use force. From the graphic that you post, it appears that that’s the problem with the Fremont textbook.

  3. And there you have it, in Agellius’ comment. Conservatives, especially Christians, believe that sex ed will somehow promote sexual activity. As a nurse, and a survivor of attempted rape, I can tell you that a) young people are going to have sex with or without proper education, and b) children will be more likely to be victims of sexual abuse if not taught about consent. I had no idea that I could or even should have said something about my great uncle until he finally progressed from the touching to the attempted rape. My parents were shocked, when it was right in front of their eyes. Did they think French kissing a 10 year old girl was right? All they told me from about the age of 8 through my teens was how nice it was to have a great uncle who loved me so much. Crazy.

    • Agellius

       /  July 14, 2015


      I think you’re reading things into my comment that aren’t there.

      • ” not having my kids learn about sex in a factual way, but having it taught in a way that implies that there’s nothing wrong with them having sex so long as they do it ‘safely’ and don’t use force” What did I misunderstand? You don’t want sex taught that there is nothing wrong with sex unless it is safe and with consent. You don’t think that there is nothing wrong with sex….or only sex for teens? Enlighten me, because it seems as if you want morality taught alongside the facts of life.

  4. Agellius

     /  July 14, 2015

    “it seems as if you want morality taught alongside the facts of life.”

    Certainly I do. Sexuality is a subject that is utterly fraught with morality. To my mind, teaching about sex while ignoring morality is like teaching the mechanics of different modes of killing people while saying nothing about the circumstances under which they should or should not be used — just facts and information, you understand, no value judgments.

    • Agellius, you are correct, but why do you care? Your kids are in a private religious school. Unsurprisingly, public schools teach from a different perspective.

      Sheila — you are assuming there are some value-neutral “facts of life” and that even “consent” is not a moral concept historically rooted in religious thought. Neither of those assumptions are true. “Morality” is constantly taught in public schools, often in weak, watered down forms, or in broadly appealing messages about social justice that few or no parents will object to. My high school (early 1990s) was often visited by holocaust survivors with rather graphic stories and presentation materials; they were openly religious and their purpose was a kind of moral instruction. Yet you can imagine what would happen if sex ed. included graphic description of abortion processes and the ethical problems of a society that begins to put monetary incentives on harvested organs and tissues.

      It seems to me that it would be uncontroversial and more helpful if public schools handled 1) the biological side of sex and reproduction separately from 2) the moral/ethical issues and both from 3) violence and abuse. Each progresses into the next, but the most controversial (#2) could have an opt-out option while trying to encourage buy-in by treating it a a contested area in a pluralistic society. Teachers could solicit input from parents and other adults in the community who are capable of representing particular religious and non-religious views respectfully in a pluralistic context.

      There is also a typically omitted social dimension where a truly “liberal” perspective would necessitate addressing the facts of social inequality in terms of race, gender, and class. Consent-focused sex education is naive, damaging, and blinded by racial and class privilege when it ignores the very different rates, outcomes, and interconnections between abuse, rape, early sexual initiation, unplanned pregnancies, abortions, etc. among different racial and class groupings.

  5. Agellius

     /  July 21, 2015


    Adam had suggested that American parents want schools to help keep their kids sexually ignorant. I was trying to clarify for Adam what I think the concerns of American parents are. As an American and a parent, I thought I was qualified.

    • All of them? You’d make the point better by referring to the sources Adam has presented.

      The Fremont parents’ petition mainly objects to use of a college-level text that covers “sexual games, sexual fantasies, sexual bondage with handcuffs, ropes, and blindfolds, sexual toys and vibrator devices, and additional instruction that is extremely inappropriate for 13 and 14 year-old youth.” They also mention their community’s “cultural values” repeatedly being ignored.

      The Kansas story is a bit different. A single parent reacted against his 13 year old daughter being exposed to things that have “nothing to do with abstinence or sexual reproduction.” Specifically it was the poster he reacted to with its mention of “Hugging,” “grinding” and “anal sex” under the heading “How Do People Express Their Sexual Feelings?”

      I don’t believe these sources support Adam’s claim that “[Parents] do not want their children to know about rape, sexual assault, and other things.” He is more accurate when he says “Parents … do not want their children to learn about sex in an explicit way,” but he is being misleading or missing the point by equating “explicit” with any talk about rape and sexual assault. It is actually clear in both the CA and KS examples that the parents DO support sex education and did not react at all to content about rape and sexual assault. It is the “other things” and “explicit” language they object to.

      The Fremont parents’ reaction seems to have been relatively well handled. The KS parent seems to have been a single objector who got a lot of media attention which then led to a state law that criminalizes teaching “any material that references nudity, sexual conduct or sexual excitement ‘in whatever form,'” basically targeting sex ed material as porn. The author of the bill has another one coming to “criminalize surrogate parenting” because she feels you should not create children with no biological mother. It’s hard not to see a lot of homophobia in all this, but the core complaint of the dad who triggered all this may be about the same as the Fremont parents’ complaint.

      Maybe Adam can answer why it is so important to explain to kids all the different terms and techniques for sex or sexual expression, including “sexual games, sexual fantasies, sexual bondage with handcuffs, ropes, and blindfolds, sexual toys and vibrator devices?” If the real goal is to focus on the basic biology and sexual assault issues, why compromise that by throwing in all this other material a lot of parents will react against even if they are not religious or particularly conservative?

      • These two examples might not include objectionable material about rape and sexual assault, but I don’t think it is misleading to suggest that many American parents will object strenuously to frank and explicit instruction about rape in middle- and high-school. It is a near-perfect example of the ways most of us hope schools will not only deliver knowledge to our kids, but also hope that schools will protect and promulgate certain forms of ignorance.
        As for the curricula’s reasons for including explicit info about a variety of sexual activities, I don’t really know. My best guess is that the motivation to include such things stems from a reaction against the “you’ll go blind” tradition of sex education. For some sex educators and sex-ed activists, kids need to understand the many varieties of sexual pleasure. This will protect kids from sex that is not pleasurable. In other words, the thinking goes, kids should know hard facts about the many, many forms of consensual sexual expression so that they can identify and verbalize if someone is exposing them to sexual assault.

      • Well we can all make our guesses about others’ motives, but there should be some way to make a plausible case from actual evidence. If you’re going to say a lot of parents want sex education that leaves their kids substantially ignorant about sex, that seems like a tough one to defend. It runs contrary to my experience even in VERY conservative areas, I can’t think of any examples I’ve read about, and the sources you’ve introduced undermine your thesis as well as your representation of them.

        I’d say the best possible construction of the conservative parent is that they want sex education (in even a religious context) to cover the biology and the morality/values side of the subject, with sexual abuse and assault as part of this. What they do not want is coverage of a bunch of material that treats sex primarily as self- and mutual pleasuring, especially in fairly adventurous and more instrumental ways that remain fairly taboo for many in the older generations. Conservative Catholics can give you a theological rationale for this; conservative Protestants have lost the thread but will often gesture in a similar direction. They wish to keep sex more procreatively focused within a marriage context where it has something of the sacred left to it rather than reducing it to forms of mutual masturbation. That doesn’t mean they never want kids told about anal sex (or what have you); context and who initiates the discussion matters a great deal to them. This is not necessarily the “you’ll go blind” tradition, which I doubt has many representatives nowadays.

        Do you know of any actual sex educators who say the criteria for good sex is pleasure or that it is impossible to explain rape and sexual assault to kids without explaining “sexual games, sexual fantasies, sexual bondage with handcuffs, ropes, and blindfolds, sexual toys and vibrator devices?” I haven’t run across any, and they both seem very irresponsible positions to me. Sexual arousal is a natural response to “bad touch” too, which is why many kids (especially boys abused by older boys and men) often feel confused and complicit in their abuse. The best case I can think to make for your side is that it’s impossible to get into male-male pederasty without making complex distinctions between orientation and act to avoid (especially homophobic) misunderstanding. Really then the ideal is to deliver a comprehensive junior high/high school view of sexuality that leaves nothing out on the gender ans sexual identity/expression/orientation spectrum.

        It’s expecting too much from most Americans (or anyone else) to see this as a priority now because science and the law are all up in the air; most of it was pretty homophobic and backwards until recently as well. There is a real revolution taking place in the social, psychological, and biological understanding of sexuality but in many respects it’s being bungled worse and communicated less well than evolution.

  1. Value-neutral killing | Agellius's Blog
  2. Ignorance: The Heart of Education | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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