I still remember the day my mom decided to give me “the talk.” During the prime of my 6th grade years, my school had decided to tell us all about the bird and the bees already and unbeknownst to me when my mom asked me to walk the dog; she was aware of their education as well. I thought nothing of our walk, until halfway around the block, she paused gravely and began. “Now Tim, I know your school has already done this with you, they sent home information saying they would do it, but I need to make sure they talked about everything…”
And from there, I received what might have been one of the most awkward, yet illuminating talks of my life. My mom is quite the open person, and she led a very elaborate discussion on sex; much better than what happened at school. Even with how awkward it was, I am extremely fortunate to have been raised in a family where we talked about such things openly. As uncomfortable as it was, I am gracious I had such a conversation. My mother wanted to make sure that I knew not only how to have safe sex, but how to prepare emotionally, how to select partners and to drive home the ideas of sex as a partnership instead of a transaction. 6th grade me would never tell you this, but I was very fortunate that day.
The truth of the matter is that in the United States, one of the biggest issues we face is the fact that we are failing to properly talk with our students about sex in all walks of life. The flaws of which are beginning to show heavily. Having spoken about my assault and this general topic to countless college students, part of what I have seen is this, where we have problems with sexual assault, yes, we also have problems talking about sex in general. It is time we start better educating on healthy sexual relations as a piece of the puzzle.
(Side note: Before we move further into the topic, I just want to clarify that I am a survivor of a very violent sexual assault involving the use of substances for predatory, planned assault including a follow-up of stalking and blackmail. I do not think that if we only educate on healthy sex that we would be able to prevent all forms of predatory assault. I understand violent rape, and predatory assault happen. However, we do have issues with gray consent, healthy sexual partnerships, and a general uncomfortableness talking about sex that can be remedied through proper education.)
Sex education in the United States is abysmal at best, and that is being generous. Currently, only 24 states require mandatory sex education curriculum with 20 of them getting the resources used in this education. The lack of mandated curriculum may be contributing to the fact that 40% of incoming college students do not know what consent entails. Students do not get the education around the complexities of consent, the multifaceted manner which it can work, or how to talk about it with partners. It should be eye-opening to see how the majority of our incoming students and peers do not know about healthy consent.
Right now, there are large issues with our country where we are not educating on sex from a young age yet expecting our students to be able to execute on this. Our current perspective on sex is kind of like giving everyone a terrible driver’s education course with a 30-minute video where we tell them not to speed and then expect new drivers to get into a car and be able to operate it on a busy city highway.
Where there are flaws with sex education on a primary and secondary schooling level, we have opportunities to counteract this in our collegiate system. There are ways we can jump-start these conversations and having healthy, honest conversations about sex. It is not only fun when we do this with our students, but it is also vital. How do we get there?
Shifting the Educational Focus
One of the first aspects of our ongoing campus education needs to focus not only on prevention but engagement and positive education. So often, I talk with administrators or professionals who struggle to get students to come to campus events focused on prevention. When I directly ask students why, they tell me they are tired of being talked down to, are afraid they will attend another presentation where they only hear “no means no” without any other resources, or they fail to be met where they are.
Right now, most education occurring on campuses focuses on prevention education and anti-rape messaging. Both are important in different lights. It is vital our students are educated on prevention techniques, and bystander intervention has its time and place in the world but our students have been inundated with “no means no” education for quite some time. The issue of a lack of healthy sexual education, however, is the fact that for our students who want to have healthy sex, they might not know what it entails or how to have these conversations with their partners.
We need to provide education on anti-rape, yes, but we also need to provide conversations and outlets for conversations on sex. Our students and peers are having sex. Our students and peers want to talk about sex, so it’s important we start to shift the paradigm of our education to not only include prevention messaging but also to focus on sex positive programming.
What is Sex Positive Programming
Sex positive programming is based on the idea that we know individuals are going to have different values toward sex, the types of sex they enjoy, and who they choose to be their sexual partners. When we shift our focus to sex positivity, we are emphasizing that difference and diversity in sex is meaningful, so long as sexual partners agree on the types of sex, they are in engaging in. The need for consent in sex positivity is widely discussed because both partners need to be on the same page, but when we approach sex from a sex positive mindset, we are focused on empowering individuals to enjoy their sex instead of feeling ashamed for liking something different.
With sex positive programming, we help our students and peers feel that their sex is healthy and normal, because our emphasis lies in teaching how to get to a point where these dialogues are occurring, and students feel validated in their desires to talk about sex with partners.
Creating a Shift in Our Programming
Part of the method used to encourage discussion about sex on our campuses and reinvigorating sex positivity lie in the types of education we are providing. There should be a healthy mix of sex positive and prevention-based education occurring yes, but in short, we need to add a jump-start programs allowing us to talk about sex.
There are a few different aspects of this:
Campus Resources Built Around Sex Positivity
Think about the types of resources and numbers we are handing out during our sexual assault prevention programs. Often, the numbers or contacts I see given are geared towards prevention and emergency services. Many campus resources are reactive and geared towards the mindset of “if you see something” or “something happens” come to us for support.
These resources need to be provided, yes, but more can also be given. Where can students go if they are curious about sex or want to talk about things they are curious about? What services exist on campus meant to educate on healthy relationships? Are there other programs or events that exist on how to enjoy and make the most out of sex? Are we providing people places to have these types of dialogues?
If these resources exist on campus, we need to educate on their availability. If these resources fail to exist, how can we challenge ourselves to create them for our students?
Intentionality in How We Are Marketing Our Events
I see either one of two ways towards encouraging students to come to sexual assault prevention events. There is the “you are required because you fall in X population” method or there are the “let’s blast out information and hope people show up.” When I talk with students at my event, however, I hear intriguing aspects. Some are shocked at how down-to-earth or refreshing the event was or that they are happy they came because they were originally skeptical that they were just going to get yelled at the entire time.
The perception students have towards these types of events are a massive failing on the side of our campuses. If students feel like they are just going to be yelled at and lectured or told what they are doing is bad, no wonder we have a lack of students showing up to events on sexual assault prevention, let alone shying away from these conversations in the first place.
There needs to be an emphasis on how we are marketing our programs, especially if we are starting to move toward sex positivity. We need to reinforce the learning outcomes for these events and what our offices hope students will receive because of their programs. When encouraging our students to be active participants in these programs, start focusing on why students will want to engage and the type of marketing you are putting out there. Be clear about the difference in events. And get student buy-in when setting up these events to give them a voice in the programming instead of making them passive participants.
Programs Built Around Healthy Sex Education
In shifting our resources made available and the marketing around these resources, we are at the beginning of change. A part of it also stems from the actual events, programming and education we use to engage our students. Now, your campus is likely different from others so a part of this education will be reliant on your culture and should be developed in conjunction with your students and peers. There are a few programs I have seen on other campuses that have worked extremely well, including;
- Hosting a panel of professionals or individuals from different sexual orientations, backgrounds, and preferences to allow students to ask questions in a moderated forum. For best success, moderators screen questions submitted through text and maintains the integrity of the event.
- Working with professionals or on-campus individuals to host workshops explaining different cultures of sex and sex positivity, providing campus education about these aspects. Workshops including topics such as BDSM, polyamory, and other subcultures of sexual preference.
- Campaigns built around educating on healthy sex in the form of flyers, posters, and subverting traditional prevention messages to focus on sex positivity.
- Tabling to offer information on different birth control techniques and begin larger dialogues
- Peer educator groups that meet regularly for facilitated conversations on healthy sex and provide a campus climate for conversations on sex
When building programs on sexual positivity, focus on working directly with students as a means of creating these events. Instead of focusing on only providing events around prevention, let’s turn our shift to educating on healthy sex and the role it plays on our campus.
I know there is no one silver bullet in preventing sexual assault or providing the one type of education for our students. Even in my training, I focus on both sides of the coin where I discuss predatory behavior and preventative measures while also spending time on sex positivity and how to have better conversations around consent with partners, friends, and peers. The reasons for this are intentional because all forms of these conversations are needed. If I knew the answer on how to end sexual assault, I would have implemented it years ago. Shifting to include healthy conversations on sex is not the solution, but it is a solution.
When we consider our current educational means, we need to start talking more proactively about sex, decisions around the topic, and healthy consent, all as a means of providing a poorly illuminated perspective that has failed to be taught in the United States.
There is one thing I always think of when I discuss this topic; our students want to be talking about sex, yet our educational systems have constantly failed to provide the proper tools in having these conversations. There are great opportunities available in how we are having conversations with our students on these topics, along with a great need.
In the future of sexual assault education on campuses, it’s time we start having the sex talk; God knows very few other places are having it.
Learn more about speaker Tim Mousseau at campuspeak.com/mousseau.