Willful Ignorance

My friend Jen was squashed into a packed lecture hall at the University of Colorado in Boulder, scribbling notes as her sociology professor elucidated the power dynamics underlying rape, when all of a sudden her stomach and pen dropped simultaneously.

Her mind flashed back to a night over a year earlier: moonlight coming through her dorm window fell across the shoulders of a guy she barely knew, on top of her. Drunk and exhausted, Jen told him that she wasn't up for it. He persisted. She remembers saying no a few more times, then eventually giving up, staring at the dark ceiling, waiting for it to be over.

Jen had woken up the next morning hung-over and angry at herself. Though the word regret was heavy on her mind, the word rape never once crossed it. But now, sitting in a sea of undergrads, some of whom had probably experienced similar sexual encounters fraught with alcohol and disconnection, the word rang true. Jen left class in a hurry, went home, and sobbed.

Experiences like Jen's are unfortunately not rare. Every two and half minutes someone is sexually assaulted in America. Many of these assaults take place on college campuses; 80 percent of rape victims are under age 30. Two-thirds of all rapes are committed by someone who is known to the victim, not a stranger in a dark alley. (Though rape statistics are notoriously inaccurate, we can assume that these, from the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) are at least close to the truth, as they are derived from a survey of multiple studies, including the National Crime Victimization Survey from 2005.)

The lack of public, comprehensive, and complex sex education in this country contributes to this toxic sexual culture on most college campuses. The abstinence-only sex education that most young men and women receive does not teach them how to articulate their own sexual needs and respect those articulated by their partners. Teens who are merely told "Just don't do it" are lacking more than an anatomy lesson or information on contraceptive choices. They are also missing out on essential communication skills and life-saving knowledge about sex and power. Which is bad news for teenagers in our paradoxically hyper-sexual and hyper-conservative contemporary America who are in desperate need of wise mentorship.

Like Jen, many of us understand far too late that sexuality doesn't operate by switch -- on or off -- but rather is a wide-ranging spectrum. That alcohol doesn't just limit inhibitions, it also hampers communication. That articulating one's desires and needs is essential for safe, consensual and, well, good sex. And, of course, that listening to your partner -- whether they're a partner for just a night or for a lifetime -- is a matter of basic dignity and respect.

These are conversations that are conspicuously absent from all but the most progressive high schools in this country. As a result, a flood of hormonal, insecure, and unequipped 18-year-olds show up at colleges across the nation each fall with little more than a sensationalistic idea of rape, shaped by shows like Law and Order: SVU rather than by conversation with knowledgeable adults. Add almost-ubiquitous binge drinking into the mix, and you've got a chemistry equation that equals combustion. One study found that 75 percent of the males and 50 percent of the females involved in college campus acquaintance rapes had been drinking when the incident occurred.

Both women like Jen and young men who drunkenly don't listen when their dates say "no" can end up scarred from the experience. All parties involved can be hurt by a failure to properly delineate and stick to boundaries. As Jen's sociology professor noted that day, there are complex power dynamics at play here. We live in a society that raises many boys to be repressed men, raises many girls to be self-hating women, glorifies violence, shames victims, and hides histories of incest and molestation. Many of these dynamics feel too big to tackle, too personal to control. But sex education is concrete, fundamental, and totally public. It is something that we can change. Knowledge and dialogue can't always prevent rape, to be sure, but they can be powerful tools toward that end.

By giving teenagers opportunities to dialogue about sexuality and practice communicating about their desires and needs, we could prepare them for a college scene fraught with experimentation, alcohol, and difficult social negotiations. The field of emotional intelligence provides us with sound evidence that behaviors must be practiced habitually if we want them to emerge in stressful situations. In a sex ed context, this means that we could be having essential conversations in schools -- about having fun while still setting limits -- to prepare students for the college culture of limitless drinking. Teens could be reflecting on their own authentic boundaries, sexual and otherwise, before they are in a situation where those boundaries are in danger of being crossed. Sure, hokey role-playing activities are the last thing a bunch of too-cool-for-school teenagers want to do, but teachers could still provide them with the language that might make recognizing those boundaries easier. If that teacher is a relatable and savvy adult, all the better.

Instead, we have spent over a billion dollars on abstinence-only messages for teens, at least half of whom have already had sex before they even leave high school, and three-fourths of whom don't believe in waiting until marriage, according a recent study in the Review of General Psychology. Most of these inadequate curricula are taught by perhaps well-intentioned but certainly not the most approachable adults in the school system. Teenagers deserve sex education from teachers who are comfortable and experienced talking about sex, not just a randomly assigned wrestling coach (the standard-bearer of sex-ed excellence at Jen and my suburban public high school in Colorado Springs).

The sorry state of sex ed was documented in the 2005 film The Education of Shelby Knox, by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt. In it, the 15-year-old Knox, a self-described good Southern Baptist girl, starts to question the logic of abstinence-only sex ed when she finds out that her high school in Lubbock has some of the highest teen pregnancy and STD rates in the state. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, an older female teacher repeats her mandated response to Knox's questions like a doll with a broken string: Abstinence is the only way to prevent STDs and teen pregnancy. Abstinence is the only way to prevent STDs and teen pregnancy. Abstinence is the only way to prevent STDs and teen pregnancy.

This restricted dialogue about sex is neglectful to the point of absurdity. How can policy-makers, parents, and educators possibly advocate a philosophy that not only proves to be ineffective at preventing STDs or teen pregnancy, but also hazardous to the health of young women and men forced to deal with the realities of our volatile sexual culture? It is inexcusably lazy to let Hollywood and prime-time television stand in for an accurate education about sex and sexual assault. "Just saying no" isn't a realistic defense in a world that hypes "yes, yes, yes" at every turn, nor is it fair answer for young people trying to compose real identities.

Today Jen isn't sure whether to call her experience rape. The label is no longer important to her. What is critical, to her mind, is spreading the word to both young women and men that sexuality is complex and requires the utmost in honesty, self-awareness, respect, and education. Today Jen is applying to go back to school, this time to study how to become a sexual educator herself. She wants to become the mentor she never had.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. She is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body (Simon & Schuster's Free Press, April 2007). You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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