Revamping Sex Education

Think about what age you had your first crush or had your first boyfriend or girlfriend. How old were you? For many, it was during adolescence, especially with the onset of puberty, that the first romantic relationships formed. Forming relationships is beneficial to adolescent development, but if these relationships are not healthy, they can lead to various problems in the future. Dating violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are not just adult issues, but they are youth issues as well. According to the nationwide 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.3% of students surveyed had been physically forced to have sex. Of those students in dating relationships, 10.4% experienced sexual dating violence and 10% experienced physical dating violence. According to the Department of Justice, females between the ages of 18 to 24 experienced the highest rate of rape and sexual assault in comparison to females of other age groups from 1995-2013. Something needs to be done to prevent and reduce dating violence, sexual harassment, and sexual violence among today's youth.

Changing policy is one of the best ways to achieve that change on a large scale. Senator Tim Kaine recently introduced a bill called the Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015. It is a bill that will require safe relationship behavior to be taught as part of health education programs in secondary schools. The goal is to prevent and reduce teen dating violence, sexual assault, domestic abuse, sexual violence, and sexual harassment. Safe relationship behavior education is said to be age appropriate, respectful of culture, and evidence-based, meaning they have already been tested and proven to reduce sexual violence or increase healthy relationships.

I think it is important to dispel some preconceived notions regarding relationship education and differentiate the Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015 from typical sex education. This bill is not conveying the message of sex vs. abstinence, but rather encouraging students to have healthy relationships with their peers and to know what to do if a situation is threatening. Even those who are not sexually active can learn to protect themselves from perceived threats. Also, some may question whether these programs are targeting the right audience by starting in secondary schools and may say that the subject matter is too mature for youth. However, what was taboo to talk about 20 or 30 years ago in schools is normal conversation for kids today. If teens and adolescents are already talking about or partaking in relationships or sexual activity, then schools should get in front of the issues rather than ignoring them. This gives schools the opportunity to guide the conversation of teen relationships and violence.

Currently, it is not mandatory for all health education programs to teach safe relationship behavior. However, a few evidence-based prevention programs for adolescents have been implemented and seen positive outcomes. Some of these programs include Safe Dates and Expect Respect. Safe Dates achieved a decrease in sexual, psychological, and moderate physical abuse and a decrease in the number of students being victimized. Expect Respect achieved an increase in healthy relationship behaviors, a decrease in the number of dating and sexual violence incidents, and an increase in overall school safety. If we know these programs work, then why not support legislation that will bring more programs evidence-based programs? Knowledge is power, and the knowledge from the prevention programs coupled with opportunities to practice social skills can have a significant impact on youth. Programs implemented as a result of the Teach Safe Relationships Act will give students an opportunity to practice interpersonal skills and build emotional health, while gaining knowledge of sexual violence and terminology.

Schools complete fire drills, tornado drills, hurricane drills, and shooter drills so students will know what to do in case of an emergency or a threatening situation. If we likened our view of these drills to safe relationship behavior education, think of all the sexual violence incidents that could be avoided. Sexual violence is a public health problem facing people of ages today and if the Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015 gets passed, students in the Williamsburg, James City County, and York County area will be better off.

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