The Key to Curbing Campus Sexual Assault Lies in High School Health Class


Sarah C., a senior at a small public high school in New Jersey, remembers her freshman year health class for all the wrong reasons.

"In ninth grade, my health teacher wouldn't say 'vagina,'" said Sarah, who spoke on condition of partial anonymity because she is still a minor. 

Her teacher, an older man, was labeling the female reproductive system. "He was drawing a diagram, saying all of the terms out loud, then he got to the vagina and couldn't say anything," she said.

In 11th grade, another health teacher lectured Sarah's class about a gang rape that occurred at Vanderbilt University in 2013, offering it as a cautionary tale for female students. "He basically told us, 'You won't get gang raped if you don't drink,'" Sarah said.

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Outraged, Sarah and a handful of other female students complained to the administration about the teacher's behavior and lack of information about sexual assault. Administrators said they wanted to make sure the girls were "comfortable" returning to their health class, but took no action against the teacher. They assured the students they would learn about consent and sexual assault in their senior year health class.

"For three years you learn that nothing in these classes is going to help you — it's all scare tactics," Sarah said. "Then you get into the final health class where they're teaching you some really important things you need to understand to go to college, or work or whatever, but no one takes it seriously."  

According to a report in March from the Guttmacher Institute, an advocacy group that focuses on reproductive health, 26 states still require high school health courses to stress abstinence as the best way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and avoid becoming the victim of sexual violence. But in practice, such programs tend to emphasize abstinence exclusively and fail to equip students with information about consent. Lack of information has consequences: States with abstinence-only education have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. 

More troubling, when high school students move on to college, abstinence-only education can leave them woefully unprepared to navigating new friends, new relationships and new expectations when it comes to dating and sex. One in 4 women will experience unwanted sexual contact during their college experience, and 98% of rapists will walk free. 

The legislation: In October, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 329, mandating comprehensive sex education for students in grades 7 through 12. The legislation — the first to establish a legal definition for consent aimed at educational institutions — also revised the state's anti-rape mantra from "no means no" to "yes means yes," signaling that the absence of a "no" is not enough to green light a sexual encounter; to establish full consent, all parties involved must consent actively.

The legislation made California the first state to require high schools to teach affirmative consent in the nation, serving as a model for states like Michigan and New York, whose legislatures later followed suit in upholding "yes means yes" as a new standard.

"Affirmative consent legislation isn't just about the more than 20% of young women and girls who will have to live as assault survivors," wrote California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Hannah-Beth Jacksonthe authors of the "yes means yes" bill, in the Washington Post"It's about the 100% of women who have to live every day, never quite certain of their physical safety. Research shows that with affirmative consent education, we can create a culture of respect."

Kris Bailey/San Francisco Urban School

Despite colleges' best efforts to prevent campus sexual assault by trotting out crash courses on consent during freshman orientation, by then the lack of comprehensive sex education has already done its damage.

Shafia Zaloom has been encouraging high school students to talk about sexual violence for more than two decades. A health teacher at the Urban School of San Francisco, she said men who commit sexual assault in college do so disproportionately during their first six weeks on campus, a time college administrators and media outlets have come to refer to as the "red zone."

With high-profile sexual assault cases at universities like Yale and Columbia, colleges have begun wake up to the epidemic of sexual violence on their campuses. Scrambling for solutions, schools across the country have expanded their Title IX resources and applied for millions of dollars in funding to help address student complaints over the way cases of sexual misconduct are handled, as well as bringing bystander intervention programs to campuses. 

"If you want to prevent sexual assault you have to get in front of it and that starts with talking about it in high school," Zaloom said. 

Zaloom's classes don't just teach students the basics about sex ed — reproductive anatomy, menstruation, STIs — but address the questions and experiences teens face on a day-to-day basis. Rather than lecture, she encourages students to speak frankly about sexual identity, hook-up culture and healthy relationships. Zaloom asks students to imagine hypothetical situations that help them think through issues of sexual violence, dedicating targeted lessons to bystander intervention and consent. She said she starts out conversations on consent with a scenario: "If a kid takes your bike without asking, they're stealing it," Zaloom said. "But, if they have your consent, they're borrowing it."

Kris Bailey/San Francisco Urban School

Christopher Pepper, a health teacher at the San Francisco Unified School District, had been working on a new health curriculum for four years when Brown passed California's landmark legislation. Alongside a coalition of teachers, public-health workers and employees from community-based organizations, Pepper has helped standardize the city's sex education with a 24-part curriculum called "Be Real. Be Ready."

"Just like other subjects in school, health education should begin early and continue throughout the educational life of a student," Pepper said. "We do that with math and reading and social studies, and I think that should be the case with health as well."

Pepper said sex ed opponents often assume teens are too immature to handle information about sex. But he has found the opposite to be true.

"Teens are eager for information about what's going on with their bodies and want a safe space to discuss healthy relationships and the challenges and decisions they might have to contend with during high school," Pepper said.

"Teens are eager for information about what's going on with their bodies and want a safe space to discuss healthy relationships."

Pepper's curriculum includes exercises that require students to practice communicating their sexual limits. In one lesson, he asks students to write down what each character would say in a hypothetical sexual encounter to tell their partner what they're comfortable with. What should Leina say to Eleazer if she wants to have penetrative sex but only if they use condoms? What should Bryant say to Chris if he doesn't want to do more than hug and kiss until they graduate high school?

Pepper then discuss how drinking and drugs could affect these decisions and who students can go to if they need help setting boundaries.

"Having those conversations in a classroom setting in a frank and direct way helps lay the foundation," Pepper said. "If the baseline understanding is that consent is vital, and you talk about things that can interfere with consent like drugs and alcohol, you're preventing future sexual assaults and unwanted sexual encounters."

Paul Vernon/AP

Those who cringe at the memory of having "the talk" with their parents might wonder what it's like to have these discussions with your teacher in front of all of your peers. 

Lydia Sears, a sophomore in Zaloom's class, said that while she feels comfortable going to her parents with questions about sex, she prefers bringing them to class. 

"Asking questions and being honest in class is easier for a lot of students, including myself, because there stands a sense of confidentiality within classroom discussions that may not exist in direct discussion with parents," she said.

Brian Elliott, a parent at the same school, said that while he's had conversations about sex and sexual assault with his son, sometimes parents aren't the most equipped to have them. Eliot's experience with sex ed three decades ago didn't include topics like consent.

"These are young adults who are going out in the world and you want them to be as prepared as possible," Elliott said. "This is not about values — this is about how you handle social pressures, dangerous situations and those things happen to everybody at some point."

Read more: These Dads Giving Honest Sex Advice to Their Kids Are Changing the Sex Ed Game

Sears said Zaloom has always encouraged students to ask whatever they want — no holds barred. "Of course there have been funny or awkward moments," Sears said. "Talking about sex is an inevitable call for some giggles."

When students in Pepper's classroom want to laugh, they laugh, he said.

"It can be a funny, unusual thing to be talking about penises and vulvas and sexual activity with students in schools, so sometimes we laugh and that's totally fine," he said. "I think providing some space for laughter but also making it clear that these are serious topics is important."

Kris Bailey/San Francisco Urban School

Now students are demanding change too. At Laurel, an all-girls private school in Shaker Heights, a small suburb in Ohio, a group of students expected more of their teachers — after all, part of the school's mission is to "inspire each girl to fulfill her promise and to better the world." When health classes failed to touch on consent, Laurel's feminist society started having these conversations themselves — and spurred concrete curricular change.

Alumna Lissa Blitz, a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, said when she joined the feminist society her first year at Laurel, the group's upperclassmen were railing against the school's sex ed. When the senior graduated and it was her class's turn to lead the organization, Blitz said they remained devoted to holding discussions about sexual assault at weekly general body meetings.

"Since Laurel school prides itself on such feminist values and comprehensive, inclusive sex ed is very directly intertwined with those, it's very contradictory that our sex ed is lacking especially with regards to sexual assault and consent," Blitz said.

She said as the feminist society continued to address these concerns, more and more students joined the group to talk about what Blitz called "the missing pieces of sex ed" at the school. Since she's graduated, Blitz said Laurel has integrated lessons on consent once largely relegated to their fem society meeting to the ninth and 10th grade curricula. 

But across the country, students like Sarah are still forced to reckon with these difficult topics on their own. To fill in blanks in her education, Sarah said and her female friends have had to take it upon themselves to educate themselves. Talking to friends and family as well as reading articles people share on Facebook and Tumblr have helped her make up for what teachers won't teach. 

More worrisome though, said Sarah, is what will happen when she goes away to college where most of her peers have also been denied comprehensive sex education.

"For girls my age now, this is something you think about when you apply to college," said Sarah, who is heading to a small New York liberal arts college in the fall. "You hear enough of these stories about campus sexual assault and you know when you go to college someone will be assaulted and that person could be you or someone you know.

"Throughout the whole experience of being educated in a public school, the focus has really been weighted toward, 'as a woman, how do you prevent it from happening to you?' and much less, 'as a man, how do you not sexually assault someone?' If you talk about consent earlier — if you plant the seed — it makes a huge difference."