Sex-ed advocates say #MeToo is a good start — but our culture still has a lot to learn about consent
In the months since the New York Times first broke the story about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged decades-long pattern of sexually harassing women, an avalanche of accusations against other powerful men — Al Franken, Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey among them — have come to light. Optimists say the resulting #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up initiative aren’t mere flashes in the pan, and instead signal a larger cultural shift with regards to how we understand and respond to sexual misconduct.
But it’s clear, as some sex education advocates recently told Mic, that we still have a long road ahead of us before nuanced, intersectional understandings of consent and power are the norm. Not every allegation of sexual misconduct or harassment is as cut-and-dry to the greater public as the situation involving, say, Weinstein. Take, for example, the recent controversy involving Aziz Ansari and a story published by Babe, which, for many people, resonates as sexual misconduct but has also gotten pushback from others.
As all this has been playing out, those who advocate and work for better sex education have been watching what they’ve studied for so long finally come to the forefront. For them, this epidemic of sexual assault and the resulting disagreements it’s inspired aren’t a surprise at all. In fact, in interviews with Mic, sex ed advocates said both are simply byproducts of our failing sex education systems — a much more visible manifestation of the battle they’ve been fighting for years.
#MeToo is simply a reinforcement of what sex ed advocates already knew: Sex education in the U.S. is failing.
One such organization is the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a non-profit sexuality education advocacy group. In the wake of #MeToo, SIECUS started #TeachThem, a campaign for better sex education that “teaches young people about sexual assault, harassment and consent.”
“We were seeing a lot of questions around what’s next,” SIECUS CEO Chitra Panjabi told Mic in a recent phone interview. “#MeToo was raising a lot of awareness about the fact that sexual assault and sexual harassment and rape are so prevalent in our society ... but the way for us to think about this in a long-term culture shift, as well as [for] prevention, is to make sure that young people are learning about it as early as possible — to be talking about that they have a right to say no, that they have a right to protect their bodies, they have a right to say what happens to them.”
For Panjabi and everyone else at SIECUS, #MeToo is simply a reinforcement of what they already knew: that sex education in the U.S. is largely failing. As of 2014, fewer than half of all American high schools “teach all 16 topics recommended by the CDC as essential components of sex education,” according to Planned Parenthood. 2016 marked a record year for sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. For the 2016 fiscal year, Congress raised its annual funding for abstinence-only education programs — which a recent study showed were ineffective — to $85 million. The list goes on.
In an ideal world, Panjabi said, “young people are learning and talking about consent and violence prevention early on and understanding what rape culture is, and why it’s inappropriate for this behavior to occur ... so that when they become adults, they’re not going out into the world to figure this out. They would already have a really clear and deep understanding of what it means to respect someone’s person and someone’s body.”
Panjabi said there is hope on the horizon, though. According to a SIECUS report, “64 bills related to school-based sexuality education were introduced in 27 states and Puerto Rico.” Thirty of those bills included language related to educating students on consent and sexual violence prevention. Panjabi interpreted this as a reflection of the fact that consent “is an issue at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds” right now.
“The internet [offered] either Planned Parenthood or PornHub. ... It was kind of wild to me that we still didn’t have a lot of places to talk about sex online.” — Andrea Barrica, creator of O.School
“[Policymakers are] thinking about it and they’re recognizing the need of including this type of education for young people at the K-12 level,” she said.
But what about those who are already out of school and grew up with just an abstinence-based or lackluster education? What help is there for sexually active adults who still don’t understand the basic tenets of consent? Well, ask Andrea Barrica, who started the online sex-ed platform O.School for exactly those people — and herself.
“I grew up with a lot of sexual shame, a lot of repression around my sexuality, and that pretty much lasted throughout my adulthood,” Barrica said. “I was working in technology and when I was trying to figure out my sexuality, I found that the internet [offered] either Planned Parenthood or PornHub. ... It was kind of wild to me that we still didn’t have a lot of places to talk about sex online.”
Barrica credits her time in the San Francisco Bay Area at places like Good Vibrations — a sex-positive, female-centric sex shop — for helping to fill the gaps in her education. But she realized not everyone has access to a resource like that. So she started O.School, which hosts live-streamed lectures that allow viewers to ask instructors questions anonymously in real time.
Some of O.School’s lectures are geared toward people whose formal education severely let them down — like “The Pelvic Health Hour” and “Making a Habit: Gender Nonconformity.” But others are more pleasure-focused, with the goal of helping consenting adults have better sex — like “Seducing the Butt,” a video this reporter found quite challenging to watch at work. And yes, lots of O.School’s videos focus on consent, too.
“In terms of discussing consent as a practice, we have so many people teaching their own strategies on how consent looks, especially in the lens of trauma, especially in the lens of BDSM and kink, especially in the lens of gendered expectations,” Barrica said.
“I think one of the things that’s missing [from modern sex education] is an emotional intelligence and an empathy, skills that we help people gain,” she added. “And this looks like, ‘How do you flirt without being creepy?’ ... and that is a consent exercise. Thinking, how can I make my intentions clear and get laid or get someone’s number without an ignorance about the power you hold.”
Barrica said she didn’t start O.School directly in response to #MeToo, but the company’s November launch did coincide with the social media campaign’s rise, linking the two in some coincidental way.
“I wanted to create a place where people could talk about sex online without as much fear of harassment and abuse,” she said. “I think that there are places to talk, but you do so at a risk of having your identity in jeopardy or just being bullied and abused.”
In addition to hosting online seminars, O.School has been touring colleges in the U.S., talking with students about sex-ed and hosting workshops about various subjects, including consent and simple anatomy lessons. During our interview, she brought out one of her best educational props: a plushy, purple model of a clitoris, which she nicknamed “Clitasaurus” because of its long, Brachiosaurus-like neck.
“It doesn’t surprise me that we have people [like Weinstein] running around,” Barrica said. “Because so few people know basic things about their bodies, let alone consent.”