“You are the experts in your own lives:” Sex Ed as Violence Prevention
By Leslie Massicotte, Teens Climb High Coordinator
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. We don’t often realize it, but a lot of teens experience dating violence--and sexuality education can help.
I decided to chat with my boss, Valerie Sauer, about how she thinks sexuality education relates to violence prevention.
Leslie: Hey Valerie! To get started, I’d love for you to introduce yourself and tell us what youth should know about the Compass Center!
Valerie: Hey everyone! My name is Valerie, and I’m in charge of Compass Center’s education programs. You might know of Compass Center as the agency that works with domestic violence clients in Orange County but we also offer lots of opportunities to youth.
One way we actively reach out to youth is by teaching sexuality education in schools. We lead two programs: a program called Start Strong that we teach in middle schools and a program called Teens Climb High that we teach in high schools. In these programs, we’re not there to tell students and youth how to think about things. We’re there to provide information and encourage them to dig deeper and find the relevance for themselves. The more information you have, the more ability you have to make informed decisions about your life and health.
In Start Strong, we go over how domestic violence impacts youth. I share the statistic that 1 in 3 teens experience interpersonal violence and I ask students, how does this impact you? Why do you think this number is so high? We can then talk about abuse and access to power, about who in the world has traditionally held power and how students think this accounts for the discrepancy between men and women’s experiences with violence.
Leslie: In Teens Climb High, we add the component of negotiation and communication skills, which are vital for safe, healthy relationships. I want young people to feel confident in their ability to communicate effectively with their romantic or sexual partners and advocate for their own needs and wants. Valuing what people say and talking openly about concerns are starting points for preventing dating violence.
Valerie: Absolutely. As far as youth being involved with the Compass Center more generally, youth have organized donation drives, asked us to come speak at their school clubs, and raised money for us by launching crowdfunding campaigns for their birthdays, which is really cool to see.
I think it’s also important to know that anybody--yes, including youth--can engage with Compass Center’s services. Anybody can call Compass Center anytime at our 24/7 hotline for support with domestic violence. You are not obligated to tell us your age or real name. We keep everything our clients share confidential unless we learn that a minor, elder, or person with a disability is in danger.
We also offer self-sufficiency workshops that youth are welcome to join! It’s never too early to learn about debit cards, writing a strong resume, job interviewing skills, and building credit. In the past, we’ve even offered FAFSA workshops to support young people navigating the federal financial aid process for college.
Leslie: So many ways for youth to be involved! Now I’d like to talk about violence prevention. What does that mean and why is it important?
Valerie: Violence prevention is about interrupting cultural norms. It’s about breaking the silence around taboo subjects like domestic violence and sex and normalizing having conversations about dating, sex, consent, pleasure, and boundaries. The more that we normalize these conversations, the more it challenges a culture that is extremely gendered in terms of stereotypes and expectations.
Leslie: So true. Like people think it’s manly to always initiate sex or to relentlessly pursue a girl, even if she doesn’t want it. And women and girls learn that they have to pleasure their man, during sex and during life, so I can see how that sets us up to have problems in our relationships. They’re not based in equity.
Valerie: Right. And these inequitable stereotypes and expectations perpetuate rape culture.
Leslie: I think the younger generations are used to tossing around the phrase “rape culture” to describe the stereotypes and expectations our society has about gender and sexuality that lead to an inevitable abundance of sexual assault and rape. But older generations seem to struggle with that concept. I once had a parent share that he didn’t believe in rape culture and that he didn’t think that he and his sons were part of it at all because they’d been homeschooled. And I just thought, even if you raise your kids with values of love, respect, and communication, we are all still part of this culture. We still raise boys to play violent games with hard plastic toy guns and sticks and teach them (often by example) that men and boys don’t show emotions. We give girls soft dolls and teach them to care about emotions and to wait for their Prince Charming. This happens through our behaviors, our media, our values, and is implicitly taught in so many ways.
Valerie: Exactly. If we break it down, rape culture is as subtle as having a gender reveal party, painting your kid’s room boy, buying your baby with xx chromosomes princess stuff, or encouraging boys and men to be strong and boisterous while girls should be quiet and forgiving. Really, gender expectations are a huge part of rape culture. So even though that phrase can be charged or scary, saying that it doesn’t exist or that you’re not a part of it is contributing to the silence around the issue of dating violence.
Leslie: That’s why I love working with youth. In my experience, youth see this connection easily and they’re ready to change it and do something different. They already know so much more about gender and consent than I did growing up! And by providing comprehensive sexuality education, we can strengthen youths’ ability to intervene early in situations of dating violence, to make conversations about what’s happening in relationships less intimidating, and to make sexual assault and dating violence less common.
Valerie: We really have to break down what we mean by sexuality education--it’s not just putting condoms on bananas. Sexuality education can be a form of liberation, to free us from rape culture. If we are continuously honest with young people when it’s developmentally appropriate--and if we see sexuality education as a lifelong effort--then we can help better prepare youth to make decisions that are informed and feel safe to them.
Leslie: And this open flow of information about consent, communication, boundaries, and relationships does wonders for breaking down rape culture. Based on all of this, what role do you think youth have specifically in violence prevention?
Valerie: They can check one another. They can spread this information and share it with their peers. Peers listen to each other--get it on Snapchat, get it on Instagram. Talk about consent and what being a good boyfriend looks like and how to stop dating violence. Speak up--and hold adults accountable, too! You have power and a voice. You are the experts of your own lives, not us.