OPED: Why kids need ‘comprehensive’ sex ed

Laura Prichett
The Baltimore Sun
Brett Kavanaugh, associate justice of the Supreme Court, pauses during a ceremonial swearing-in event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

The #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh hearings have led a lot of parents and educators to evaluate the best ways to teach our children about issues such as consent, sexual aggression and bullying.

I am a parent of two teenage boys and one tween girl, so these worries keep me up at night. I am, at least, comforted knowing that my children’s school (Friends School of Baltimore) has been ahead of the curve in implementing a values-based sex-ed curriculum to teach kids of all ages how to develop and maintain healthy relationships.

About three years ago, some of its high school students launched a rape culture awareness campaign as part of a class project and brought their ideas and concerns to the administration.

To their credit, the administrators listened and immediately formed a task force — composed of faculty, parents and Upper Schoolers — to address the issue and, more broadly, to improve our school’s educational efforts around relationships and sexuality. The long-term goal: to implement a pre-K through 12 comprehensive human sexuality and healthy relationships curriculum.

Meanwhile, the students themselves made presentations to the student body on topics such as toxic masculinity and the cultural expectation that accepting a prom invitation means you are willing to have sex with your date. They also papered the walls with posters debunking stereotypes like “man up” and “act like a lady,” and created a social media campaign, #studentsagainstrapeculture, that many students at other schools followed.

Younger students are still taught about boundaries, communication and the importance of respecting their friends, while older students are taught about recognizing unhealthy power dynamics in relationships and creating a culture in which students are free to express themselves and indeed to be themselves. Given that these are the underlying lessons behind the curriculum, it is hard for anyone to argue that “comprehensive sexuality education” is a bad thing, since at its heart it is about learning how to become a better person, partner and friend.

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Students of all ages learn the biology of the reproductive system in an age-appropriate way, and older teens learn about pregnancy and STD prevention. But now sexuality is discussed within the framework of a student’s own value system and that of their family. Teens are taught to use their values and to really think through choices they make day-to-day at school, on the sports field, at a party and especially when no one is looking. Sexual assault is discussed as being more about power-based personal violence than about sex. The result has been the creation of a culture of open communication about issues that were previously in the shadows.

Even in the program’s early stages it’s been nothing short of transformational for the student leaders who started the schoolwide conversation. One 2017 graduate shared that upon arriving at his college for freshman year, he sought out the school’s Title IX office and began volunteering to spread awareness about sexual assault on campus. (He recently declared a psychology major with the intent to work with rape survivors.)

I like to think that, thanks to the way they were raised and the holistic education they are receiving, my boys will become the respectful, moral men my husband and I want them to be. My hope is that they will be good partners and someday great husbands and that they would stand up to any men they see behaving badly. I hope my daughter will refuse to accept anything less than complete respect from the boys and men in her life, and that they will all be champions for all girls, women and LGBTQ people whose voices are being silenced. I hope that they have a lifetime of healthy sexual relationships. Though that may be an awkward thing to think about, isn’t that ultimately a good thing to work toward?

I feel comforted in this difficult time knowing that my kids are not only learning math, science, history, etc. at school but also getting the tools they need to become successful adults in all other aspects of their lives. I hope other schools will work toward a similar model so we can begin a larger cultural shift toward a safer, more respectful country, free from sexual aggression, because only then will we truly have freedom.

— Laura Prichett is a Baltimore parent and public health researcher. She wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.