Written by Taylor Rapalyea, former marketing and communications coordinator at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. Originally published on the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center website.
When I think back to my sex ed class at a North Shore high school, I think of the classroom crowded with juniors and seniors. I think of our sex ed teacher, who called cell phones “little machines.” I remember a substitute teacher drawing genitals in white chalk on the board.
I used to think this memory was funny: that the one thing I remember from sex ed is a chalk drawing of genitals. Then I mentioned it to a high school friend, and they told me that was all they remembered too. Then I asked another friend from a different school district. He remembered a chalk drawing of genitals and nothing else.
We took a sex ed class in Massachusetts, and all we got was this chalk drawing.
The Healthy Youth Act is a bill meant to fill in the many blanks of Massachusetts sex education for public schools that choose to teach sex ed. It would make sure sex ed classes include conversations about consent, healthy relationships, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and/or questioning (LGBTQ) youth health.
The lasting consequences of low-quality sex ed go beyond a funny story. The stakes are higher than that. We know bad sex ed can lead to STIs and unintended pregnancies, but by ignoring consent, it can also increase the likelihood of sexual violence. It leaves out LGBTQ youth, despite the fact that LGBTQ-inclusive classes have led to lower rates of bullying.
"The lasting consequences of low-quality sex ed go beyond a funny story. The stakes are higher than that."
Casey Corcoran, BARCC’s youth sexual violence prevention education director, has spent years talking to young people about healthy relationships. People are uncomfortable talking about sex, he said, so they ignore the need for sex education.
"I do this for a living and talking about sex can be uncomfortable for me too, but it's too important,” Casey said. “If you're uncomfortable, talk to other sex educators, look for resources. It matters too much to ignore."
And when you don’t give young people the opportunity to ask questions and have conversations about sex—and take them seriously—they look for answers somewhere else. That’s not going well for Massachusetts teens. In a 2015 survey, only 52% of high schoolers reported being taught how to use condoms in school.
"We know that young people have lots of questions about relationships and sex, and they're going to get that information from somewhere,” said Casey. “Are we going to give them that information, or are we going to let them find it through friends or on the internet?"
In 2009, Casey helped create a tool to score songs on how the lyrics portray relationships. In the guide, unhealthy relationship ingredients in a song include disrespect and manipulation, while healthy ingredients include support and trust. One decade after the guide was released, Casey said he still hears from former students who still think about the guide when they hear a song that glorifies abusive relationships.
Teaching young people about consent and healthy relationships helps prevent sexual assault, abuse, and harassment. The right class can help shape the way students think about healthy relationships. The wrong class is a punchline at best.