As we catch our collective breath after witnessing the nightmare that was the Kavanaugh hearings, it’s become clear that while the #metoo movement has found solid ground on which to grow, we’re up against a problem that is undeniably systemic.
Brett Kavanaugh, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, our President—if nothing else, we’ve learned that these guys aren’t exactly few and far between; it just so happens that these men are among the more powerful ones whose allegations of sexual misconduct have been forced into the spotlight because of their celebrity status. But given the outpouring of survivors coming forward with their own stories after each new allegation, all echoing and therefore validating the familiarity of these experiences, there is no denying that sexual misconduct is a deeply rooted problem with far reaching and long lasting effects.
We’re just beginning to scratch the surface in considering how we can rectify these horrific, often life-altering wrongs, and it will be a long time before we can reflect that in our justice system. That said, while we might not have the answers to fix what happened in the past, this moment in the #metoo movement can surely provide the grounds for cultivating change now and in the future. In fact, many organizations with missions to bring an end to abuse and rape culture have already been doing this important, forward-thinking work, aiming to reach young people in an effort to promote healthy relationships and subsequently prevent abusive ones.
The best way to effectively eradicate a problem as old as history itself? Education, hands down.
In this case, it’s sex education that makes the difference. And I’m not talking about the abstinence-only, have-sex-when-you’re-married kind of sex ed. I’m talking about the real, science-based, this-is-not-taboo sex ed. And it’s nothing new; it’s certainly a hot topic right now, but experts have been saying for years that factual sex education can reduce the likelihood of violence and abuse in relationships.
And yes, the younger children are when they start learning about the concepts covered in sex ed, the better. Some parents get up in arms about the prospect of their eight-year-old learning about condoms, but here’s the thing: when they’re that young, they’re not learning directly about sex, but rather they’re learning about the basics of consent, respecting others’ space, listening when someone says “no” or “stop”—all things that are notably absent in incidences of sexual misconduct and dating abuse.
It’s this exact education that was lacking in the public schools I attended growing up. And it’s this exact education that, had I been exposed to it, would have made it clear that what happened to me was not okay.
Had I been introduced to the concept of consent, or even the notion that sex and relationships in general should not be violent or forced, it wouldn’t have taken me ten years to understand that a boy raped me when I was 14 years old, during the summer before my freshman year of high school.
You might wonder how I, a 14-year-old girl, was unaware that what happened to me was in fact rape. For starters, it’s all very much a blur; it happened quickly, though the memory of it makes my time in that dark bathroom, where I was left mostly naked on the floor, feel like a year. I was in physical pain and inevitably forced myself to throw up. I will spare you the other details.
Second, and most topically, this was how I lost my virginity, the first time I had ever been involved in any kind of sexual interaction. (I had kissed a boy before. That was it.) When I managed to get myself off the floor and turn on the light, I looked in the mirror, felt the deepest pang of self-loathing, and almost immediately justified the incident as something I must have seemingly wanted. I told myself that I probably asked for this just by showing up, but I also distinctly remember thinking, “this must be what an intimate relationship looks like, this must be what sex is.”
It didn’t feel good. I was terrorized, frozen in fear, unable to say the words “no” or “stop.” As I mentioned, I was in pain. But yet, somehow, I managed to convince myself that this must be what sex is all about—which wasn’t hard for me to do, since I had no experiences with which to compare it.
Again, I was 14. A child.
I showed up to my friend’s house that day because she had told me that her boyfriend’s friend thought I was cute and wanted to meet me. I was so excited, and I wondered if maybe he would be my first “real” boyfriend. I asked my parents if I could go to her house, and they said sure; I didn’t tell them that her parents wouldn’t be there because I didn’t know that would be the case. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter; it wouldn’t have meant that I deserved what happened.
I didn’t know that my showing up would be enough to get me raped, but evidently it was. And like so many survivors do, I justified what happened to me by deciding that it was entirely my fault. Whatever guilt or shame that boy should have felt for doing what he did, he left it on the bathroom floor, right where he left me. I picked it up and carried it like it was my own for over a decade.
People question survivors all the time about why they didn’t come forward sooner, why they didn’t report what happened, why they didn’t tell someone who could have helped. And for every survivor, that answer is different. For many, it’s the fear of not being believed, which we see play out time and time again; for others, it’s the shame they absorbed from having “brought this on themselves,” which, again, we see all too frequently, and it’s a big part of what kept me from speaking up sooner.
But the single greatest factor that prevented me from saying anything was that I had no idea that what happened to me was actually rape. I could not understand that using violent, physical force was not okay, because I’d never had sex before—and I most certainly had never been exposed to what sex was “supposed” to be, i.e., safe and consensual.
How would I have known? There was nowhere I could confidentially look for this information. I could use a family computer, monitored by my parents, but I didn’t have a smartphone, so the level of accessibility was certainly not what it is now. Even still, I wouldn’t have even known to look for it; I wasn’t trying to have sex.
Ultimately, I couldn’t have known because no one taught me. It’s as simple as that.
But someone could have. And now, it’s becoming a more popular notion that we should teach children about the characteristics of healthy relationships. We should teach them about good communication skills, long before they’re sexually active. We should do whatever we can to ensure that stories like mine don’t happen anymore.
We have the ability to do that, to pave the way for a future that’s free from sexual violence and abuse. There are organizations (like Day One) that have been doing this work for years, and their work makes a difference in the lives of the youth they serve.
It would have made a difference in mine, too. It might not have changed what happened to me, but it could have saved me the decade I spent unknowingly suffering from PTSD, very much alone in my struggle, not understanding why I couldn’t just “snap out of it.” I could have told someone what happened sooner. I could have begun healing sooner. I could have gotten my life back sooner.
I’m grateful to be able to say I’ve done that now, as an adult; but still, that’s over ten years of my life—consumed with depression, eating disorders, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, and strained relationships—I’ll never get back.
That’s why this work of providing real sex education needs to be implemented in all schools, for all ages: It’s an opportunity to ensure that our children are informed, aware, and capable of creating healthy relationships—because clearly, what they observe while coming of age through the lens of rape culture doesn’t turn out well.
It’s how men like Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump walk away unscathed from credible allegations of sexual assault, somehow rising above it all to occupy the most prestigious offices in our country; we, as a culture, see their alleged behavior as normal. We see violence as a right of passage for boys, a sign of good old fashioned masculine strength for men.
But no matter the specifics of gender identity (anyone of any gender and any sexual orientation can commit assault), we can no longer afford to enable such a perpetrator-victim dynamic. We can address that and so much more through sex education.
This cultural overhaul is long overdue, and it’s on all of us to demand it nationwide. Real, inclusive, developmentally-appropriate sex education is the way to do it, and I hope the rest of us pay attention to what organizations like Day One are doing and follow suit. Providing educational opportunities for all ages, in all schools, far and wide, is the key to raising these next generations with what hopefully becomes a violence-free understanding of relationships and sexuality.
Stories like mine don’t need to keep happening; we have the power to change that. Given the intensity of this moment in the #metoo movement, I see no better time than now for us to make it happen.