Teaching sex education in schools is a cringe worthy task. The schools are forced to confront painful realities that many parents would rather be in denial about, leading to uncomfortable confrontations, raw emotions, and sometimes schisms. But sometimes not…
Years ago in West Oakland, one of my schools faced down these issues, and found community in the honest conversations, salvaging what could have been a crisis and turning it into an opportunity.
With schools you never really know where fault lines will form. We were a middle school, and we had engaged a community provider to teach “health” or sex education, or whatever it’s called now. They had a fairly explicit program that talked very honestly about issues of sex and sexuality. And that hit a nerve with our families, largely older and exclusively African American.
There had been heated confrontations at the school, and the parents were protesting. We held a special board meeting to talk it through…And that’s exactly what happened. We listened, and we talked honestly. A staff member stepped forward and shared how she was abused and exploited as a child because she didn’t know what was right, coming from a religious family that did not talk about such things, we talked honestly about the actual sexual exploration that students were involved in, and some of the more troubling things we had seen, even in middle school, and families expressed their desire to be more involved in the program and to help develop some of the content.
Many tears were shed, truths were laid bare, and though we still didn’t all agree, we found a way to work together. So pushing these conversations further and including an affirmative consent as a specific topic is the right move. And I appreciate Governor Brown for signing the legislation that will bring these conversations and this standard to high schools (and I would argue it should be in middle school).
Sexual abuse and exploitation are an epidemic, not just on college campuses but also high schools, and I would say middle schools. And unfortunately these lessons (it’s equally cringe worthy to have these discussions with your own child) often are not taught at home and children are walking blindly into a mine field, guided by an exploitative popular culture, with bad actors waiting for them.
So now that we have the standard, we need to practically push it out to students. And while this will markedly increase the number of cringe worthy conversations, it should also decrease the much more damaging and painful effects of sexual abuse and exploitation, and if experience is a guide, these challenging issues need not divide us but they can bring us together to reach shared understandings, build community, and support and empower students to develop, absent the crippling experiences that too many before them have born.