State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman abruptly resigned this month after disturbing allegations of abuse against his intimate partners, joining a lengthy and growing list of mighty men toppled by gender violence accusations.
The high-profile nature of these scandals has helped shed light on the staggering frequency of sexual violence and harassment. In fact, the group at highest risk of experiencing rape or dating violence is young women ages 16 to 24.
Mayor de Blasio has moved to fight harassment by strengthening public education and reporting procedures. But there is a glaring gap in his, and our, approach: What can we do to actually prevent gender violence and harassment in the first place? The answer lies in the classroom.
The pervasiveness of gender violence is a consequence of our failure to educate young people about sexuality, consent and healthy relationship behaviors. New York City, in particular, is egregiously deficient.
Our city’s sex education requirements are meager, lagging far behind the mandates of other cities like Chicago and Boston that require comprehensive sex education from kindergarten to 12th grade.
In New York, state law only requires students receive one semester of health education in middle school and another in high school. The city Education Department requires each of these semesters include sex education, but provides no clear expectation as to its duration or content. This is the extent of our city’s sex education requirement. It is wholly insufficient.
Yet the Education Department has failed to enforce even these minimal provisions. According to its own data, 43% of eighth-graders who graduated in 2016 did not receive a single semester of health education during middle school, and only 7.6% of the educators currently teaching health have attended any sex ed training in the past two years.
In a recent survey by the Connect to Protect coalition, about a third of students from Bronx high schools reported they had never received sex education or were “unsure if they have.”
Though a majority of New York City parents support age-appropriate lessons on consent and healthy relationships in schools, few schools here offer any education on these subjects. When they do, it is often thanks to an especially passionate teacher or guidance counselor, or because the school finds the funding to hire an outside anti-violence education program like those offered by Day One or Girls Inc.
Of course, appropriate topics vary with student age. Lessons for a kindergartner might explore hugging, being kind to others or listening when your friends say “no.” Lessons for a 12th-grader might cover how alcohol use can impede healthy sexual communication, or the consequences of sharing naked photographs of someone online. A citywide mandate requiring age-appropriate, K-12, comprehensive sex education would ensure that all students get the benefit of these lessons.
Children begin to learn about bodies, boundaries, consent and how to explore and communicate their sexual desires at a very young age. Without comprehensive sex education, they are often left to absorb their information from damaging representations in the media, ill-informed peers or teachers who are inadequately prepared to teach these topics.
With early and ongoing interventions, young people can learn how to responsibly navigate their own sexuality and respect others’. They can learn the importance of empathy, and skills like how to read body language, understand power dynamics and navigate the evolving role of social media in personal relationships.
Research shows that young people who receive this kind of education are more likely to identify and report unacceptable behavior. They are also less likely to engage in harmful behavior themselves.
New city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced this week that the Education Department will dedicate $24 million to help schools achieve compliance with existing health education mandates by 2022. While this is a step in the right direction, health education is not synonymous with sex education, and it is unclear whether crucial topics like consent or contraceptives will be included.
New York has neglected to provide generations of students with the sex education they are legally entitled to — let alone the level of education necessary to help young people learn to make healthy, responsible choices and curb epidemic rates of gender violence.
De Blasio and Carranza will decide whether New York will continue to fail, or become a national leader in eradicating gender violence. If they fail this test, the next generation of monstrous men — and their trespasses — will be theirs to bear.