The #MeToo movement has changed the way we think about and understand consent and assault and continues to illuminate how society has normalized illegal and abusive behaviors.
But when those behaviors happen within the context of a relationship, determining what is illegal or abusive can be more difficult, especially for young people in vulnerable situations. How can we help them define and identify abuse and feel empowered to make safe choices?
In Washington, DC’s Benning Terrace community, an innovative, community-based sex education program called PASS (Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety) may be changing teens’ beliefs about healthy relationships and acceptable behavior.
How PASS works
PASS program facilitators—all trusted leaders from the Benning neighborhood—lead weekly conversations about sexual and gender identity, contraception, condoms, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and pregnancy.
But it’s not the free condoms or scary pictures of STIs that lead to long-term healthy decisionmaking. PASS helps young people distinguish healthy relationships from unhealthy ones, advocate for themselves, and set goals through activities with titles like “Boundaries and Power” and “Define Who You Are.” And because Benning Terrace is a primarily Black neighborhood, racial pride and personal power are infused into each lesson.
Shifting how teens think about power and decisionmaking enables them to apply sexual health knowledge and practices to their personal relationships.
Identifying abusive behavior
Is it abuse if a sexual partner refuses to use a condom? At the beginning of the program, only 43 percent of girls participating in PASS thought so.
Teen girls in marginalized neighborhoods often don’t think they have the right to communicate about or control aspects of their sexual behavior and preferences, including contraceptive use. Even when girls would like to use condoms, they’re often coerced into having sex without one. Entrenched gender norms can make it difficult for girls to stand up for themselves, and they “self-silence” rather than face negative consequences.
This leaves girls in a no-win situation: insist on condom use and risk physical or emotional harm, or forgo condom use and risk pregnancy and STIs. Girls are often unable to leave an unhealthy relationship where unwanted, unprotected sex is more likely to happen.
PASS facilitator Dannielle Hamilton sees these dynamics play out in PASS sessions. “We’ve talked about [condoms] 1,000 times…. They [the girls] have an answer for everything,” she said.
Educating young people on the physical health risks of not using condoms is the easy part—it’s much harder to change girls’ beliefs that using condoms will “mess up the mood” or raise questions about commitment to a relationship. Facilitators said many are embarrassed to even have condoms in their possession.
Dismantling gender norms to help boys be better partners
Gender norms also harm teen boys. While girls are taught—intentionally and subliminally—to avoid speaking up, boys are taught to be tough and minimize their emotional vulnerability. Those ingrained beliefs can influence behavior, including condom use.
The boys’ PASS curriculum challenges dominant narratives about condom use, including the idea that using a condom is a red flag (e.g., only people who “sleep around” use condoms, using condoms means you don’t love the other person, it should be the man’s decision to use a condom) and that condom use is based on male preference (e.g., it “feels better” without, and because boys and men are naturally driven by their desires, it is normal for them to prioritize pleasure). Debunking these narratives is key to improving attitudes about condom use, which evidence shows improves the rate of use and consistency among teen boys.
Boys enrolled in PASS also learn how they can support their partners in obtaining birth control or family planning services rather than cause harm through coercive behaviors like taking off condoms during sex, hiding birth control pills, or threatening to end a relationship.
Did PASS make progress?
After completing PASS, 71 percent of girls believed refusing to use condoms was abusive.
Unfortunately, survey response rates among boys were not sufficient to draw conclusions about potential changes in boys’ beliefs, but program facilitators Stanley Hamilton and Curtis Monroe are encouraged. “Our boys [who’ve completed PASS] are really strong on consent, on making sure everyone is comfortable with what’s going on,” they reported.
This encouraging finding supports PASS’s founding principle: effective sexual health education goes beyond teaching anatomy and facts about STIs. It includes honest, comprehensive discussions that challenge norms and behaviors around sex and relationships, is led by trusted community members, and is based on current events and neighborhood context.
By grounding the PASS curriculum in personal power, facilitators connect the dots between relationship dynamics and contraceptive use in a way that is relatable and relevant to young people in the Benning community. Shifting these beliefs is key to helping teens build stronger, healthier relationships and improve their sexual health.