A bill introduced last week by Senators Kaine and McCaskill would require that health education in public secondary schools cover “safe relationship behavior” aimed at preventing dating violence and abuse, stalking, harassment, and sexual assault. Currently, there are no federal requirements to teach sexual assault prevention in schools.
The introduction of the Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015 follows a slew of disturbing reports from the news, documentaries, opinion pages, and the White House about sexual assault on college campuses.
The bill would amend the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act to require that “safe relationship behaviors” be added to other aspects of sex education. It authorizes grants for secondary schools to train staff and provide age-appropriate education on safe relationship behaviors and requires grantees to develop and implement evidence-based programs.
As researchers who have focused on adolescent development and the social determinants of health, we applaud any efforts aimed at early intervention and prevention of sexual abuse, especially those that begin in middle and high school. The Kaine-McCaskill bill is an important first step, but we think even more should be done to support adolescent health and development among American teenagers, particularly when it comes to intimate relationships and sexual and reproductive health.
According to sociologist Amy Schalet, two distinct approaches have dominated public policies and practices around American teenage sexuality: abstinence-until-marriage and sex-as-risk. Both frame adolescent sexuality in terms of risk. As Schalet explains, these predominant approaches “share a near-exclusive focus on acts of teenage sexual intercourse, conceptualize such acts as dangerous, and assume that emphasizing their risks is the way to help young people become sexually healthy.”
This narrow and simplistic framing has not been effective at preventing many of the poor adolescent health outcomes we are witnessing today—including unplanned pregnancies, teen birth rates (despite recent declines), and sexually transmitted infections—especially compared with teens in other wealthy democracies.
Focusing exclusively on abstinence and risk downplays and stigmatizes developmentally appropriate desires youth feel as they mature emotionally and sexually, failing to give teens the tools and context they need to negotiate safe and healthy relationships. The silence and stigma associated with risk-based strategies can also fuel already adversarial relationships between teens and their parents and lead to misguided courting behaviors between boys and girls. These approaches may also contribute to the high level of sexual coercion experienced by American youth today.
We all have strong views about healthy sexual development—and how best to promote and protect it—especially during adolescence. These views have profoundly personal, moral, and ethical dimensions. Families and communities—including faith-based and school communities—can and should be full participants in these conversations.
At the same time, research tells us that we need to broaden the scope of these conversations to include discussions about healthy sexuality among teens and young adults. Teaching kids how to prevent really bad outcomes like sexual assault and dating violence is certainly worthwhile, and the Teach Safe Relationships Act may be one step toward this. Equipping youth (and the families and communities that surround and protect them) with the knowledge and tools they need to support healthy sexual development and relationships—and their related positive outcomes—will get us even further.
By addressing teen sexuality more openly and responsibly, we can help achieve what many parents and youth leaders want for our children: ensuring they are not entering various stages of intimacy before they are physically, emotionally, and spiritually prepared.