Does outdated sex education actually perpetuate rape culture?

There’s been a lot of discussion of rape culture and how it permeates so much of our every day lives. You just have to look at the tweets under the hashtag #everydaysexism, rape jokes, or the acceptance of R.Kelly back into the fold despite numerous accusations of rape to see it. Often the conversation about the prevalence of rape culture today leads back to what can be done to reverse it, and the answer seems blindingly obvious – education.

Specifically, how about teaching men not to rape, rather than women to safeguard against it? Yeah, let’s try that.

But is learning about anti-rape culture happening within sex education aka the place most teens begin to talk about relationships? Short answer: no.

I’ll admit, personally, my own sex education was a very Catholic one. In my first encounter with sex ed at an all-girl Catholic secondary school, each of my classmates and I received a gold broach of either hands or feet to the scale of 12-week-old foetuses. But the trouble is, even when you head outside of the diocese, sex education isn’t that much better.

Teenagers are taught the biology of sex, the risks associated with STIs and unwanted pregnancies, and the importance of contraception. (In my case, because ‘explicit sexual information’ is a big no-no, we weren’t allowed to touch contraceptives ourselves. Our school nurse demonstrated at the front of the class how to put a condom on a plastic penis ONE TIME – the penis came with a novelty banana cover.) They also touch on the relationships and consent, but these are more sub-headings to overall sex education when perhaps they should the umbrella under which everything else sits.

It’s troubling because while knowing what goes where and how to stop accidental babies is important information, how we act in relationships is what will come to define us and our lives as we grow up. And the fact of the matter is, the balance between men and women in relationships hasn’t really changed in decades.

A study for the Foundation of the Prevention of Violence Against Women and Children has shown that attitudes to relationships amongst young males and females are virtually the same as they’ve always been. Girls are viewed as the “gatekeepers”, the ones in control of how far things will go and at what pace, while boys are always ready sexually, and are the ones who put pressure on taking the extra step. Add to this the emotions and the “public relations story” each of them will endure – she’s a slut, he’s a stud – and we’ve suddenly stumbled into rape culture via slut-shaming and sexism.

Hang on a sec, how did that happen?

Well, the study has also revealed something particularly unsettling. Even though among young people there may be some talk around the topic, “What is rarely mentioned in these discussions about healthy and unhealthy relationships is equality: love, caring/protection, and trust… but not equality. And without the notion of equality in a healthy relationship, then love is about acceptance, caring/protection is confused with controlling, and trust becomes ownership (through the focus of cheating).”

Well, that escalated quickly. Isn’t it funny how by simply not viewing your partner as equal it can completely transform good intentions into the contrary? From here it’s not difficult to make the connection that when casually strolling down this path of inequality a ‘good guy’ can commit sexual violence.

Tom Meagher, the husband of Jill Meagher, wrote about this in his post on the White Ribbon blog (“the world’s largest men’s organisation dedicated to combating harmful social norms that perpetuate men’s violence against women”) where he addressed the rapist “monster myth”, with “the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.”

He went on to say:

“I wonder at what stage we will stop being shocked by how normal a rapist seemed. Many years ago, two female friends confided in me about past abuses that happened in their lives, both of which had been perpetrated by ‘normal guys’. As I attempted to console them, I mentally comforted myself by reducing it to some, as yet undetected mental illnesses in these men. The cognitive shift is easy to do when we are not knowingly surrounded by men who commit these crimes, but then we rarely need to fear such an attack.

The idea of the lurking monster is no doubt a useful myth, one we can use to defuse any fear of the women we love being hurt, without the need to examine ourselves or our male-dominated society. It is also an excuse to implement a set of rules on women on ‘how not to get raped’, which is a strange cocktail of naiveté and cynicism. It is naïve because it views rapists as a monolithic group of thigh-rubbing predators with a checklist rather than the bloke you just passed in the office, pub or gym, cynical because these rules allow us to classify victims. If the victim was wearing x or drinking y well then of course the monster is going to attack – didn’t she read the rules?”

By not talking about all this in the classroom, we’re not making the rape jokes and the lewd comments unacceptable when it’s still being learned and normalised among groups of teenage boys and girls. It means that the behaviour becomes entrenched, and is harder to break down the line. Tom Meagher says, “In our current narrow framework of masculinity, self-examination is almost universally discouraged,” but if we could change that behaviour from when it is just starting to bloom, we may be in with a chance.

What’s more, not talking about and failing to teach kids about equal and healthy relationships, particularly sexually, leads people to seek it out elsewhere. According to the study I mentioned earlier, that’s usually via “porn and porn-inspired pop culture”, because that’s the only place they’re seeing these relationships being acted out.

Hate to break it to ya kids, but True Blood, aside from being part of the fantasy genre, kind of misrepresents the reality of relationships. Who knew?

But it’s not porn’s or True Blood’s fault or its responsibility to teach this. They’re both made for entertainment, not education.

When I asked porn star James Deen about this in an interview last year, he made a good point:

“Rather than focus on the effect of [what watching porn] may be, it’s more productive to focus on the issue that people are learning about sex and sexuality from an entertainment source. You wouldn’t learn to drive from watching Taledega Nights or The Bourne Identity – that’s not where you should get that sort of education. There’d be people driving down stairwells and trying to jump over things.”

Before someone jumps on condoning porn in an article about feminism – it’s a whole other issue to break down elsewhere – the question here is: why are young people, particularly boys, using porn as their guide in sexual interactions and relationships? Well, because as James Deen suggests appropriate places to learn about real sexual relationships aren’t available.

Hmm, if only we had a place where we could get all these kids in one room to talk about this stuff.

Sex education today perpetuates rape culture by failing to address or even really acknowledge the intrinsic issues of sexual relationships. Allowing old attitudes of women as gatekeepers and men as pushers, failing to promote equality within relationships, and letting the rape “monster myth” live on because it isn’t discussed when we’re learning everything else ‘important’ in sex education, does nothing to reverse rape culture, and everything to keep it alive.

Originally published 11 July 2014 on TheVine.com.au

2 thoughts on “Does outdated sex education actually perpetuate rape culture?

  1. YES. THIS.
    The monster myth, in particular — so very, very “useful,” as you point out, for all kinds of things other than actually raising kids who are safe for themselves and towards others — makes me froth at the mouth. Thanks for republishing.

    Liked by 1 person

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