How Can Sex Ed Prevent Rape?

I was watching a debate about sex education today, one rife with a lot of ludicrous statements, but the statement that quality sex education could not possibly help prevent sexual abuse stuck with me. It was all the more infuriating as someone who knows too well that a lack of knowledge about bodies and sex, and a lack of information about sexual consent and autonomy are some of the hugest reasons why sexual abuse is so prevalent.

Now, this is hardly a new form of cluelessness (nor is it exclusive to Canada: we've all but made an art form of it stateside). I've addressed this issue before, at Scarleteen and in some talks and interviews I have given over the years, and also in a piece a little while back for the Guardian in the United Kingdom.

Hopefully it's obvious the reason I, as a sexuality educator and activist, and Scarleteen, as an organization, provide sex education isn't just about preventing unwanted or negative outcomes, like unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, or rape. We are just as deeply invested in doing what we can to help people assure and create positive, wanted outcomes with their sexuality and whatever sex lives -- even if it's no sex life at all -- as we are in risk or abuse prevention. We want our readers not to just wind up with a life that is or becomes free of negative outcomes or traumas, but which is also full of enjoyable, enriching positives.

However, I'm of the mind that one of the many fantastic things comprehensive, inclusive and progressive sexuality education of care and quality can offer the world and everyone in it is the possibility or actuality of decreasing and disabling rape and much of what enables and perpetuates rape. I also think good sex education has the capability of helping survivors of rape and abuse heal and feel supported and empowered. I care about this aspect of sex education a lot, both as a survivor of abuse and assault myself, as someone who advocates for and supports many other survivors and as someone who simply really wants for all of us to be able to live in a world without rape and other kinds of abuse.

What are some of the ways good sex education can help prevent and dismantle rape? Here's the transcript of our impromptu Twitter feed from this afternoon on the subject:

  • Good sex ed can help counter rape by letting young people know what consent is and what mutually wanted, shared pleasure can look and feel like.
  • Good sex ed can let young people know they ALWAYS have a right to say both yes and no and a right to complete say-so with their own bodies, and that no one else has a right to take that away.
  • Good sex ed addresses healthy and unhealthy dynamics in sex and relationships so everyone can better understand the difference.
  • Good sex ed doesn't enable gender or sexual roles or stereotypes that enable and perpetuate rape/sexual abuse, it suggests learners strongly question them.
  • Good sex ed teaches and encourages solid and open communication and active and shared decision-making.
  • Good sex ed makes clear we are all wholly responsible for our sexual choices/actions and that if someone chooses to rape THEY are responsible.
  • Good sex ed recognizes ALL people, of all embodiments, as potentially actively sexual: it does not suggest any group is somehow designed for or deserving of victimization or passivity.
  • Good sex ed works to support and empower survivors of sexual abuse or assault: it does not encourage silence, shame or self-blame. Good sex ed holds those who rape solely responsible for raping.
  • Good sex ed also knows and makes clear that rape isn't "unwanted sex." It makes clear that rape is not sex for a victim, even when it is for the perpetrator.
  • Good sex ed recognizes everyone with the right to say no also has the right to say yes; that only empowering no isn't very empowering at all.
  • Rape is and has always been perpetuated by silence, shaming, and denying mutual pleasure and wantedness is VITAL in sex. Good sex ed supports this.
  • Good sex ed also equips learners with knowledge and language (anatomical, interpersonal) to recognize and report abuse with, and support to do so.
  • Good sex ed does not want to teach its learners to accept or perpetuate unhealthy/abusive sexual behavior: it's goal is healthy sexuality.
  • It should stand to mention that many of us who work in sex ed are rape and abuse survivors: we know how critically important good sex ed is in this respect.
  • Good sex educators are aware that some who oppose sound sex ed do because they want to keep personally benefitting from rape-enabling ideas. We're onto you, and we'll keep calling you out.
  • The opposite of rape isn't sex: it's no rape. But really understanding what sex is and can be makes confusing or conflating it with rape very difficult to do.
  • Want to push back against rape, to counter, disable and decrease rape and the all the trauma it creates? Make sure that includes support of good sex ed.


You know, the whole thing with the Sex-Ed curriculum in Ontario changing was something I was REALLY looking forward to, and then they revised their initial decision, which saddened me slightly. What saddens me even more is that no matter what they do to change the curriculum there will be COUNTLESS students in the Catholic school system who will not be taught properly. I'm in tenth grade in a Catholic high school in Ontario and we're being taught sex-ed within our religion course, rather than our phys-ed course (where the textbooks actually give accurate information related to the subject).

My experience in this class, the only school-provided sexual health education I've had since eighth grade, has been irritating at the best of times. I've learned a hell of a lot from this site. In fact, I could safely say that 90% of my knowledge on the subject has been from here. What are we learning in class? That boys are more promiscuous than girls, that girls "tempt boys with sexy clothing" and that "using birth control increases the risk of STDs". I made it known to my teacher that he could list Scarleteen as a resource for the class, but he claimed that it was too "anti-catholic".

I guess that what I'm really trying to say is that even if the curriculum changes for the better, it won't in the Catholic system. This is a shame.

Anti-Catholic? This is a secular site, and we have users and staff of a wide range of religions and spiritual belief systems.

If you're up to really stirring the pot, you might ask your teacher, in class, how they feel gender stereotypes are helping people, and if they think those stereotypes can do harm, like say, enabling rape myths.

You might also ask the teacher to explain HOW birth control methods increase STIs: ask for the sources.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

My first time having sex wasn't as expected - no orgasm, no pleasure at all, not like how it felt when masturbating or what it looked like in pornography - I thought it was something wrong with me. My partner used my lack of want for sex and my lack of orgasm to emotionally blackmail me into sex, saying I was a freak for not enjoying sex or that I did not love him if I did not want sex. My lack of knowledge about sex and my body lead to three years of this abuse and forced sex, then countless years of sex which was not pleasurable, staying with men who were unhealthy for me, a non-existent sex drive and trauma of forcing myself into having sex for the sake of other people.

The more I learned about sex and my body the more it helped me reclaim my body and understand why what happened was not my fault, I also learned how to enjoy sex as well as how to say no without fear - really, I cannot express just how much it helped me, it shocks me when I think that it didn't even cross my mind to learn about sex or my body before having sex or even after I had started having sex.

Sex education does without a doubt combat rape and abuse - if I'd known the basics I'd not have been abused. I decided many years ago that I didn't want others to have to experience what I went through, which is exactly why I went on to work within sexual health.

My "sex-ed class" in high school was a joke. Our teacher was old and senile and was not really into saying the words "penis" or "vagina". Despite the failed attempt at sex-ed, I was really lucky to find this site, as well as to have been raised by parents who are pretty willing to discuss sex with me. I also found a spark of hope this year at my school in my Introduction to Sociology and Psychology class. We were discussing deviance, and rape was among them. Under the "common myths and stereotypes" surrounding rape, there was the typical "she asked for it/she led him on/she was behaving a certain way". A few kids in my class said it "could be a little true". I, and a few others, immediately jumped all over that and explained how wrong and just plain messed up that thought process was. I was really glad our teacher opened the floor to allow peers to educate one another. As the conversation wound down, she added "it doesn't matter what you wear, or how you act, you always have the right to say no. always". I was so so proud to be in that class and I was so so thankful that she spoke up. So while there's always the bad/uneducated, there are pleasant surprises!

I think people who argue about sex ed often argue past each other because they have different views of what's most important. Conservative viewpoints tend to respect tradition, authority (e.g. that of fathers over daughters), and traditional purity codes. Liberals tend to be concerned more with enjoyment, protection from harm, and freedom as a "good" in itself.

For an extreme, and so because of that unfair, example, the Christian St Augustine believed consensual homosexual activity to be worse than heterosexual rape. The former violates the natural order of the universe, as he saw it, running contrary to God's intentions for us, and nothing good resulted from it. The latter, though despicable, was consonant with nature, and a good could come of it (another human being).

To the modern ear, even of almost all conservatives, this sounds terrible, simply because we value consent and refusal much, much, more that did Augustine---and we live in a world where there is much more at least formal opportunity to exercise it. Again, I think modern conservatives hate rape...but I think they still have a strong tendency to believe that certain states of sexual experience (virginity vs sexually active) and certain acts (penile-vaginal intercourse v. everything else) define right and wrong in a way they don't to (loosely speaking, given the general tenor of this site, and apologies to those who strongly disagree) "us".

This means that conservatives have a harder time speaking out against rape than we do, because there's a whole slew of activities that they associate with sex that they consider wrong, whereas we mostly just consider rape as the major sexual sin---I'm sure all of us consider intentionally or even negligently spreading an STI to be very bad, and using sex to emotionally manipulate others as well, but if pressed, many of us might resort to calling them 'like rape'.

It's a lot easier stressing the difference between consent and its lack, and claiming the category of 'sex' for a wide variety of acts, when you consider rational consent to be the major determinant of whether an act were right or wrong, and don't really care which particular sex act is involved. If you believe consensual anal sex to be wrong, and rape, and having sex without being married, things become less clear.