It wasn’t too long ago that things were different. From high school to Hollywood, countless survivors of sexual assault and harassment were silenced, or simply not believed when they bravely spoke up. But in just a few months, an undeniably powerful movement has emerged. After living in the shadows, survivors are bringing the pervasive culture of sexual harassment and assault to light. The #MeToo movement is a wake-up call – we must break down the status quo and educate our young people about consent, healthy relationships, and respect.
In Massachusetts, we have an opportunity to advance the goals of the #MeToo movement by passing the Healthy Youth Act. The Healthy Youth Act would ensure comprehensive curricula are taught in public schools that choose to offer sex education, helping young people learn the benefits of delaying sex, as well as how to prevent STIs and pregnancy when they become sexually active. But comprehensive sex education is about more than just sex – it helps creates a culture of consent, recognizes and prioritizes LGBTQ youth health needs, and gives young people the tools to build healthy relationships. And unlike its alternatives, comprehensive sex education curricula are proven to help young people lead healthy lives.
Building healthy, safe communities begins with our youth
Today, Massachusetts schools teach a patchwork of curricula – some provide effective sex education, but many teach ineffective abstinence-only programs, or none at all. These programs contribute to a number of public health problems the Healthy Youth Act would help address.
We can combat sexual assault at its roots by teaching young people how to build healthy, respectful relationships. In 2015, 9 percent of Massachusetts teens reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact. This trend only continues into college, where 784 “forcible sex offenses” occurred in 60 New England colleges that same year. Study after study reveals that many do not understand what sexual harassment and assault are, preventing survivors from getting help and perpetrators from being held accountable. Young people need to know how to talk about sex before they start having sex, so they are prepared to handle difficult situations once they are in college and throughout their lives.
The consequences of unchecked curricula are not limited to sexual assault. Young people face serious long-term health repercussions when they are not taught the full range of sex education. Although they represent only a quarter of people having sex, more than two-thirds of chlamydia cases and almost half of gonorrhea cases occurred among young people ages 15 to 24 in Massachusetts in 2015. Many young people are not receiving the tools they need to prevent STIs—just 52 percent of Massachusetts teens were taught how to use condoms in school that same year.
LGBTQ youth are hit especially hard by bad sex education. LGBTQ youth are disproportionately affected by STIs, as well as sexual assault and bullying. School-sanctioned discrimination against LGBTQ people is unethical and damaging. We need to make sure all of our young people are equipped with nonjudgmental, LGBTQ-inclusive guidance to help them protect themselves, form healthy relationships and build safer communities that allow every person to thrive.
The Trump administration has already taken action that robs young people of federal resources and exacerbates these public health problems. They backed out of funding evidence-based programs that prevent teen pregnancy and plan on redirecting funding to ineffective abstinence-only and rhythm method-based sex education initiatives. Overseeing the federal family planning efforts is a woman who has spent her career promoting blatantly medically inaccurate and misogynistic programs to teens.
Without passing the Healthy Youth Act, we ignore the needs of young people whose reality is too often plagued with incidences of sexual harassment, assault, and STIs. As the federal government pushes programming that shames sexual assault survivors and abandons lessons on consent, we must act fast to protect young people in our state and build a healthier Massachusetts.
Help us take the #MeToo movement to the State House and pass the Healthy Youth Act
We owe it to survivors of sexual assault, to the LGBTQ community, and to all young people to teach about consent, healthy relationships, and STI prevention in Massachusetts schools. And most Massachusetts voters share this view.
The Massachusetts Senate has already overwhelmingly passed the Healthy Youth Act, so it is up to grassroots supporters to call on the House to pass the bill.
An Act Relative to Healthy Youth
S 234, H 3704
Sponsored by Senator Sal DiDomenico and Representatives Jim O’Day and Paul Brodeur