WASHINGTON — In elementary school, children get the talk about unwanted touching. In college, they learn about boundaries and what constitutes assault.
But in between, sex education in schools is often an antiseptic regurgitation of the science of reproduction mixed with healthy doses of the need for protection and, increasingly, abstinence.
In the past few weeks, allegations have swirled against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — accusations that date back more than three decades to the time he was in high school. (He has emphatically denied the claims.)
This moment in politics has spurred many different conversations. One of them: how schools teach students about consent and sexual assault.
A study conducted by the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, found that the majority of America’s public school students don’t know how to identify healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors.
As it is, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in public schools, the study found.
Of those, only eight states require mention of consent or sexual assault, it said: California, Hawaii, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia. (The District of Columbia does, too.)
“States are not providing students with enough guidance and support in terms of how to behave in the world they grew up in,” Catherine Brown, the vice president of education policy at the institute, told CNN.
“It’s really important to be clear with them about what is and what isn’t permissible and the lines are when dealing with other people in relationships.”
Some states have detailed standards
Rhode Island, West Virginia and the District of Columbia provide clear standards on topics of sexual health and categorize them by age group, the Center for American Progress found. For example, DC standards require that third-grade students are taught how “individual bodies are different” and sixth-graders learn about “sexual feelings and the need for love, affection and physical intimacy.”
But most of the states the study looked at — including Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky and Nevada — provide little detail on what the curriculum should look like and don’t separate standards by age.
Delaware, for example, requires that the curriculum of its health education for students includes “sexuality education and an HIV prevention program that stresses the benefits of abstinence from high-risk behaviors.”
And two states, Tennessee and Montana, stress abstinence-only education and STDs, a practice that Brown said has never proven to work on reducing teen sexual activity and pregnancies.
“The research shows the opposite,” Brown told CNN. “The students who participate in (comprehensive sex ed courses) are less likely to have sex.”
“You have some states that are teaching inaccurate information,” she said. “Students deserve to have age-appropriate, helpful information about how to behave in intimate relationships.”
Some are making progress
Still, some states are trying to enact reforms to their sex ed programs.
The legislature in Missouri passed a bill this summer to add lessons about sexual harassment, sexual violence and consent to sex education.
Rhode Island‘s governor signed a bill in July permitting age-appropriate education on consent and sexual activity to be increased in “family life” courses in schools.
And in Maryland, the governor approved a bill requiring age-appropriate instruction on the meaning of consent as an “unambiguous and voluntary agreement,” starting in the current school year.
The change has a lot to do with the recent movement that’s sparked conversation around sexual assault and workplace harassment, Brown said.
“There definitely is more interest in this topic since the #MeToo movement,” she said. “We are seeing more interest in pushing legislation that would clarify that you should teach consent and sexual abuse.”