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The next step for #MeToo is better sex education

When the Department of Education announced proposed changes to the federal regulations for how schools respond to cases of sexual assault, the backlash was immediate. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Trump taps William Barr as new AG | Nauert picked to replace Haley at UN | Washington waits for bombshell Mueller filing Warren fell for ‘Trump trap’ with DNA test, says progressive Major Obama 2008 fundraiser throws support behind Beto 2020: ‘Time to pass the torch’ MORE issued a statement saying that the “proposed rollback would return us to the days when schools swept rape and assault under the rug and survivors were shamed into silence.” It’s certainly possible that the fear of being cross-examined would reduce survivors’ willingness to report, but even now, formal reports are rare.  

Our work with Columbia University’s Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) found, as is typical on college campuses, that fewer than three percent of students who were sexually assaulted reported it to the university. And yes, fear of the adjudication process is certainly part of what deters reporting. But that is just one of the many reasons that students don’t want to report — or sometimes even to label what happened to them as sexual assault.  The furor over adjudication and evidentiary standards misses the point that we should be talking about prevention – a word that does not appear even once in the main text of the DOE’s proposed changes.

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Now is the moment, with the election (mostly) in our rear view mirror, to talk about the legislative agenda for sexual assault prevention. Research we published recently provides new evidence that comprehensive sexuality education should figure prominently in that agenda. We found that undergraduate women who received pre-college sexuality education that included instruction in how to say no to sex (refusal skills training) were half as likely to have been assaulted in college, even after accounting for gender, income, race/ethnicity and other factors. Students who received abstinence-only instruction were not shown to have significantly reduced experiences of campus sexual assault.

At the state level, the politics around sex ed may be shifting; Rhode Island, Maryland, and Missouri all recently mandated the inclusion of consent in school-based sex education. And there’s a lot of room for improvement; currently, only 24 states mandate any form of sex ed, with two of those 24 still teaching abstinence-only, and only nine of those requiring instruction on consent.

This wasn’t just a blue wave election — it was also a pink wave, powered by moms working for common-sense gun regulations, teachers angry about their pay, and women of all ages worried about reproductive rights. But Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony is also echoing in our ears, along with all the tweets and heart-wrenching essays. And all that after the tectonic cultural shift of #MeToo.

But the legislative response to #MeToo has been underwhelming. Yes, it’s good to address impunity among legislators and in other workplace settings — to ban non-disclosure agreements, provide training in appropriate workplace behavior, and improve processes for reporting and adjudication. It’s progress for folks to understand that taking a meeting in your bathrobe is not ok, but many assaults happen outside the workplace.

The Weinstein story amplified an existing conversation about sexual assault that had been focused primarily on campuses as a space of danger. In the summer of 2015, Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that makes New York one of only six states that require institutions of higher education to teach affirmative consent. Certainly, instruction on consent conveys useful information and communicates an institutional commitment to preventing assaults.

But those orientation week sessions have three key limitations. First, information doesn’t necessarily change behavior — as our research shows, there’s a substantial gap between students’ knowledge about consent and their actual practices. Second, for many young people, the information comes too late; our research found that 26 percent of women and 9 percent of men had been sexually assaulted before college. Data from the Centers for Disease Control show the same thing – more than 9 percent of high school seniors in one national survey having been physically forced to have sex. And third, rates of sexual assault are higher among women ages 18-24 who are not in college, and a myopic focus on campus prevention fails those women.

To be sure, some will say that we have bigger fish to fry in addressing inequality – but sexual assault prevention is one building block in creating a more equal world for women. There is evidence that sexual violence holds women back in ways that go far beyond being afraid to go for a run alone after dark; sexual assault impedes survivors' educational and career development and has lifelong impacts on mental and physical health. And this isn’t just a women’s issue — in our study, more than one in eight men had experienced some form of unwanted nonconsensual sex. Nor is it a partisan one — both Democratic and Republic parents overwhelmingly support sexuality education.

Unquestionably, prevention needs to reduce perpetration, not just help people protect themselves. But as public health problems go, sexual assault is more like car crashes than measles; there’s no vaccine, no one program that will prevent all assaults. Rather, it will require changes at multiple levels, from individual behavior to the broader environment.  And sure, some change can happen within local school systems. But if we did have a vaccine that was even 50 percent effective against being sexually assaulted, wouldn’t fairness dictate that we make it available to all young people? A commitment to equity demands broader action.

Pink or blue, the wave that washed over state legislatures across the country makes this a moment of enormous possibility. Soon those newly-elected officials will be sworn in and will get to work. When they do, it will be time for them and their fellow legislators to advance evidence-based policies to protect young people from the lifelong impacts of sexual assault.

Jennifer S. Hirsch is professor of socio-medical sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, co-principal investigator of Columbia’s SHIFT project and co-author of a forthcoming book on campus sexual assault. Stephanie Grilo also contributed to this article.