Editor’s note: Read this story in print in the February 2020 edition of the Crimson Quarterly magazine.
Cassie DeGroot’s first sex education lesson was about Band-Aids.
In eighth grade, DeGroot and her peers at Stillwater Junior High School were given a presentation about safe sex led by a local religious group. The students were told to think of themselves and their sexual experiences like a Band-Aid.
“It was really all about abstinence,” said DeGroot, now a public and nonprofit administration junior at OU. “They gave us all Band-Aids and then told us to stick them to a bunch of people around us.”
When the Band-Aids weren’t sticky anymore, they said, “That’s you.”
After the Band-Aid segment, one of the speakers said the more sex a person has, the more they will become desensitized to sex, including losing empathy and compassion toward partners.
“And it just felt really gross — the idea that you’re broken if you have too much sex, especially to kids that young,” DeGroot said. “We went through the rest of our high school career with that being our first (sex education lesson).”
Sex, disease and consent education in the United States is complicated. It’s even more complicated in states like Oklahoma and Texas — approximately 86 percent of OU Norman-campus students hail from those two states — where there are no state statutes mandating sex and consent education for children and teens as they go through primary and secondary education.
Only 27 of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., require sex and HIV education be taught in school districts. Of those, only 17 states mandate the education be medically accurate, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In Oklahoma, HIV education is the only sex-based education mandated in all school districts. This statute has been operative since 1987.
In April 2019, Senate Bill 926 was signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt, requiring Oklahoma schools that already teach sex education to teach consent education as well. However, the bill still does not mandate that schools statewide teach sex education.
“I went into my first sexual situation super blind,” DeGroot said, “which is extra frustrating because you can’t consent to something you don’t understand. And if you’re not educated on sex, how can you know what you like and you don’t like?”
Students in Oklahoma public school systems are only required to receive “AIDS prevention education” once between fifth and sixth grade, once between seventh and ninth grade, and once between 10th and 12th grade, according to the Oklahoma HIV Education Mandate.
According to this mandate, HIV prevention education must teach the idea that abstinence from “homosexual activity, promiscuous sexual activity, intravenous drug use or contact with contaminated blood products” is the only method of avoiding the virus.
School districts are not required to discuss sexuality and identity, healthy relationships, dating and sexual violence prevention, sexual decision-making and self-discipline, or contraceptive education. The education does not need to be age-appropriate, culturally appropriate and unbiased, or free of religious promotion.
While HIV education must be medically accurate, that is not a requirement for sex education in Oklahoma’s schools.
“The thing is, in Oklahoma — and I looked it up because I (thought), ‘This has to be illegal,’ but it’s not — they’re allowed to say whatever they want to,” DeGroot said. “They’re allowed to give misleading information as long as it’s abstinence-only.”
“You can’t consent (if) you don’t understand.”
After the eighth grade presentation, DeGroot received a more extensive presentation on sex from the district nurse in 10th grade. While the course was called “HIV prevention,” DeGroot said the nurse took it upon herself to teach the class more broadly about sexually transmitted diseases and consent, even though it was not mandated in the curriculum.
DeGroot was grateful for the supplemental information, she said, but as a bisexual woman, she still had to find most of the information she needed to engage in safe sex through YouTube channels, internet searches and first-time experience.
“We did not talk about queer sex at all. I was literally convinced if you have sex with women, you just get STDs,” DeGroot said. “So I did some Googling, and the great thing about the internet is that you can get expert information. But it’s frustrating that I had to trust someone who said they were a doctor instead of a doctor coming and speaking to my school.”
DeGroot said if queer sex education had been provided, even to simply acknowledge that LGBTQ people exist and heterosexual sex is not the only form of sex, she may have come out sooner than she did.
“Even if it was an option at home, even if it was an option culturally, it wasn’t an option at school,” DeGroot said.
Similar to DeGroot, Rafael Anguiano said if he could change anything about the sex education he received, he said he would change everything.
Anguiano, an accounting and entrepreneurship senior who attended Prince of Peace Catholic School in Plano, Texas, said his primary and secondary sex education took an abstinence-only approach, with metaphors such as “You’ve got this present, don’t give it away,” and “Don’t sip out of the soda can.”
In high school, he said, he learned about HIV through “doom and gloom” and pictures of infected genitalia.
“I definitely wasn’t prepared, and I absolutely did not get anything about being gay,” Anguiano said. “That wasn’t even mentioned. No ‘It’s an alternative lifestyle,’ (or) ‘It’s a choice’ — just not a single word.”
The damage of teaching abstinence-only, heterosexual education to teens instead of an inclusive, frank conversation is “incalculable,” Anguiano said.
“It would have been nice to have been told gay people existed earlier,” Anguiano said. “That would have been really good for my and my partner’s mental health (and) well-being.”
He said he spent years pushing down thoughts that heterosexual relationships might not be for him — including two years in a heterosexual relationship in high school.
“Walking away from that girlfriend of mine, I think deep down I knew something wasn’t right. And I just tried to push it down as much as I could to not think about it — that was an ongoing theme,” Anguiano said. “I think it was to avoid that shame ... because dealing with the implications of that, it was just too horrifying.”
Later in high school, Anguiano began dating his now long-term male partner, and the two have been in a relationship for five years.
Even though the two found each other, Anguiano said he wishes education had been more readily available about the existence of LGBTQ people and safe queer sex.
“I didn’t even realize that (being gay) was a thing until high school. I had been struggling with this internal identity problem for years and it made me so depressed, and I absolutely tanked my academic performance and social life,” Anguiano said. “I think that if that kind of cognitive dissonance could have been eased earlier in the process of growing up, I could have avoided a lot of those problems.”
While Anguiano has educated himself on sex, consent and disease, he said the misinformed beliefs of those around him have affected him. In high school, he was surrounded by peers that didn’t understand how HIV is transmitted or that queer sex can be safe. In his time at OU, he found himself explaining the term LGBTQ to an older peer, as well as being uninvited to college functions when it was discovered he was in a same-sex relationship.
Anguiano said starting appropriate sex, disease and consent education early in primary school could help upcoming generations understand and accept their identities earlier, and prevent misinformation and discrimination based on identity and sexual relationships.
OU’s Gender + Equality Center offers a variety of LGBTQ resources, including student groups and events, education services and aspiring ally training, for those who wish to learn how to become an ally for the LGBTQ community.
“It's not like I'm suggesting exposing kids to anything more than they need to be, but even just acknowledging that gay people do exist — we do,” Anguiano said. “The returns on that for how little you have to put into that, I think you would create a huge reduction in the harm that you know is being done later down the line.”
The framing of certain topics in public sex education can also leave students confused and uncomfortable with their own bodies and how to take care of them. Anthropology, human health and biology senior Elizabeth Durham’s first understanding of menstruation was shame.
In fifth grade at Broken Arrow Public Schools, Durham said her class was divided by gender, and the girls watched a video of a girl carrying a box of sanitary pads in order to broach the topic of menstruation.
“All I remember from it was they had a girl carrying a big box of sanitary napkins in her bag, and she was very embarrassed,” Durham said. “And that’s really the only concept they talked about — the shame around it.”
In sixth grade, Durham received the “sex talk,” which she said didn’t include a discussion of the physical biology of sex, consent or contraception.
“They touched on biology, but it was to show a penis,” Durham said. “They showed an abstract painting of a blue man, and he happened to have a penis ... and a girl threw up.”
Durham said there was a gap between the sixth and ninth grade, when she received “STD education,” which consisted of STD Jeopardy, where students shouted out the names of STDs from flash cards without understanding what they meant.
When she was almost of legal age, Durham found herself even more frustrated with the sex education system after attempting to gain information from her health care practitioner.
In her senior year of high school, Durham, then 17, went with her mother to see her gynecologist about accessing birth control, but she said she wasn’t taken seriously.
“It was really weird,” Durham said. “She was always nice, but she (treated me) like I was really not going to have sex.”
Going into her first sexual encounter, Durham said she had to seek information from Google.
“I feel like the resources are out there,” she said. “It’s just kind of shitty that that’s the result — you have to seek it out.”
The largest misconception Durham said she faced in terms of sex and consent was the myth that “men always want sex.”
“I’ve had a long-term boyfriend pretty much since high school and I’ve never forced him, but whenever he (said), ‘No, I don’t really want to,’ it was a confusion at first because guys are very much portrayed as sex machines, especially at this age,” Durham said. “No. They are normal people — sometimes they just don’t want to have sex.”
She said the most important issue to correct in current sex and consent education is to include it at every level of education, with medically accurate information provided by health care practitioners instead of school staff.
“Abstinence-only education doesn’t work, and it’s really unrealistic because people are going to have sex anyway,” Durham said. “Stop treating it (as) taboo.”
Durham said consent should be taught in preschool and elementary school, discussing “boundaries and space,” and as the students get older, shifting the conversation to “don’t touch people when they don’t want to be touched.”
“I think a lot of things could be avoided with (better education),” Durham said. “It's just unfortunate that some health care providers still carry taboos and biases because, ideally, they should just be there to care for people’s health.”
Continuous, enthusiastic, reversible
Men and women enrolled in college report sexual assault at a pervasive rate compared to the rest of the population. Women 18 to 24 are three to four times more likely to experience forms of sexual assault than those of other ages, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN.
The rates of assault, particularly for incoming freshmen on college campuses, are uniquely high — according to RAINN, collegiate women are 50 percent more likely to experience sexual assault during the first few months of their first and second college semesters.
Many students come into college with little to no understanding of what consent is and how to get it, said Bliss Brown, gender-based violence prevention program coordinator for OU’s Gender + Equality Center.
Brown, a 2016 graduate of women’s and gender studies at OU, worked as a peer educator as an undergraduate student prior to her current position. She oversees Step in, Speak Out, which is one of three president-mandated trainings for incoming freshmen.
Step in, Speak Out is a sexual misconduct prevention training that covers consent and discusses resources for survivors of gender-based violence, as well as all forms of sexual violence, Brown said. The training is taught by about 20 undergraduate peer educators, who go through the training and are hired as paid staff to administer training sessions.
“The program has evolved over time,” Brown said. “Before Step In, Speak Out, I’m not sure that the university was doing any sort of gender-based violence prevention.”
The program has been mandated on campus since fall 2017, after a student protest in 2016 led former OU President David Boren to make the training required for all incoming students.
Before 2017, the training was only required for high-risk groups of students that are known to experience higher rates of victimization and perpetration, such as fraternities and sororities within the Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council, ROTC and international students.
While Brown said she could not comment on whether abstinence-only education is a successful initiative, she said the Step In, Speak Out program does not mention abstinence-only, and she believes the OU program to be effective.
Brown said most of the misinformation-based beliefs that students come into the program with are related to consent.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about what consent is, what it isn’t, how you can get it,” Brown said. “I think that people just have never had a conversation — never thought about it before.”
DeGroot was part of the first mandated Step In, Speak Out training as a freshman.
“The first Step In, Speak Out training was like a punch in the face to me,” DeGroot said. “I didn’t realize how much I didn’t understand about sexual assault.”
Despite having some understanding of consent from her high school sex education, DeGroot said what she learned in Step In, Speak Out was brand-new information. In high school, she heard the common phrase, “No means no,” and thought that was the extent of consent.
“What we learned (in Step In, Speak Out) is it’s continuous, enthusiastic, reversible,” DeGroot said. “Especially the idea of reversible. People can change their minds — it’s not just a yes, it’s an enthusiastic yes.”
DeGroot said the training went through a checklist of a variety of scenarios that reflected different forms of sexual misconduct. The training walked the students through what to do if they were present in any form of sexual misconduct situations, as bystanders, friends of victims and more.
“I didn’t realize there were people who put time and effort into learning these things and learning how to deal with them. I could have used that five years ago in my freshman year of high school,” DeGroot said. “I think I was personally pretty educated, and I was still super unaware.”
DeGroot, Anguiano and Durham agreed that earlier conversations with children and teens about sex, disease and consent in schools would lessen the pervasive issues that stem from a lack of information.
“I understand that, for a lot of people, abstinence-only feels morally correct,” DeGroot said. “But if statistics show that it doesn’t reduce sex, why aren’t we using every weapon we have? We need to talk about results, and if you want to reduce unplanned pregnancies and reduce STDs and make people sexually happy and healthy, we need to do whatever is shown to work.”
Editor’s note: In addition to Step In Speak Out, the GEC offers voluntary training programs for students, faculty and staff to learn more about recognizing different forms of sexual misconduct, including harassment, assault, violence and stalking, as well as cultural and institutional barriers to reporting and intervention. To learn more, visit the GEC’s page on OU’s website.
The GEC also offers programs for the LGBTQ community, as well as OU Advocates, a free, confidential 24/7 crisis line available to the OU community. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, relationship violence, stalking or sexual harassment, you can call OU Advocates for support and advocacy at 405-615-0013, or stop by the GEC office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday in the Oklahoma Memorial Union, Suite 207.