Monday, September 11, 2017

Betsy DeVos Surprises No One

"Welcome Banners" greeted arriving frosh at UMaine Orono
this fall. Think more education is needed?
It appears that just as the members of the Class of 2021 unload their mini fridges, desk lamps and extra long bed sheets into freshmen dorms, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will unleash the latest salvo in the ongoing imbroglio about sexual assault on campus.

            Specifically, DeVos plans to revoke Obama-era guidelines and raise the burden of proof in university administrative hearings on sexual misconduct from the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to the more rigorous “more likely than not.” This should surprise no one: DeVos is a major donor to a national group lobbying for such change. And while it remains to be seen whether this swing of the pendulum will better protect the due process rights of the accused (there’s no question it will make it harder for victims to prove injury and easier for rapists to elude punishment) here’s what it absolutely won’t do: prevent sexual assault.

            That would require … well, education. Conversation. Awkward conversation. Frank, difficult, pull-no-punches conversation. Something a tad more sophisticated than this-is-where-babies-come-from and slightly less clinical than this-is-how-you-use-a-condom.  Where we talk less about biology and more about healthy relationships. Respect, for oneself and others. Honesty. Communication. Love. In other words: all the antidotes to violence.

            These are conversations educators and parents have failed to provide and young adults are hungry to have. For all the hand-wringing about the epidemic of sexual assaults sweeping campuses, we have done precious little to get out in front of the issue. According to a recent report from Making Caring Common, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 70 percent of the 18-25 year olds surveyed wish they’d received more information from their parents about the emotional aspects of a romantic relationship; 65 percent wish they could have discussed it in school.

            “My students can talk about love forever,” said one high school teacher from the Harvard study who includes a section on romantic love in his English class. “They’re much more present, thoughtful and available to themselves when they talk about love.”

            As a young adult author, I’m well aware that love and sex and relationships are where my readers live. And as a visiting author in schools, I’ve been impressed not only by students’ energy for engaging in honest conversation about sex and consent but also their insights. I’ve listened to a 14-year old girl explain how the so-called “rape culture” oppresses boys by making them feel like losers if they’re virgins. I’ve had an entire row of boys in football jerseys assert that consent is not possible if your partner has been drinking. I’ve watched boys and girls successfully navigate a fraught discussion of “Who’s responsible?” if both parties are drunk.

            Yet regardless of their desire and capacity for these important conversations, we adults fail to find the space for them. Sex ed in our country is woefully inadequate: fewer than half the states require it, and among those only 20 require that it be “medically, factually or technically accurate.” Without a national curriculum for sex ed, that portion of health class focuses on disaster prevention: in other words, avoiding pregnancy and STDs. And to top it off, those assigned to deliver these facts-of-life in an ethical vacuum are woefully unprepared.

            “Untrained, unsupported or unqualified teachers are seeking to guide young people in one of the most consequential, subtle, wonderful, treacherous areas of their lives,” the Harvard researchers assert. Yet from our department of “education,” we see no initiatives to remedy this.

            Sadly, it’s no better at home. I have been astonished by my peers’ squeamishness when it comes to discussing the realities of the sexual culture our young people navigate. When Peggy Orenstein’s excellent, unflinching book, Girls and Sex, came out last year, I told everyone I knew to read it … with their daughters. My suggestion was mostly met with reluctant excuses.

            “Ooh, I know I should but … do I really want to know?” more than a few parents replied.

            Yes, you do. We remain ignorant at our daughters’ … and sons’ … peril. Among the more chilling revelations in Orenstein’s book: the prevalence and accessibility of pornography. An estimated 40 percent of children ages ten to seventeen have been exposed to internet porn (many accidently) and by the time they reach college an estimated 90 percent of men and a third of women have viewed porn online.

            What’s more, Orenstein reports, porn is where many young people go to learn about sex. Not the basic biology of reproduction or facts about birth control: they turn to porn for the how-to, for that head scratching moment when someone refers to something they’ve never heard of.

            So, yes: our young people are turning to a 97-billion dollar industry that overwhelmingly depicts violent, degrading sex acts against women for information about sexual relationships. Combine that knowledge (and resultant expectations) with a booze-fueled hookup culture and you can see where the statistic that one in five women are sexually assaulted on campus is coming from.

            What do we do? The previous administration believed withholding federal funds from colleges and universities that are falling down on the job of punishing rapists is one solution. The Trump administration appears poised to rescind that policy as well as increase the standard of proof for victims. But both approaches are after-the-fact and do nothing to prevent rape.

            Colleges, meanwhile, have beefed up sexual assault prevention programming. It’s a standard part of freshmen orientation these days, along with campus events about consent and bystander intervention, and various walks. Slut Walks and Mile-in-her-Shoes Walks and Race to Zero Walks. These high-visibility shows of support for victims probably have some benefit.

            But if we’re going to change the culture of sexuality and consent on campus it’s not enough to walk some walk: we have to talk the talk. It’s not enough to punish the guilty and support the injured: we need to address the conditions which are contributing to sexual violence.

            We need to have those awkward, honest conversations with young people sooner rather than later. Because long before they arrive on campus they are sexually aware, if not sexually active, beings. And they are hungry to talk about these things.

            Let’s help them find that space.

            Note: This blog is an expanded, revised version of an opinion piece which ran in the September 10, 2017 Sunday Press Herald “Maine Voices” section. Click here to access.

            Further note: On my website, click on Wrecked Resources for a list of national and Maine-based groups who are working hard to further this “awkward conversation” and help educate young people.