Healthy sexuality is not something people in our culture openly discuss, no matter how sexualized media images of women (and some men) become. When asked to give an example of healthy sexuality, most Americans aren’t sure how to respond. Healthy sexuality is learned — not something we are born knowing. It is also the basis of preventing sexual violence and helps make our communities safer.
Healthy sexuality means having the knowledge and power to express sexuality in ways that enrich your life. This includes consensual and respectful relationships and having the ability to make informed and violence-free choices. Healthy sexuality is about values and how we interact with one another.
What does healthy sexuality look like in real life? When 13,000 Mainers will experience sexual violence this year, it’s important for us to learn.
When we teach people to eat nutritious food, we go beyond listing unhealthy foods. We talk about healthy foods and how to eat in a healthy way. When we teach healthy sexuality, we go beyond “no means no” and listing bad behaviors and instead talk about what it means to respect boundaries and to communicate with a partner. This principle applies across all relationships and can be about anything from borrowing a friend’s car to having sex. Communication is key in all relationships.
Gender norms — our culture’s “rules” about how men and women are supposed to behave — are a main focus of bullying and sexual harassment in schools. Students are often targeted when they don’t fit the norm with regard to gender — when girls are not feminine enough and boys are not masculine enough. Studies show that there is a connection between perpetrating gender-based bullying and sexual harassment and perpetrating sexual violence in later life. If we teach students — and one another — to respect the right to gender expression, our schools and communities will be safer.
When an individual has knowledge and skills they can put to use, they are more likely to be an engaged bystander. If that same individual is comfortable in addressing issues of sex, consent, and respect, they may feel more comfortable intervening in a situation that may be sexually unsafe for someone else. We teach students the importance of being engaged bystanders. Healthy sexuality education gives them the tools to do so.
Creating a culture of accountability is an important aspect of sexual violence prevention. When we combine accountability with healthy sexuality, we can create communities where sexuality is not shameful but something we can talk about. The more we are able to talk about sex and sexuality, the more likely we are to recognize and respond to sexual violence, to hold perpetrators accountable, and we can better support survivors in speaking up and seeking help.
I hope we will someday get to the point where we talk about sexuality because it’s a cultural norm. I hope one day there are no longer any survivors who need to speak out because we will have put an end to sexual violence.
Tamar Mathieu is executive director of Rape Response Services, a subsidiary of Penquis. She may be reached at email@example.com.