When I was in graduate school at NYU, I worked as a mentor and tutor as part of a community partnership at an alternative high school in Bushwick, Brooklyn (pre-gentrification, long before Bushwick was a cool place to live). Most of our 300 students had had trouble for one reason or another in the ginormous mainstream high school down the block, and our school was a tight-knit community where every teacher knew all of the students, mostly by name.
Some of the students had had brushes with the criminal justice system and about 60% were parents. These were underserved, underprivileged students and the teachers at the school cared about them deeply. We approached everything from a place of social justice. I will never forget watching the OJ verdict come down after school one day with a huge crowd of students and teachers, and how it sparked dynamic dialogue and splits among faculty and some students about whether OJ was a hero.
I worked with students one-to-one or one-to-few for a year, and having earned the trust of many students and faculty who knew my specialty was sexuality, some teachers suggested that I teach a sexuality class the following year. The principle approved it and they were grateful to have someone talk with the students about issues that needed attention. I was given carte blanche to design a comprehensive sexuality curriculum that I thought was sound and appropriate for the students. This was a dream come true and extremely rare to be offered such an opportunity in a public school. But nobody was kidding themselves—they knew these students needed something real, something meaningful to help them navigate sex and relationships, and also parenthood.
We had a SPARK counselor at the school who had office hours a couple days a week. SPARK was one of those programs that provided drug and alcohol education and the counselors distributed condoms and instructions for how to use them. They were a resource for the students around life skills.
One day at a staff meeting, the SPARK counselor announced that he had become aware that many of our students had been sexually assaulted and this was an issue we needed to address. I, too, had had many personal conversations with female and male students about their history of sexual assault or abuse and knew this was critically important to address. Bravo! I was thrilled.
He wanted us to do a school-wide intervention. He began to describe what he proposed: we will take the girls and put them in x amount of classroom groups to be led by the female teachers and they will have a morning session that will address sexual assault.
I listened as he laid out his plan and then asked, “What will we do with the boys?”
“Well, they will be in these other few classrooms and they can watch a movie.”
“So you’re going to address sexual assault, a deeply gendered issue, and you are only going to address the girls?”
“Well, we just don’t have the staff to be able to handle all of the boys.”
“So we do nothing with them? That’s the solution? The boys are too hard to handle and we just don’t know how so we will do nothing?! First of all, sexual assault is a gendered issue; assaulters are overwhelmingly male. Second, I have spoken directly to boys in this school who themselves have been abused or assaulted who also need support. This is deeply problematic.”
The principal adjourned the meeting and said we would think about how to address this and come back at the next meeting with an alternative.
Wanna know what ended up happening? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
They didn’t know how to deal with the boys, so instead of doing some type of intervention, they did nothing. This was early in my career and it was archetypal of what I would see over and over again as I continued in my educational and activist work around issues of consent, sexuality, the body and gender.
And it’s not far off from what is happening now and why we are here. We don’t know how to address the men. So we don’t, and they run amok and unchecked for so long that sexual harassment and assault become the norm. We teach women how to “not get raped” or think themselves out of abusive situations, or how to not rock the boat, placing the responsibility on them, or on whomever lacks the power. And we let the ones in power rule the school, harming so many people along the way, and no one knew what to do.
What a missed opportunity to educate us all, to raise the bar on how we treat each other and experience sexuality. Adults need their own sex education and we are not providing it in any meaningful widespread way. Adults are former teenagers who never got the sex education they needed and grew into overgrown teens who still don’t understand proper sexual and emotional boundaries, how to deal with their own sexual energy and desires and how to be a basically good human being. The gender gap is a chasm so wide now—let’s hope it’s too big to continue to ignore.