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Bring measurement of sexuality education into #MeToo era

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17 February 2022

A positive approach to sexuality education is essential for adolescents to prevent sexual transgressive behaviour. The measurement of sexuality education currently omits to include soft skills such as embracing your body, understanding consent and many more, skills that will determine the future behaviour of adolescents. 

Five years after the hashtag #MeToo exploded on social media, the movement continues to create much-needed discussion about inappropriate sexual behaviour and what constitutes consent in any sexual encounter.

In the Netherlands, the recent scandal of sexual abuse claims at the Voice of Holland created a national outcry and renewed focus on the persistence of issues related to gender and power.

But a wave of anger may not be enough to topple these entrenched systems that discriminate against women. Such cultural shifts require change at many levels, from interpersonal to institutional.

Sexuality education as part of the solution

Young people are particularly important in this #metoo revolution. They need the knowledge and skills to recognise and interpret cues and assert their position in complex and often confusing situations that require sexual consent and negotiation. They typically learn these skills informally from parents, carers, friends and the media.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Willy van Berlo, programme manager at Rutgers, already highlights that part of the solution will be a push for more discussion about consent, gender and respectful behaviour as a bigger part of sexuality education programmes in schools.

Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) can help strengthen skills to recognise, express and respect boundaries and wishes. It also has a role to play in creating more gender-equal attitudes. However, CSE is by no means a silver bullet. Individual and social changes must happen in tandem to create the widespread cultural shift we desire. Nonetheless, given the integral role it can play, we need to pay more attention to how CSE can work to address sexually transgressive behaviours.

“Sexually Transgressive behaviour is about an approach or behaviour that is sexual in nature, and goes beyond the limits of the victim. This does not have to be a physical event.”
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But evaluations on sexuality education is skewed

It is widely agreed that positive sexuality development for adolescent should include skills like understanding consent, and attitudes like respect for human rights. But too often, CSE evaluations focus on mostly on preventing diseases, avoiding sexual contact or condoms use. So the effectiveness of CSE is measured accordingly.

But the discussions about sexual transgression make clear how important it is for both boys and girls to understand, recognise, express and respect boundaries and wishes – of their own and of others. Should we therefore not evaluate the success of CSE in those terms?

The discussions about sexual transgression make clear how important it is for both boys and girls to understand, recognise, express and respect boundaries and wishes – of their own and of others. Should we therefore not evaluate the success of CSE in those terms?

In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released a revised version of the International Technical Guidelines on Sex Education 2009. The report summarised decades of evidence on the positive impact of comprehensive sexuality education on measurable aspects of sexual behaviour. These include delaying the initiation of sexual intercourse, reducing the number of sexual partners, and increasing the use of contraceptives and condoms.

These kinds of hard outcomes, whilst informative, remain blind to a whole dimension of healthy sexuality development which are less directly linked to health outcomes. Things like the very fundamental notion of consent.

Understanding consent is essential to developing good, positive sexuality and sexual relationships. It is the first thing that should be measured as something that can be improved through CSE. We should be able to track and see if young people understand their rights and responsibilities and how to express them. If they recognise that there is a thing such as consent and respect it. If they can consider their behaviour based on critical reflection on gender and power dynamics

What do they understand when a partner says no? Can they voice their concerns? Do they know their boundaries and wishes? Can they communicate this? Can they critically reflect on gender norms? Do they understand power dynamics? What is their definition of a good relationship?

These ‘soft’ aspects of sexuality development are vital, yet they are hardly ever tracked. They should be considered the first level of evaluation before we begin tracking behaviours like condom use.

These ‘soft’ aspects of sexuality development are vital, yet they are hardly ever tracked. They should be considered the first level of evaluation before we begin tracking behaviours like condom use.

We need more focus on the positive outcomes of sexuality programmes

Remember that the goals of sexuality education are about understanding your rights, being comfortable with pubertal development, navigating changing and often conflicting social expectations and managing emotions. However, typical CSE evaluations never measure these aspects.

At Rutgers, we have come face-to-face with the challenges posed by this gap between theory and practice. The need for an evaluation framework that appreciates the soft outcomes related to positive CSE was pronounced in our Explore for Action Programme.

The Explore for Action programme in Indonesia is a research program that studies how CSE supports the healthy development of sexuality in very young adolescents. These are 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds. The majority are not expected to get sexually active until their early twenties. As a result, the usual ‘hard outcome’ evaluations do not fit. So how can we measure if sexuality education has an effect?

We required an approach that sees sexuality as a positive and normal part of development. And not as something that is inherently dangerous or linked to risky sexual behaviours. To address this needs, researchers in the E4A programme developed a conceptual model to help build consensus on how to conceptualise different aspects of healthy adolescent sexuality development.

We wanted to know how CSE improves a sense of sexual wellbeing in relation to self and others, for instance, in building mutually respectful relationships.
Miranda van Reeuwijk

Framework for positive adolescent sexuality development

Published in the journal for Sexual Reproductive Health Matters, a new paper by Anna Kågesten from Karolinska Institute in Sweden and Miranda van Reeuwijk  from Rutgers, presents six key competencies for healthy adolescent sexuality development.

Researcher Miranda van Reeuwijk says on the new report, “In searching for a way to better evaluate the outcomes of a CSE programme for very young adolescents in Indonesia; we wanted to know how CSE improves a sense of sexual wellbeing in relation to self and others, for instance, in building mutually respectful relationships (so less teasing and bullying for younger adolescents). This is even more important as they grow older and engage in romantic and sexual relationships, and where the quality of the relationship matters. Including freedom from violence and coercion, as well as safe, consensual sex. So, with that in mind we started to review the literature, get input from experts and identified six core competencies that we think are important to support adolescents to develop and achieve a sense of sexual wellbeing”

The six key competencies identified for healthy adolescent sexuality development are: (1) sexual literacy, (2) gender-equal attitudes, (3) respect for human rights and understanding consent, (4) critical reflection skills, (5) coping skills, and (6) interpersonal skills.

Co-author Anna Kågesten underscores that “this holistic perspective – is also supported by international consensus and discussions on sexuality – like WHOs definition of what sexuality entails. So, we are not coming up with something new here. It is really building on what other scholars and researchers and experts in the field have said on what healthy sexuality development entails.”

Read the Paper
In the end, the impact of these competencies is going to depend on you as an individual and on the context that may limit or enable putting these competencies into practice
Anna Kågesten

What does this framework mean for sexuality education?

By distilling it to six core competencies, we can evaluate these competencies, which can tell us about what young people are learning to improve their respect for their rights and for others. It helps programmes move beyond measuring teenage pregnancy or incidence of HIV as an indicator of young people’s sexual wellbeing. And can, rather, focus more on the positive and holistic side of sexuality development.

It can also be used by practitioners for the design of adolescent sexual and reproductive health interventions. The framework can help to identify ‘entry points’ for strengthening the competencies of adolescents, and how ‘scenarios’ of young people’s realities can be used to practice skills to navigate those scenarios in a safe learning environment.

Anna Kågesten adds that:  “It is important to clarify that this list of competencies that we provide is not a checklist. Healthy sexuality development is a lifelong process. It is more a guidance on what kind of competencies do we see based on evidence, on literature, that young people need in their lives. In the end, the impact of these competencies is going to depend on you as an individual and on the context that may limit or enable putting these competencies into practice.”

The framework provides signposts to help focus programme interventions to strengthen internal capacities. So adolescents, especially, can navigate the ‘bumpy road’ of sexuality development. In the end, the hope is that the knowledge, skills and attitudes of young people are strengthened and supported so that their emerging sexual development is experienced as a source of positivity and pleasure, rather than a source of frustration, anxiety, and pain.

“It helps programmes move beyond measuring teenage pregnancy or incidence of HIV as an indicator of young people’s sexual wellbeing. And can, rather, focus more on the positive and holistic side of sexuality development.”
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Sexuality education alone is not enough to tackle sexually transgressive behaviours

Positive outcomes of sexuality education could be an important contribution to reducing sexually transgressive behaviours. And having the right framework, to understand and track how CSE can do this, is essential. However, this is by no means expected to be the universal remedy for sexual abuse and assault.

To create a future where – young people are free to enjoy their sexuality and relationships, while respecting the rights of others, in an inclusive society – we need more than sexuality education. We need to meaningfully connect with empowered and engaged young people, and the people connected to them.

By establishing a feedback loop between young people, policymakers and the communities they live in, together we can create an enabling environment, so that young people can develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes required for positive, healthy sexuality.

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