sex education

The Changing Conversation That Shouldn’t Be Changing

I was on my planning period yesterday and took a moment to load up the front page of The Washington Post.  Right there was the headline “Key Elements of Rolling Stone’s U-Va. Gang Rape Allegations in Doubt.”  You’ve probably heard about the article by now, but if you haven’t, it goes into detail about the partial retraction that Rolling Stone issued to their recent article about rape at The University of Virginia, which has made huge headlines where I live and across the country.  Will Dana’s Rolling Stone retraction reads as follows:

To Our Readers:

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story titled “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity house; the university’s failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school’s troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone’s editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie’s credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie’s account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.

Will Dana
Managing Editor

I showed both to a colleague who had been discussing the RS article with his seniors and we had a conversation about how this is an excellent way to demonstrate why fact-checking and corroborating is so important in not just journalism but any factual writing that involves research.  He said that his students had been pretty mature in their discussion of the original article, saying that they acknowledged how horrific the crime committed was and why talking about rape and trying to do something about it was important, but how the original RS article was not as balanced as it should have been.  I’m curious to see what they say on Monday.

This is frustrating because it’s a teachable moment but it’s not a teachable moment I necessarily want.  Our culture has a tendency to be very black and white about stories like this.  If even a small fact is found to be untrue, there are people (whom usually are found in comments sections) who dismiss an entire story outright, calling it “bullshit.”  Rape is a crime that goes largely unreported for a number of reasons, among them being that rape victims are stigmatized as “asking for it” because of the way they were dressed or how they were drinking; furthermore, a number of rape victims know their rapists and are afraid of them as well as the rapists’ friends and are threatened with violence if they go to the police.  Now, you have a nationally reported rape story that has several inaccuracies and the jerks in the room are already prattling on about her not telling the truth.  As a result of all of this, I’m frustrated.  Just so frustrated.

So what can we get out of this?

1. A conversation about journalism.  Setting aside the horror of the crime for a moment, I wonder what Rolling Stone expected.  It’s hard to have a story this graphic and this damning of an institution like UVA published without it being picked up and investigated further by other media outlets, especially the Post, a publication that, at least in the time I’ve been reading it, seems to have it in for UVA for some reason (perhaps because it’s not the University of Maryland).  Furthermore, one would have thought that an article like this would be thoroughly fact-checked.  It goes back to what I tell my students when they do research, especially on controversial topics:  always back up your sources with other sources.  If a fact or story seems like it might be exaggerated, then back it up using another source of information.  So, objectively speaking, both of these articles are worth looking at for how they are written, the mistakes made, and why it’s important to be aware of those mistakes.

2. A conversation about identity and motivation.  So what did motivate “Jackie” to tell the story the way she did?  What exactly did happen that night?  Not to be flip, but doesn’t this sound like it could be the next season of Serial?  Simply saying that her motivation was “attention” when it comes to this story is just as bad as dismissing the entire story by saying “It’s all bullshit.”  Something obviously happened to her, or at least there’s something that caused her to tell the story to Rolling Stone and it can’t just be that she “wanted attention.”  Was she so traumatized that she misconstrued the facts of the evening?  Was she telling the truth but changing some of the facts around because she was protecting someone?  Is she mentally ill and if so should we be having a conversation about mental illness in addition to a conversation about rape?  This story continues to be worth investigating not because “Jackie” should be completely discredited and then smeared, but because there’s a deep discussion about psychology that can take place.

3. A conversation about rape.  No matter the veracity of all the facts in the RS article, we still need to talk about rape.  Don’t think it’s a problem?  Look at the infographic in this Mother Jones article.   My friend Tracy posted this Huffington Post article from February to Facebook last night:  “Why Are So Many Boys Leaving High School Thinking Rape is Funny?”  It sums up one of the roots of the problem and I have to say that if we’re not talking about it in some way, then we’re also the root of the problem.  I know this blog gets all of ten readers and therefore what I have to say won’t resonate with anyone, but a while back when the #gamergate controversy was at its height, I wondered aloud where the #edchat was about #gamergate.  Last week, when the RS article went live, I wondered aloud again why my Thought Leaders weren’t talking about it.  I’m still wondering.  I honestly don’t care about talking about differentiated instruction or about how Innovative Educators need certain resources when they present to crowds and get paid more than I do in a month for an hour’s work.  I care more about whether or not my students will feel safe when going out to a social function, especially ones in college where mom and dad are far away.

Does AIDS education need another look?

Timeaidscover

The cover of Time, August 12, 1985.

I first saw the word “AIDS” on the cover of Time from August 12, 1985. I was eight years old and had no idea what AIDS was or what I was seeing in that cover photo, but it seemed important. A few months later, I’d see a story about Rock Hudson dying of the disease on Entertainment Tonight; again, I still didn’t know what it was but since the program about movie stars was taking the time to report about it, it seemed important. Three years later, I’d learn quite a bit more in my fifth grade class when my class took part in the first wave of AIDS education that was attached to the Family Life Curriculum that our district had introduced that year.

This Family Life Curriculum–which was basically a series of filmstrips featuring rather sterile-looking diagrams of human reproductive systems and dull narration about our growing bodies and how a baby is made punctuated by loud beeps that told us when to go to the next frame–was pretty controversial when it was introduced in my district, or at least that’s the impression I got in 1988. There were at least a few meetings that the district held to introduce the curriculum to parents, and I remember that my sister’s friend was not allowed to go to school on those days because her mother–a born-again Christian–would not allow her to take part in sex ed.

To be honest, the sex stuff was pretty tame and the only reason it really had an impact on me was that I would wind up studying human reproduction every year for the next three years courtesy of Family Life, then science and health classes. But the AIDS lesson had a little bit more of an impact. By the time I was in the fifth grade, the disease had received much more media coverage and there was a solid push for AIDS awareness to help stem the public health crisis. In fact, the education I received at the hands of my public school about AIDS was incredibly thorough–we even had an “AIDS Awareness Day” in school two years in a row. That was not without its share of drama (apparently one teacher decided to take 45 minutes to preach from the Bible and talk about the evils of homosexuals) or boredom (a presentation of pieces of the AIDS quilt is fascinating, but when it rolls on for more than an hour, you get a little restless), but I have to say that by the time I was a senior I had raised money for and participated in three LIAAC AIDS Walks, and really felt prepared for when I would start having sex (read: I bought the strongest condoms they made).

Then again, so did much of my generation, because AIDS was, like I said, the public health crisis of the time. I don’t hear it mentioned very much among the student body these days, and in fact when I wore a red ribbon last December 1, I had to explain to more than a few students what it meant (whereas a pink ribbon is very well-known). I’d say that part of that is because great strides have been made in fighting both HIV and AIDS (and there have been great strides), but I also wonder how much AIDS education really exists anymore, at least in the South. The <em>Washington Post</em> was sort of wondering this too, as it has been doing an extensive amount of reporting on AIDS in the last few days due to the fact that the World Conference on AIDS is taking place in D.C. this year. One particular article, “The South is the epicenter of new HIV infections in the United States” takes an extensive look at how and why HIV/AIDS cases have been on the rise in the South in the last decade or so.

It doesn’t mention education very much, but it does talk about how one of the reasons for the increase has been the still-prevalent stigma of AIDS being a “gay disease”:

The stigma surrounding AIDS is a key reason that the South is the epicenter of new HIV infections in the United States. Half of all new infections in the United States are in the South, although the region has only a little more than a third of the country’s population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The South also has the highest death rate due to HIV. The disproportionate number of cases in the South has many causes: widespread poverty, a shortage of health care, a lack of HIV testing and education, a shortage of accessible medical specialists for the many who live in small rural areas and a persistent prejudice by many in the Bible Belt against homosexuals, the group most affected by HIV/AIDS.

Reading the article, I began to wonder what guidelines there are for AIDS education in Virginia, and there really isn’t much. The Family Life guidelines and standards posted on the Virginia Department of Education’s website mention HIV and AIDS once:

The student will become aware of the existence of sexually transmitted infection.

Descriptive Statement: Factual information regarding the nature of sexually transmitted infection, including human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), is introduced. Other diseases referred to include but are not limited to Chlamydia, Genital Herpes, Gonorrhea, HPV, and Syphillis.

I wonder if the standards are purposely vague so as to not offend those who claim that public schools teaching sexual education is “going too far,” or to allow for abstinence-only education. And in all honesty, I have to plead ignorance a bit because my education about sex and AIDS was 20-25 years ago, on Long Island, so I’ve never actually taken sex ed in Virginia. Still, this begs the question: what is public education’s role in this health crisis? While I know that teachers do not have a monopoly on knowledge, we do have access to a fair amount of resources that are both thorough and accurate (there’s plenty of purposefully misleading sex-ed materials on the web) and those students who are in poor areas do often (though not always) have parents that are also relatively uneducated.

One of the reason AIDS awareness was so successful when I was a teenager–aside from its prevalence in popular culture (which is a whole other entry in itself, trust me)–was the willingness of public institutions like schools to be proactive in teaching about the disease in ways that went beyond simply making us aware of its existence. By the time I graduated high school, I knew about how the virus worked, how it was transmitted, why it was important to get tested, and what treatments were available (thankfully, that last part of knowledge is outdated in a good way because drug treatments have made living with HIV considerably more possible than in the 1980s), and how to prevent it (and it wasn’t just abstinence). However, would that float today, especially in an area that prides itself on being conservative, or would any attempt to give students a thorough education on HIV/AIDS be greeted with shouts of “Indoctrination!”? Has the constant politicizing of everything sexuality, especially when it concerns young adults and education actually hurt children more than it has helped them? And shouldn’t we change that?