Bryant Paul is a strong believer in pornography, which is evident from the vast collection of sex books and vibrators lying around his office. He swivels around in his chair and runs a hand through his unruly, curly hair before addressing the backlash he received on “Hot Girls Wanted," the documentary he co-produced that shined a light on the exploitation of amateur porn stars.
“We weren’t trying to go after the porn industry, but rather give people access to an area of the entertainment world that they didn’t have access to behind the scenes,” said the Indiana University Media School associate professor.
The online porn industry gets more hits than Amazon, Netflix, and YouTube combined, and the average age of viewership begins at 13. According to Paul, if teens aren’t taught a comprehensive sexual education, their main source of information about sex could come solely from the media, giving them a skewed perception of what healthy sexual acts are.
A report released on August 2015 by the Global Health Communication Center at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis leads experts to believe that a lack of state-mandated comprehensive sexual education in high schools contributes to the staggering statistics that one in every six high school girls in Indiana are assaulted before turning 18. The study investigated the major lack of reporting of sexual assault and abuse by adolescents, giving insight as to why the state has the highest rate of rape in female teens across the nation.
Dr. John Parish-Sprowl, the director of the report, found that a major cause for high level of assaults is that people involved in optimizing reporting them, such as teachers and after school caregivers, are not trained to encourage it.
“According to the teachers in our focus groups, abstinence only education is totally inadequate to prepare adolescents to deal with the issues involved,” Parish-Sprowl said. “Too much is missing from such education.”
In an attempt to address the severity of the issue, Indiana University created Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault (MARS), an all-male peer education group that teaches men about the issues of sexual abuse and how to prevent it.
Jesse Scheinman, the president of MARS, says the program is part of a multi-part mission to teach survivor support and bystander intervention, as well as to raise awareness of sexual assault and violence on campus. “MARS aims to eliminate sexual assaults on campus by not only educating members on the issues, but also on the solutions,” Schienman said.
While this program’s goal is to lower sexual assaults in Indiana, Catherine Sherwood-Laughin, a clinical professor at Indiana University’s School of Public Health, said that it is too late to wait until college for these issues to be addressed.
“These topics are critical during adolescent years because this is when teenagers are going through significant physiological and psychological changes,” Sherwood-Laughlin said.
Dr. Ann Skirvin, a mental health counselor at Indiana University, believes that a comprehensive sexual education that includes interpersonal and communication skills to build healthy and consensual romantic relationships is the best approach for avoiding sexual violence, but not everyone agrees with her. “Indiana is generally a conservative state that feels uncomfortable teaching students about sex because some parents, lawmakers, and educators fear that teaching sex will cause more teens to have sex,” she said.
Despite research that comprehensive sex education does not encourage teens to start having sex, Indiana state law doesn’t require sexual education to be taught at all. It is up to local school boards to decide whether they will teach it; but when it is taught, abstinence until marriage must be stressed as the only effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STD infections.
“The problem with teaching abstinence only education is that sexual and reproductive education is taught without situating the behavior in the context of healthy relationships,” said Parish-Sprowl.
While everyone agrees that abstinence until marriage is the safest way to avoid sexually related risks, studies show that teaching it might not be as effective. Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle found that teens who received a comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to become pregnant or impregnate someone else, and a federal report in 2007 by Mathematica Policy Research showed that abstinence only education had no effect on rates of sexual abstinence.
According to the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, a program providing tools for reducing sexual risk-taking behaviors, 47 percent of teens report being sexually active in high school. “Teens are having sex either way, so we might as well give them accurate information so they can make better decisions,” Skirvin said.
Teaching abstinence is misguided and ineffective, agreed Debbie Melloan, a clinical social worker at Indiana University. “It only creates young people who are ill-equipped to develop healthy, consensual relationships,” she said.
Sexual assault is a crime defined as any type of sexual behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the recipient. Melloan says that many victims aren’t aware that they were taken advantage of, because abstinence only educational programs don’t teach the meaning of consent.
According to a survey on sexual assaults conducted at Indiana University, 20 percent of males said that consensual sex could be given under the influence of alcohol, even though being intoxicated makes it impossible to legally give consent.
Paul believes that numbers of reports of sexual assaults will improve if the notion of consent becomes a component of teen sex education.
“Consent and sexual practices that are consensual and pleasurable for everyone have to be built from the basis of manners that we teach kids when they’re little,” Paul said. “We need to teach that just because people express positive arousal to behaviors seen in pornography doesn’t mean that it actually feels good.”
Expectations are a function of previous beliefs and exposure, Paul said, so without a counter message from teachers or parents, kids will think the aggression and objectification of the people they see in porn is normal.
Abstinence only programs in Indiana have been federally funded since 1998, making Paul’s fight for implementing mandatory lessons on consent a tough battle to win. “Anyone who thinks that consent and safe sexual practices shouldn’t be taught in high school is letting their morality endanger teens,” Paul said.