If you could give one piece of advice to a younger sibling about sex, what would you say?
That’s the question that Josy Jablons, a student at New York University, posed to her classmates this year. She wanted to get her fellow college students thinking more seriously about how to address campus sexual assault — an issue that has recently garnered national headlines, provided fodder for documentary films and public performance art, and inspired a presidential task force.
Particularly with more attention on the subject, there’s been a huge push to reform the way that college administrations handle rape cases. Some states, like New York and California, have worked to implement an “affirmative consent” standard in student conduct codes — emphasizing that individuals engaging in sexual activity should make sure their partners say “yes,” rather than assuming the lack of a “no” means it’s okay to proceed. (This approach has its fair share of critics.)
Jablons is supportive of affirmative consent standards in college. But she ultimately hopes the ethos behind the “yes means yes” movement — encouraging more open conversations about sexuality, boundaries, and consent — may help facilitate these discussions long before kids set foot on campus. That would lay the groundwork for sexual literacy before students end up in a dorm room after having a few drinks.
“To me, it’s unfathomable that consent as a concept isn’t mandated in sex ed curricula,” Jablons said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Sexual coercion is something that flies under the radar when people are talking about gender-based violence. I wish what that looks like, and how to recognize it, was more emphasized when you’re learning about sex for the first time.”
Sparked by an interest in the potential intersections between art and activism, Jablons decided to partner with a student photographer to explore what more meaningful sexual education might look like. But, instead of asking participants which topics they think should be covered in high school sex ed classes, she framed her question in a more intimate way — which resulted in “more personal and emotional responses” from students.
The project also strikes a personal chord for Jablons: “I have a younger sister; she’s 16. I recognize that she’s not going to get the sex talk that I want her to get,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of information left out.”
Here are just a few of the things that NYU students want their younger siblings to know about sex:
Jablons said one of the things that’s surprised her so far has been the interest from Greek organizations; several sororities and fraternities reached out to ask to be included in the project, and decided as a group what piece of advice they wanted to impart. “That meant a lot to me because it meant that they took the time to sit down and have that conversation,” she said.
Now, she’s hoping to keep adding to the photo series, and potentially use the photographs to pressure U.S. lawmakers to improve the current national standards for sex ed. Earlier this year, several Democratic senators introduced the “Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015,” which would require high school health classes to include information about sexual consent. Jablons thinks the “Better Sex Talk” project could eventually be a good way to persuade other policymakers to support that effort, by providing concrete evidence that young people want to change the status quo — particularly as the federal government keeps increasing funding for abstinence-only programs that aren’t based in scientific evidence.
Jablons is optimistic about the potential to make conversations about sex more mainstream.
“How can we start preventing these things before college? How can we create an entire culture around consent? They’re lofty goals, I know,” she said. “But I do hope that we can engage students from all over the country.”