September 25, 2023, Durham, NC – Research has shown that comprehensive, inclusive, medically-accurate sex education can positively impact youth and young adults’ decisions about their sexual health, beliefs about relationships, and attitudes towards sexual violence. However, some middle school and high school students receive inaccurate or incomplete sex education, and others may not receive sex education at all. The gaps in standardized middle and high school sex education highlight an important opportunity for colleges to offer comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education to students, so young adults can make more informed decisions about their sexual health and foster healthy relationships.

This topic was central to iRT Research Scientists Drs. Reina Evans-Paulson and Christina Dodson‘s presentation for the ECHO@edu: Campus Violence Prevention program last month. Facilitated by the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance, the ECHO program brings four-year university and community college staff together to discuss best practices in sexual and intimate partner violence primary prevention and new developments in peer education programs. At the most recent ECHO program meeting, Drs. Evans-Paulson and Dodson presented a session entitled Building Media Aware Campuses: Media Literacy Education for Sexual and Relationship Health Promotion and Sexual Violence Prevention for over 25 college and university administrators, faculty, and staff.

During the interactive Zoom session, Evans-Paulson and Dodson discussed the importance of comprehensive sex education that covers essential information and skill-building opportunities related to consent, bystander intervention, sexual communication, and healthy beliefs about gender, sex, and relationships, among other important topics. In addition, the team spoke with session attendees about the decades of research on the negative impacts of unrealistic media portrayals of sex and relationships on youth and young adults’ sexual health beliefs and behaviors. Portrayals of sex and relationships in media often lack healthy sexual communication, pair violence or aggression with sexuality, and perpetuate stereotypical, heteronormative gender roles. These portrayals have been shown to impact youth and young adults’ outcomes related to sexual violence, teen pregnancy, acceptance of dating violence, and more. To protect themselves from the negative impacts of unrealistic media messages, young adults must develop skills to identify and counter these unhealthy, incomplete messages.

Given that some young adults have not received education on important sexual health topics or the tools to counteract the negative impacts of unrealistic portrayals of sex and relationships in media by the time they reach college, Evans-Paulson and Dodson emphasized the importance of implementing comprehensive media literacy education-based sex education programs on college campuses. Session attendees had the opportunity to learn about and view a demo of Media Aware, iRT’s web-based, evidence-based media literacy and sexual health education program for young adults. Media Aware is designed to give students complete, medically-accurate information about sexual health and skills to combat harmful media messages about sex and relationships to promote healthy sexual decision-making, foster positive relationships, and prevent sexual assault. The Media Aware program addresses various critical sexual health topics often left out in sex education programming, such as gender role stereotypes, the influence of pornography, substance use and sexual activity, and media portrayals of romantic relationships. Evans-Paulson and Dodson shared research findings on the effectiveness of the Media Aware program and its positive impacts on young adults’ sexual health beliefs and behaviors, such as their positive attitudes about the use of contraception, self-efficacy to communicate with a partner about sexual health needs, and beliefs about sexual assault.

If you are interested in providing the Media Aware program to college students or young adults that you work with, contact for more information.

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