By Harry Chiu
H.673/S.318, “An Act Relative to Healthy Youth,” is a proposed Massachusetts bill that aims to reform sex education in K-12 schools. Based on current research in gender-based violence prevention in schools, this bill would be an impactful and positive step toward reducing gender-based violence in schools and promoting healthier gender identities amongst Massachusetts students. Previous versions of this bill have received Senate approval, but have never managed to pass the House. This post offers strategic communications recommendations to promote the successful passage of H.673/S.318, putting forth research-based, strategic messaging recommendations for advocates and organizations interested in promoting sex education reform to advance gender equity, anti-bullying, and LGBTQ inclusion in Massachusetts schools.
An Introduction to the Problem of Gender-Based Violence in Schools
Gender-based violence (GBV) is a serious problem in American schools. Gender-based violence is “violence directed at an individual, male or female, based on his or her specific role in society” in order to “assert and reproduce gender roles and norms.” Examples include dating violence, sexual harassment, bullying motivated by gender stereotypes, and anti-LGBTQ language and behavior. Physical, sexual, and psychological violence are common in adolescent dating, with 21% of female-identified students reporting experiencing some form of dating violence (twice the rate of male-identified students). This number increases in frequency into young adulthood. The rate of sexual harassment in middle and high schools is high, and there is significant overlap between dating violence, harassment, and bullying behaviors. Homophobic bullying is also prevalent, particularly amongst male students, and is a well-documented form of gender-based violence that is as a frequent precursor to sexual violence. Experiencing GBV at school is associated with numerous negative consequences for physical and emotional health as well as academic outcomes, including increased incidence of anxiety, depression, and suicidal behavior.
This points to a need to challenge toxic masculinity and GBV in schools, both in order to improve the safety and quality of education for all students and to create the foundations for broader, future societal change. Schools have a strong track record of promoting progress in gender equality. Examples include female athletics programs that have played an important role in transforming how US society views women athletes, as well as school-based efforts to encourage girls to enroll in STEM and other high-level classes that have greatly expanded young women’s access to higher education. Schools can take on a similar kind of leadership role in expanding ideas about manhood and men’s roles in society.
An Act Relative to Healthy Youth
H.673/S.318, “An Act Relative to Healthy Youth” (or the Healthy Youth Act), is a proposed sex education reform law in Massachusetts. The core mandate of H.673/S.318 is to ensure that every public school district and charter school that teaches sex education provide a medically accurate, age-appropriate, and comprehensive sex education. The curriculum must teach skills for violence-free relationships and healthy decisions about relationships and sexuality, ways to recognize and prevent dating violence, affirmative consent, opportunities to analyze societal messages, and age-appropriate information about gender identity and sexual orientation for all students, including affirmative information about different sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions. The education must also be appropriate for students regardless of gender, race, disability status, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will be given the authority to determine minimum qualifications for sex educators.
Recommendations for Promoting the Successful Passage of H.673/S.318
Applying strategic communications principles designed to aid social justice advocates in changing public opinion in favor of their desired policy goals will help lead to successful passage of H.673/S.318. Principles developed by The Opportunity Agenda, a non-profit “social justice communication lab” dedicated to advancing the impact of the social justice community by providing advocates with the training and resources to shape compelling narratives that drive policy and cultural change, provide helpful instruction.
A comprehensive strategic communications plan as developed by The Opportunity Agenda would include a set of program goals, an internal scan of organizational assets, audience segmentation, frame and narrative crafting, values-oriented message development, public opinion research, media tactics, messenger selection, timeline, budget, and metrics for impact measurement, amongst other things. This post focuses on applying target audience segmentation, values identification, and values-oriented messaging development to H.673/S.318.
Target Audience Segmentation
“Audience segmentation” is the act of identifying the decision makers and people who influence them and classifying them into categories of base, persuadables, or opposition. This is not only to figure out whom to send our messages to but also to help identify the values which our audiences care about with regards to our issue: passing comprehensive, inclusive, and medically accurate sex education reform in MA. In this case, the decision makers are the Massachusetts House and Senate legislators who must vote to pass H.673/S.318 into law, and the influencers are the voters whose support they need to win elections and remain in office. The base is the segment of voters who already support the cause, but need engagement to stay motivated and active. Persuadables, identified through public opinion research and experience, are people who could be convinced to support the cause with the right motivation. Finally, the opposition are people who are highly unlikely to support the cause, and we should not spend significant resources reaching this group. The goal is to motivate the voters in the base and persuadable groups to reach out to and influence state legislators to support H.673/S.318.
Common experience suggests that, since the issue is education reform, parents with children in the public and charter schools governed by this reform are more likely to be engaged. A Google search of news coverage of H.673/S.318 shows that declared supporters include anti-sexual assault, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, and gender equity groups, and supporters of these causes are more likely to belong to the base as well. A study breaking down national demographic support and opposition for comprehensive vs. abstinence only sex education suggests that conservative voters and those who attend religious services more frequently are likely to be part of the opposition. Experience and scholarship suggest that those who prioritize traditional family values and conservative religious sexual morality likely belong to the same. Conversely, voters who identify as highly politically progressive likely belong to the base.
Public opinion research also confirms that, overall, the American public is “very supportive of comprehensive, government-sponsored sex education” (as opposed to abstinence-only education), with many studies finding more than 65% support. Although I was not able to find any data specific to Massachusetts, data from states that tend to be more politically liberal, like Massachusetts, find even higher support, from 85% in New York to 93% in D.C. and 96% in California. Notably, 84% of Republican voters in New York supported the teaching of “age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education.” While research finds little variance in declared support based on whether someone has an adolescent in the household, common sense indicates that parents are still more likely to be engaged and enthusiastic about the issue.
Based on the data, the persuadables include politically centrist (including left-of and right-of center) Massachusetts voters who may hold some conservative values and may be religiously affiliated but are nonetheless open to considering the idea of comprehensive sex education. The most engaged amongst the persuadables are likely to be parents of school-aged children. Considering that public support of comprehensive sex education is already high, communications strategy can solidify and increase that support.
Identifying our persuadable demographics helps ascertain the values that audiences prioritize with regards to this issue. This is important because, whether rallying the base or persuading the undecided, messaging should lead with shared values. Research shows that audiences will often ignore facts and rhetoric that appear to conflict with their core values unless framed by shared values. Further, audiences are less familiar with the details of policies than advocates, which means that they can quickly end up lost.
Opinion research and communications principles suggest that some shared values that persuadables hold regarding sex education include public safety, moral responsibility (particularly to children), and workable solutions. Furthermore, research indicates that using a public health narratives could be helpful. This is the case for several reasons. First, all of these values are shared by wide segments of the American public, regardless of political orientation. Second, scholarship shows that some, including public safety and moral responsibility, are particularly prioritized by center-right voters, who form a significant proportion of those who are undecided and are therefore an audience whose values need to be spoken to. Third, public opinion researchers recommend framing the debate from a public-health perspective by focusing on the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education in preventing pregnancies, disease, and dating violence, as the public places an emphasis on efficacy in regards to sex education.
Values-Oriented Messaging Development
Before crafting sample messages to the persuadables, it is important to outline the key principles of values-oriented message development. In addition to leading with shared values, the other principles are proposing positive solutions, evoking familiar themes, and telling an affirmative story. These principles form the basis for a structure known as Value Problem Solution Action (VPSA), which The Opportunity Agenda recommends as the basic structure for message development.
Proposing positive solutions “counters “compassion fatigue,” in which people see a parade of social problems as impossible to solve.” Following this principle is easy in this case –a solution to the problem of GBV and toxic masculinity is readily on hand. Evoking familiar themes is about using already “familiar stories, metaphors, or concepts” to help audiences understand the issue. Framing proposed sex education reform using the narrative of public health can not only focus the debate on efficacy, but also provide a widely understood narrative, particularly in the context of sex education, which is already associated in many Americans’ minds with sexually transmitted disease and contraceptive use.
Finally, telling an affirmative story follows research-based best practices for countering misinformation. Decades of psychological research shows that myth-busting, or restating false arguments and explaining why they’re wrong, only serves to deepen the myth in audiences’ minds. The best way to counter false information “is to tell our affirmative story in ways that overcome the other side’s falsehoods,” without mentioning the falsehoods themselves. Key myths to avoid in discussing comprehensive sex education reform include that it encourages youth to have sex earlier, increases risky sexual practices, and inappropriately sexualizes children’s curricula.
The VPSA model synthesizes these principles into a basic structure for developing messages for particular issues and audiences. This structure begins by leading with shared values, proceeds to frame problems as a threat to shared values using stories likely to resonate with our target audience, pivots quickly to a solution (while making clear who has the power to enact it), and finishes by assigning a concrete action that the target audience can do, such as making a phone call or sending an email. Below is a sample VPSA message, targeted to the politically centrist persuadable audience of Massachusetts voters, incorporating the shared values and public health narrative identified earlier, and tailored to be delivered in one-minute on television and/or radio or read quickly by email.
“We have a moral responsibility to keep all of our kids safe and healthy. But right now, all over Massachusetts, the rate of dating violence and sexual harassment in schools remains alarmingly high. What’s more, without any requirement to teach students to make responsible decisions about healthy relationships and safe sexual practices, they are left to rely on the Internet, mass media, and their peers. This is irresponsible and endangers our young people. If we want our kids to be able to make healthy decisions and keep themselves safe, we need to provide them with the information and skills to do so. Public schools should be required to make their sex education comprehensive, medically accurate, and age-appropriate. This education should be inclusive for all students. Call your state representative today to tell them to pass the Healthy Youth Act and support comprehensive sex education reform in our schools.”
Analyzing this message from the perspective of the VPSA model and communications principles, it leads with a statement that almost everyone would agree with, but at the same time it emphasizes shared values that the persuadables prioritize: moral responsibility, safety, and public health. It then frames the problem as a threat to those values (i.e., violence and harassment make kids unsafe), and it assigns responsibility to schools for fixing these problems by framing them as the setting where they occur. It does so using a widely understood and resonant narrative, particularly for parents – the idea of leaving kids unattended and exposed to the influence of their peers and the Internet. This narrative has an additional advantage, because the “natural” solution to leaving kids exposed to improper influence is to teach them to know better, which fits well with our goal of promoting sex education reform. Further, this message continues to refer back to shared values by framing the status quo as irresponsible and unsafe.
Pivoting to the solution, the message evokes the idea of effective, workable, and realistic solutions using an “if-then” statement that frames the issue from the perspective of what kids need at a practical level if we want them to be able to keep themselves safe: information and skills that they currently do not have. From there, the solution that H.673/S.318 provides appears to flow naturally because of how the problem is framed. Sex education should be comprehensive, because kids do not have enough accurate information about sex and relationships. It should be medically accurate, because this is an issue of public health and safety. And it should be age appropriate, because, as our audiences know well, the Internet, mass media, and other students generally are not. Finally, to complete the VPSA, we finish with a specific call for action that directs our audience to influence the decisionmakers who have the power to enact the proposed solution: Massachusetts legislators.
Although the sample message in this paper applies strategic communications principles and the VPSA model to a short message directed at a particular persuadable audience, the principles can be applied in much the same way using different shared values for other target audiences. The principles and the communications recommendations outlined in this post can also be applied to different efforts to tackle GBV and toxic masculinity and promote sex education reform in other states. Much of the public opinion research informing this paper applies nationally, so the strategy and messaging would just need to be adjusted to the political context, demographics, and policy specifics of the proposed reform.
Crafting good policy is only part of the battle. No matter the issue, social justice advocates everywhere must also consider how to effectively communicate and promote their desired policy solutions in order to garner the support needed to enact them. This post connects the dots between proposed efforts to reform sex education and communications research designed to help social justice advocates craft compelling narratives that drive policy and cultural change. In doing so, I hope it helps demonstrate that both research-based policy and research-based communications strategies are important elements of achieving progress in social justice initiatives.
Harry Chiu is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School, Campus Advocacy co-chair at HLS Lambda, and inaugural recipient of the Lynn Walker Huntley Social Justice Fellowship at the Southern Education Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center
 Sophie Read-Hamilton, Gender-based violence: a confused and contested term, Humanitarian Exchange 60 (2014): 5-8 at 6.
 Dorothy L. Espelage et al., Bullying perpetration and subsequent sexual violence perpetration among middle school students, Journal of Adolescent Health, 50 (1) (2012): 60-65 at 60; Dorothy L. Espelage et al., Longitudinal examination of the bullying-sexual violence pathway across early to late adolescence: Implicating homophobic name-calling, Journal of youth and adolescence 47.9 (2018): 1880-1893 at 1880; Christine Ricardo & F. Verani, Engaging men and boys in gender equality and health: A global toolkit for action, (2010) http://www. unfpa. org/publications/engaging-men-and-boys-gender-equality-and-health.
 Kevin J., Vagi et al., Teen dating violence (physical and sexual) among US high school students: Findings from the 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, JAMA pediatrics 169.5 (2015): 474-482 at 474.
 Elizabeth Miller et al., An athletic coach–delivered middle school gender violence prevention program: A cluster randomized clinical trial, JAMA pediatrics 174.3 (2020): 241-249 at 242.
 Kathleen C.Basile et al., The theoretical and empirical links between bullying behavior and male sexual violence perpetration, Aggression and Violent Behavior 14.5 (2009): 336-347 at 344.
 Jodi Lipson, Hostile hallways: Bullying, teasing, and sexual harassment in school, AAUW Educational Foundation (2001) at 39-45; Diann M. Ackard and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Date violence and date rape among adolescents: Associations with disordered eating behaviors and psychological health, Child abuse & neglect 26.5 (2002): 455-473 at 455-6.
 Id. at 19.
 An Act Relative to Healthy Youth, S.B. 318, 192nd Mass. S. (2019).
 Id. at §1(c).
 Id. at §1(f).
 The Opportunity Agenda, Vision, Values, and Voice: A Communications Toolkit at 3, 5-9 https://www.opportunityagenda.org/sites/default/files/2019-05/2019.05.06%20Toolkit%20Without%20Comic%20Book.pdf.
 Id. at 9.
 See e.g. Chris Van Buskirk, The Daily News, Sex education advocates take efforts into second decade, Mar 31, 2021, https://www.newburyportnews.com/news/regional_news/sex-education-advocates-take-efforts-into-second-decade/article_8e2294c7-d583-507c-9972-6800d9163c3a.html; Chris Lisinski, wbur.org, Mass. Senate Approves Sex Education Bill, January 16, 2020, https://www.wbur.org/edify/2020/01/16/massachusetts-senate-sex-education.
 Amy Bleakley et al., Predicting Preferences for Types of Sex Education in US Schools, Sexuality Research and Social Policy 7.1 (2010): 50-57 at 54-55.
 Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America?: Culture wars in the public schools, Harvard University Press, 2009 at 188; Janice M. Irvine, Doing It with Words: Discourse and the Sex Education Culture Wars, Critical Inquiry 27.1 (2000): 58-76 at 58-59..
 Bleakley, supra note 26, at 54.
 Marla E. Eisenberg et al., Support for comprehensive sexuality education: perspectives from parents of school-age youth, Journal of Adolescent Health 42.4 (2008): 352–359 at 352; Kristin E. Ito et al., Parent opinion of sexuality education in a state with mandated abstinence education: Does policy match parental preference?, Journal of Adolescent Health 39.5 (2006): 634-641 at 634; Princeton Survey Research Associates, Sex Education in America—General Public/Parents Survey 1,759 adults nationwide with oversample of parents of children in 7th through 12th grade, September–October 2003.
 Public Health Institute’s Center for Research on Adolescent Health, Sex Education: The Parents’ Perspective, 1,284 California parents, Spring–Summer 2006; Metro Teen AIDS and D.C. Healthy Youth Coalition, District Parents Speak: Sex Education in Schools, 652 D.C. parents, 2008; Family Planning Advocates of New York State, Statewide Survey, 604 registered voters in New York, January 13–15, 2009.
 Bleakley, supra note 26, at 54.
 The Opportunity Agenda, supra note 19, at 9.
 Id. at 14.
 Id. at 21. See also the Opportunity Agenda, Talking Policing Issues (2016) https://www.opportunityagenda.org/explore/resources-publications/talking-policing-issues and George Lakoff, Metaphor, morality, and politics, or, why conservatives have left liberals in the dust, Social Research (1995): 177-213 at 184.
 Bleakley, supra note 26, at 56-7.
 The Opportunity Agenda, supra note 19, at 13.
 Id. at 20.
 Id. at 15.
 Bleakley, supra note 26, at 56-7.
 The Opportunity Agenda, supra note 19, at 16-7.
 Id. at 16; Norbert Schwarz et al., Making the truth stick & the myths fade: Lessons from cognitive psychology, Behavioral Science & Policy (2016): 85-95 at 85-6; Shankar Vedantam, Persistence of myths could alter public policy approach, Washington Post Sept. 4, 2007, A03.
 The Opportunity Agenda, supra note 19, at 16.
 Lisinski, supra note 24. See e.g. Chris Van Buskirk, Lowell representative behind sex education legislation, The Lowell Sun, March 31, 2021, https://www.lowellsun.com/2021/03/31/lowell-representative-behind-sex-education-legislation/.
 The Opportunity Agenda, supra note 19, at 20.