As I’ve been enjoying of my senior year at college, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I wanted to look back at one of the posts I wrote last year.
Since then, this blog has recieved almost 2,000 hits. It’s been my place to go for writing practice, for putting myself out there, and for creating the potential to make a difference. As I was taking my second women’s and gender studies course ever, I wrote a post about feminism. I decided that I wasn’t going to identify as a feminist because I felt that the word is outdated. I decided that I was going to make up a new name for myself, like “equitist” or “equalist.”
I feel differently about this now.
I have been involved with more gender studies courses, which have taught me the nuances of all kinds of feminism. I discovered how very exciting the first wave is to me, and how much I admire Victoria Woodhull (read up on her, she’s amazing). I discovered my gripes with the second wave (which I shouldn’t have referred to as “1980’s feminism” in my aforementioned post, that was my mistake). I have met other fellow feminists. I have read more and more, and I am trying to figure out where I fit in this third wave.
So now, I am here to say that I am not afraid. Am I a feminist?
I have made the decision that I will no longer run from the term and the identity because of a stereotype about it. I know that I don’t hate men. I know that I don’t walk around being angry about the world all the time. I know that if someone were to hold the door for me–yes, even a man–I would most likely thank them nicely.
There are too many of my friends and too many people in this world who are afraid of identifying this way because of how other people will feel about them, or because they don’t feel they meet the prerequisites to claim the identity. People say that feminism is dead, but I think that might be because they have a preconcieved notion of what feminism is, based on the dominant narrative of feminism consisting of, “these women who want equality are crazy nuts!”
To me, feminism means being critical of this culture that makes it hard for all genders and sexual orientations to simply live their lives. It means having an understanding of the traditions and mores the we have all been a part of, then choosing whether you really want to engage in them. I believe that feminism is about choice–reproductive choice, educational choice, occupational choice, and the choice to live your life as your authentic self, as you see it, no matter how silly, loud, quiet, serious, butch, femme, or outrageous you are.
Learning about feminism has showed me that there are not only all different kinds of women, but all different kinds of people. This education in women’s and gender studies has benefited me incredibly. It has helped me get closer to being completely unashamed about the authentic self that I am. It tells me that I can listen to Fergie and Led Zeppelin in the same playlist without being considered weird. It tells me that I can express my outrageously above-average (and potentially intimidating to others) love and respect for penguins in public. In my favorite kinds of feminism, I am told that I am an active agent within my body, that I am worthy of respect, that I can be happy with how I look. This discipline has a lot to do with empowerment, confidence, and knowing that as a woman, I have a real voice and things to say that matter.
I would encourage every person in the proverbial feminist closet to “come out.” It’s okay. In this community, you are welcome, and we want to communicate with you and with the world. If you are afraid to identify that way because of how other people might view you or for any other reason, I must tell you that if you look into the values and history of feminism, you may discover that you have found some part of yourself.
The only way to get the message of human equality out there is to show the world that feminism is most certainly not dead, and that there is a critical mass of feminists all over the country and the world. If you don’t want to identify as a feminist, then there is nothing wrong with that. But if that’s what you choose, let it be because that’s not what you truly are, not because of a stereotype that is designed to control your behavior in the first place. Think about your views, your feelings, and where you’re coming from: you might already be a feminist. If your feminism is already apparent in your actions, then why not say it? Why not be it?
Because in the end, couldn’t a stereotype be just another kind of oppression?
It keeps coming up.
I was talking with a good friend of mine this past quarter, and she was lamenting how impossible it is to get through a crowd of men on the street without being touched inappropriately against one’s will, and how this always happens to her. I was a little surprised, and I didn’t understand. This hasn’t ever happened to me. My friend told me that it was because I am assertive.
…I’m assertive? Something in my walk, my speech, my way of living in this world is assertive?
I love my friend, but in my heart, I feel like my perceived assertiveness doesn’t matter. The fact is, all kinds of people get sexually assaulted. Even in high school, when I was nowhere near as assertive as I am now, I never experienced such horror. I have been lucky enough in my relationships to have been with guys who respect my “no.” In fact, that’s just how I feel: lucky.
Over the past year, I have been hearing stories from more and more friends who have experienced all kinds of sexual assault, and knowing that so many of my friends have had to deal with being sexually assaulted breaks my heart. Lately, I’ve been paying some attention to the Assange and Michael Moore scandal (read more here, and here), the accompanying #mooreandme hashtag (here and here), and a few new articles on Scarleteen (here and here), all having to do with sexual assault and consent. I see my friends’ experiences reflected in these conversations, and I gain more and more awareness of how pervasive a problem this is with each article, each story, each friend of mine who is a survivor.
Sometimes I wonder why this has happened to so many of my friends. Sometimes I figure that this is the result of being in a feminist-oriented circle of friends, as I can see why people who have had their lack of consent ignored would feel at home in a community that stands by virtues like freedom, autonomy, and having a voice. But I know that the bottom line is this: it can happen to anybody.
I hear my peers lament about the college dating scene and about how they can’t find a decent man who is feminist and/or aware of his privilege, and I can’t relate, because I have been lucky. Right now, I am in a satisfying, respectful, and deeply loving relationship with a man who loves and respects women, as well as their consent. Even though I am not looking for anybody else right now, I still try not to deal with any men who I believe wouldn’t respect my “no,” or anyone elses’ “no.” If I get that vibe that a man wouldn’t, I turn and walk away. The guy friends who I choose to spend time with are guys who understand that a “yes” is not a lack of “no,” who respect women, who respect consent.
And those who do not? I was trained to stay away from these men. I was trained to know that sex was all men wanted. Of course, I’ve seen the benefits of being a strong woman, but I push it fairly far: I don’t go to parties where I feel like these men will be around. I’m not friends with these men. When walking down the street at night, I walk with intention and stride. I stay focused. I keep my awareness up. And if some drunk guy is going to come up to me and act inappropriate, I offer them a sincere and wholehearted “buzz off,” perhaps using some less-politically correct language.
I do many of these things primarily because I’m afraid, and fear is often perpetuated by stereotype.
So to protect me from abuse and assault, I was told, essentially, to be on my guard about male sexuality. This teaching has been successful at protecting me, at the expense of limiting my knowledge about the opposite sex and ultimately, instilling me with fear and stereotyped views about men—my fellow folks trying to live in this world just like me. I have friends who desperately want to avoid stereotyping men. These are funny, upbeat, compassionate, caring, and loving women; they are feminists who turn away from a “men are perverts and pigs” attitude, but said attitude still insinuates itself into their minds because this is all they have ever known. For myself, I can tell you that even though I have known and love non-perverted and non-piggish men, there’s still that idea that there are men “out there,” or a certain type of man, who I mustn’t befriend out of risk for my “honor”—we call it the “bro.”
I can only imagine how it must feel. I sometimes say that my conditioning stole years of healthy sexuality from me, but my friends have had their autonomy, their voices stolen from them. Who am I to talk of stealing? I’m sick of this. I’m done. I’m sick of people getting violated. I’m sick of people being silenced in this way. I’m sick of the way that stereotypes about male sexuality work to ruin my perception of men, the way that it drains their humanity from them. I’m sick of the way that those stereotypes are true for so very many women, so that one is either afraid of men or feels that no decent ones exist.
And for myself, I’m sick of wondering, like Andrea Grimes does on RH Reality Check, when my turn will inevitably come, that some monster believes that my body belongs to him, and will thus take it. I am a woman, right? Shouldn’t I be living in fear?
So now I’m saying no. No more. Rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment: it all needs to end. I’m saying no to people being hurt and violated, mentally, physically, and emotionally. I’m saying no to the people I love and admire, people just as human as myself, getting hurt. I’m sick of all people getting hurt. Can you hear that? Is my “no” assertive enough to be heard? Will society respect my “no?”
I’m saying no. And I mean no.
In one of my classes, I’m working on a term paper about the social hygiene movement, which was the movement that led to the greater idea that sex education needs to happen in a school setting. Now, in my research, I’ve found this captivating article from 1935 (citation below!), putting it a little too far out of my time period for the paper.
But I printed it out anyway, because it was still relevant to me. A woman named Frances Bruce Strain of the Cincinnati Social Hygiene Society talks vividly about how teenagers are craving information about sex:
“Yet between the close of the lecture and the departure of the children we were stampeded by eager young questioners. There was no evading them and their demands. They begged to be excused from classes to hear more. They offered to stay after school, to sacrifice their recess, their lunch period. They asked for our telephone and street numbers. They were greedy, voracious, and insatiable. Here were meat and drink. (346)”
Interesting. I remember in my school sex education experiences, nobody wanted to act like they needed any information. That wasn’t cool to look like you didn’t know about sex, even though you were thinking about it and asking questions in your head all the time.
The most interesting part of this article is where Strain cites some of the questions that seventh and eighth grade girls ask her (all on pages 346-7). While a lot of them are indeed about reproduction, I was quite interested in how relevant these questions still are today. Strain herself suggests that sex education needs to talk about more social and interpersonal matters, rather than just the physical aspects of sexuality and puberty. This, she argues, is what young people are interested in, and the questions she cites relate directly to this (348).
Some were about social relations, gender roles, and body image:
“Should a girl allow a man any privileges? Why? Why not?”
“If you aren’t pretty, how can you attract a boy?”
“How does one get acquainted with boys?”
“Is is proper to kiss a boy good-night?”
“Do you have to pet to be popular?”
It was 1935, and girls were trying to figure out beauty and bodies and boys and friendships, the politics of being pretty and popular and while remaining true to yourself. If this isn’t relevant, I don’t know what is. After all, one girl asked whether you “have” to pet to be popular, as opposed to, “If I pet, will I be popular?” Or, “Is there a better way of becoming popular than petting?” With that language, the question implies that the seventh or eighth grade girl who asked this question wouldn’t have wanted to get involved with someone physically, but still felt the peer pressure to do so–again, relevant.
Out-of-wedlock pregnancy was a hot topic:
“How can we ladies have babies that aren’t married?”
“Is it proper for an unmarried girl to deny pregnancy?”
It’s funny how taboo out-of-wedlock pregnancy was that a girl didn’t even know how it was possible to get pregnant if one wasn’t married, or exactly how to react to an unmarried woman denying a pregnancy. It shows that unmarried pregnancies happened, but there was no language available to discuss it.
Other particularly notable questions were explicitly about sex and intimacy:
“If a girl does not have close union with a boy before she is nineteen, will she go crazy?”
“How can you get over a horror of intercourse?”
“A boy’s touch makes me shiver. How can I get over my disgust?”
I mean, how many of you hear about teens asking questions like this? Question number one is the story of so many teen sex comedies, albeit a female-oriented one. Modern translation: I’m dying to express intimacy with someone, but I’m 13 and it doesn’t look like it’s happening soon. How do I remain sane? Question two is the story of so many modern girls–I had a horrible sexual experience. What do I do? And if the girl asking this question is indeed the one who had this horrible experience, I can only imagine what it was to feel completely alienated and confused by this experience, especially when you may not have been able to talk to anyone about it. I hear these stories over and over from my peers, and it’s truly heartbreaking. And question three…well, this one just touched me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been there, perhaps it’s because I can never know why this girl is disgusted, perhaps because being disgusted by touch, maybe even non-sexual touch, is so terribly sad to me, perhaps it’s because this girl might not have been straight and she probably wasn’t guided to explore that part of herself at the time. Even in 1935, there were the same problems, same struggles, and same questions about sexuality from young people.
True, I could be wrong. But listen to me: young people have always been having premarital sex or engaging in some kind of sexual activity. Young people have always had serious questions about sex. And most importantly, young people have always struggled with silence around sex. So for those of you who might argue that the current generation is more morally lax than the previous one, for those of you who feel that previous years have been innocent good-old days where young people were not interested in sex and waited until marriage with ease, I’d like to direct you toward a variation on a saying that my fifth-grade teacher used to say: “the only thing that changes is the date.”
Strain, F.B. (1935). NEW PATTERNS IN HIGH-SCHOOL SEX TEACHING. Journal of Educational Sociology, 8(6), (342-52).
I throw around the words “fear” and “silence” often when it comes to sex ed. They’re loaded terms, perhaps, but these words best describe my experiences with sex education: my emotional reaction and everyone else’s approach, respectively. These words describe what I feel is not often expressed in the sex education debate.
True, it’s hard to use the “Little Mary Sue is scared” argument to a bunch of adult policymakers who believe that a child will “get over” whatever scare tactics they might use in sex education. I have indeed heard it argued that it is okay to use fear in sex education because, well, incurable STIs are out there right now. You can see the logic: if children grow out of believing in the boogyman, then certainly they will grow out of being told that condoms have pores that let HIV through, right? At least by the time that they are married, they’ll grow out of it, right?
The problem with this is that these particular things are not so easy to simply grow out of. The boogyman is irrational. HIV/AIDS and pregnancy are legitimately real, which is why contraception and latex exists. At the same time, we know that this issue has to do with more than just teen pregnancy and some HPV outbreaks. We can’t ignore sexual shaming. When this shaming happens, fear follows. When people are not just a little apprehensive, but downright afraid or misinformed, they have to go through a lot of unnecessary suffering to get to a sexually healthy place.
At this point in my life, I am much better off than many of my friends, who have been sexually assaulted or engaged in sexual activity of questionable consent because the idea that they could negotiate what they wanted was never expressed to them. I didn’t have to deal with pregnancy scares or STI issues in high school. I’ve never had to deal with an STI period. I haven’t had many relationships, but I have had no major crises within them, just a lot of learning and personal growth with truly good people. Yet with all that good fortune, all that crisis averted, I still struggled because of silent shaming. My struggle, as I describe here, was incredibly lonely and painful–there was just no one to turn to.
I found Scarleteen around 2007, at a time in my life when I was asking a lot of questions about the rights and wrongs of my own sexuality, doubting myself, seeing my drive as an evil and angry thing. I felt like I had a monster inside me, telling me what was supposedly “right” while also bringing me a lot of self-loathing. Arousal meant having to get rid of something, as opposed to doing something that might bring me some joy.
Sex education, as I have said before, seems to be either an abstinence-fest or a condom giveaway. I admit that my view may be skewed, but I don’t have to guess to know that sex in its most comprehensive sense isn’t discussed among us, as a general rule. To me, withholding information, not facing the issues, and saying as little as possible about something, is the same thing as silence.
Seriously! Let’s face the issues. Let’s talk about the difficulties and yes, the pleasures of sexuality. Let’s have real talk, not just the talk we assume those between the ages of 13 and 17 can handle. I say this as a person who is still young, still hanging on. I beg, I plead to older adults, please listen! Please don’t shame us! Please find good, real answers to our questions, at a place like Scarleteen, or a place in your hearts, or another place that accentuates the sex positive!
I can’t know whether anyone has had quite my experience, trembling in fear, confusion, and distress about sexual matters, even without involvement in anything resembling partnered sexuality. But I know that I couldn’t possibly be alone in my old fears. Who is out there? What youth is there who has suffered like me? I haven’t yet “grown out” of my old fears and self-hatred, but think–that self-hatred never had to happen.
Scarleteen steps in to answer my pleas. Scarleteen is sex-positive, open-minded, truly comprehensive. Scarleteen isn’t there to make young people with questions and apprehensions phobic, like I have been. I have asked tough questions on the message boards, read columns, searched for permanent articles, and I have been welcomed, recognized, as a normal and good person.
Thank you, Scarleteen. You have supported a young woman in overcoming her fears, her phobia. In all my grappling, you were there to let me know that there was someone in the world who was not assuming that she would not, could not, could never be a sexual being. Even when my fear kept me from asking questions, you were that presence, that comforting hand, letting it be okay to be myself.
It has been incredibly important and valuable to me, and I know I can’t be the only one who feels that way.
Speaking of Scarleteen, this post is a part of the Scarleteen Blog Carnival, supporting its annual fundraising drive efforts! Scarleteen is a truly invaluable sex education resource for teens and young adults, and it has managed to stay afloat for years with the help of charitable donations from individuals and small organizations. Every little bit helps, so if you want to support and sustain sex-positive sex ed, I definitely recommend making a donation. Do it here!
So perhaps you have heard about this K-12 sex education curriculum in Helena, Montana. People are talking!
Kindergarteners will learn about proper anatomical terms, first graders will learn simply that same-sex relationships exists, and fifth graders will learn about “the different ways that people have sex,” which some people seem to think means positions (really?), but probably has more to do with anal, oral, and vaginal sex. Cool. Sweden has K-12 sex education, and SIECUS offers guidelines for K-12 sex education. Of course, the countries of Europe have a different culture then our states do, but then again, I believe that a change in sex education goes beyond the schools and into a deep cultural change. That’s just me.
The first thing I think of is the backlash. We’re in the middle of a political situation that screams conservative backlash. What was that called again? Perhaps we should discuss it over a tea party? This is a bad time to mention something so absolutely liberal, and yet the Helena school board is definitely going there. A lot of people in this country can’t get their minds around comprehensive sex education for high school students, let alone for 5-year-olds. I certainly must applaud the Helena school board for doing something so gallant.
We hear the same arguments, anyway. People think we’re trying to outsource education to the state and not leave it to the parents, especially conservative bloggers like this guy. People think it’s deflowering the “innocence” of children–le sigh. People talk about “age-appropriateness,” and they can’t agree, or don’t really know how to engage a conversation about age-appropriateness without becoming overly political or relating it to their own children. Most of us agree that parents should, without a doubt, teach their kids about sex in an age-appropriate way. Nobody that I know of has said that the state can do it better. With that in mind, consider that parents often don’t recognize that their own children are sexual beings who might even be sexually active. I would posit that parents are constantly at risk for underestimating what age-appropriate is, and that no one really knows what “age-appropriate” means yet.
Right-leaning individuals often make the argument that “parents know” what to teach their kids about sex. Which parents know? Evangelical parents? Same-sex parents? Parents who are protégées of Dr. Ruth? Conservatives? Liberals? Environmentalists? Skydivers? Which ones? The “parents know” argument is a little weak, especially when you try to argue for no school-based sex education at all. The same people who make this argument say that putting comprehensive sex education into a state context–that is, the school—is creating a one-size-fits-all curriculum that makes generalizations about what all children should know, when they are making generalizations themselves about what all parents seem to know to teach their child. Parents are asking when they should talk to their kids about sex. I don’t even have kids, and I know that. Not all “parents know.” I’m sure that much of the knowledge that parents seem to have has to do with their own experiences with sex education, which could be varied.
K-12 sex education is about more than teaching sex, and it’s certainly not about stealing the teaching of sexual values from parents. It’s about expressing openness to have that dialogue with a child without shaming or fear—an openness that a lot of children won’t have access to. This way, every child has options about the people from whom they can get good sexual health information. Some children might feel better talking to a teacher in private than their own parents. This might be the case in situations such as, for example, abusive homes. When we say “comprehensive,” that’s exactly what we mean! Of course, I also feel like sex education should foster a dialogue between parents and children (with exceptions, of course, like the abuse situation).
If a 5-year-old happens to know where their scrotum or clitoris is, the world is not going to end. In fact, telling a child these words when they are so young, in a way that is straightforward and simple, teaches them that they are not embarrassing or bad things. I don’t see what the problem is with making children unafraid of asking questions about sex, about helping them understand the range that sexuality has both in one’s own body and in society, letting them feel unashamed about their bodies, and overall, making the noise about sexuality that needs to be made to inspire them to make positive and intelligent decisions when they get older. The same young girl who knows where her vulva is and what it looks like might one day realize that what it looks like has changed, leading her to get tested for an STI. This could potentially protect her from catastrophic results.
If a 6-year-old happens to know that same-sex relationships happen, then that same child who questions their orientation when they are 12 might be less distressed about it. Even if this isn’t the case, perhaps they would be more likely to ask for guidance, so that they might navigate the formation of their sexual identity with more confidence.
As far as fifth graders learning about oral, anal, and vaginal sex goes, I find that this is still potentially acceptable. Certainly, there are kids who are doing these activities at this age, although I feel like the perceived number of youth who actually engage in these activities is either overblown or minimized. We never seem to get the full picture on that issue. Of course, I would infer that the reason why many of these kids have sex in these ways is because they don’t realize that these activities are, indeed, sex. Hell, we have teenagers who don’t believe that oral or anal sex is sex, do it to keep their virginity intact, then end up with an STI!
It’s as if hearing about sex and having sex are the same things to some people. Sheesh.
The youth of Montana are (hopefully, anyway) going to learn about how to deal with their sexualities in the context of our society, and this is crucial. This is where good decision-making comes from. As long as positive attitudes, open minds, and of course, talking about the actual risks and responsibilities that come with having sex come with this new program, then I see only good things coming from this. All I can suggest is for the Helena school board to stick with their guns and implement the program, with the choice to opt-out available. This way, parents still have a say over what their children are being taught. Let’s do quantitative and qualitative studies in a few years to see what happens with the young people who are involved with this program. If the outcome is positive, then the precedent is set for K-12 sex education—no, all sex education–in this country, and perhaps we can start seeing real, evidence-based and results-based programming.
And that would be a revolution in itself.
I just feel so helpless.
You know, I think I’ve got a relatively high level of hometown pride. As much as the politics of my neighborhood don’t always seem to mesh with mine, there’s still something comforting about this place. There are brick houses with nice landscaping, family-owned local businesses, and non-chain restaurants–because Panera is indeed tasty, but sometimes it’s nice to send some of that financial good karma back into the community.
This neighborhood is like a family member to me—we have our disagreements, but in the end, we love each other. As much as I want to go somewhere like New York or Chicago one day to get my wings, (un?)fortunately, I see myself coming back here one day and putting my sexuality and gender knowledge to work in my community, my home.
Believe me, we need it.
On a whim, I decided to check out what the sex education standards were like for the public schools here, the same public schools in which I spent my entire life, kindergarten through twelfth grades. I looked at both the school board website and the state Department of Education website, looking for some information about what was in the sex education or health education curricula. Nothing.
Oh sure, I got some information on both websites about initiatives involving healthier food in lunchrooms, and incorporating more physical activity into the lives of the students. That’s fantastic! Really, a little bit of healthy food and exercise does the trick for pretty much anybody. I remember how they did the extreme vending machine makeover when I was in high school, in which they got rid of all of the soda and replaced it with Vitamin Water, which is also incredibly sugary and can’t possibly be that much better for you. Still, it’s progress.
But there was nothing that I could find that explicitly laid out standards for health education, or sex education for that matter. All I could find having to do with sex education, per se, was some information about employment requirements for teachers of family and consumer science, which I think includes home economics, but also seems to have health tightly squeezed in there. The standards laid out something vague about how teachers should be able to talk about sexuality in a way that is productive, but otherwise, there was nothing really substantial.
I looked deeper. I discovered that in Ohio, any sex education that is taught must follow standards which are consistent with the federal definition of abstinence-only. Great. I also found an article from a local magazine that mentioned the abstinence-only sex education program at one school, which was not in my old district. Reading on, the author described the teacher-leader for this program, who I imagined looked like Imelda Staunton did in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, only with a bouffant hairdo. This woman proceeds to compare increasingly intimate sexual activities to rungs on a ladder, and asks what happens when you get to the top of a ladder and fall off. Why, you die or are paralyzed, of course!
I mean, the ladder comparison is probably not the best one to make. What if you have someone trustworthy at the bottom of the ladder holding on, to keep you safe from falling? Is sex more like one of those two-sided ladders, or are we talking about one of those rolling library ladders? What about a rope ladder on a challenge course? And in any case, not everyone uses the same ladder—some of us are just fine climbing up stepstools, while others need taller ladders to accommodate their own needs and comfort levels.
The concept of a hierarchy of sexual intimacy is problematic in the first place (I’ll probably blog more about it later), but this is, frankly, ridiculous. Any sex education program or curriculum that is based solely on scare tactics is. But knowing that this happened in my hometown, my home, albeit, not in my neighborhood, feels like I’m being chomped to death by a bunch of abstinence-only piranhas, a protected species in this generally sex-negative society. Somehow, my attachment to this town is integrated enough with my own ego that I feel like if anyone pulls this in a public school in my city, then you’re messing with me on a personal level, and something must be done to change that. But what?
I’m left feeling like I have to deal with the powers that be—helpless. What do I do about this? True, this school is in a district different from my own, and the article discussing the program is from 2003, so things could have changed since then. Who do I talk to? What do I say? I’m merely an undergraduate woman, and the only thing going for me is that I’m an alumna. Who would do anything about this issue? How would I structure an approach to someone who matter at the board? Does anyone care?
Well, I certainly do. I’ve got to figure something out. Raising my voice is infinitely better than remaining silent.
We hear a lot in the sex education debate about “age-appropriate” sex education. For example, if you read the SIECUS guidelines for sex education, you see a big difference between the guidelines for young children, which offer a very basic introduction to human relationships in general for little ones, and the guidelines for high school students, which approach date rape and other mature matters. Certainly this seems right. We’re not teaching kindergartners how to cheek a condom or anything.
At the same time, this leads us to a question: who is the government, especially the federal government to say what is “age-appropriate?” I mean, based on the statistics, I am sure that many parents would not object to the examples that I noted. But still, are some kids not ready to know about some stuff at a certain age? Certainly parents would have different ideas about what “ready” to know about different sexual things means, but of course, some of them might be basing it on the whole “children are innocent” trope (groan!). Or are they thinking this because they, like many of us, fear frank sexual talk? As I sort of implied in my last post, sex education isn’t like a math class, a chemistry class, or even an English class. The biological basis of sexuality is innate the way that “book-learned” subjects aren’t, really. We can’t escape it, no matter how much we try. That’s why sex appeals to us so much. That’s why, based on some of the searches that people have used to find this blog, people found my blog after looking for porn. Sex is within us. It is part of us, and it is socialized and interpreted through our societies. A lot of our issues come from the way this socialization happens.
But anyway, what would happen if we set a standard, even a national standard? It’s tough, even for me, to think about. I mean, on one hand, I believe that parents should take responsibility over their kids. I believe that they should be primary (if possible) educators of their children. At the same time, you have parents that won’t step up, or are bound by morals that cause them undue fear, or are undereducated about sex themselves, for whatever reason. In a perfect world, maybe every parent would be Dr. Ruth, or something. But it’s not like that. Sex is a wide-reaching subject with various applications, and all students deserve to have all of their questions answered with correct information.
I believe that it is wrong for the government to extol sex-negative values in an eight-point definition of what abstinence only sex ed is, but wouldn’t it would be equally wrong for the federal government to set out a similar definition of what comprehensive sex education is? I mean, I might say no to that because I think that sex positive values and this notion of “age-appropriate” is “right,” but those who believe in the converse also believe that they are “right” and may believe that we are attacking parental autonomy.
So in my true fashion, I believe that there needs to be a middle way.
If we follow the idea that simply TELLING a kid about something isn’t going to make them DO something, then there can’t be any objections to teaching kids comprehensive information in school. If a parent doesn’t want their child in this sort of class, then we can still have opt-out policies. Then, as an added measure, perhaps the school can offer alternative resources to the parent so that they can help them teach their own child sex education that they can agree with. The parent will be armed with information that they do not object to, the student will get more information than they would have without these alternative sources, and the school can teach the rest of the kids as they wish. Still though, this wouldn’t stop a parent from telling their child to not have sex, or else get Chlamydia and die. Could we offer resources to kids in schools? Yeah, but some parent somewhere will have an issue with this information being inappropriate too.
So what is right? What does this country value? Parental autonomy? Healthy sexual development? Perhaps we need to agree on what healthy sexual development is. All those willing to suspend ideology and fantasy about child and teen sexuality are welcome to consider this. Then we can come to a fair conclusion about what “age–appropriate” really means as a group, instead of having an organization like SIECUS that some people will discredit right off the bat strictly for acknowledging teen sexuality say what is right. We can base it on statistics from reputable groups, so that few people will say that we’re basing policies and values on biased studies.
Where is the line? What is that healthy medium between a parent’s role in their child’s sexual development and the school’s role, between federally-mandated standards and no school sex ed at all?
How do we figure out how to come to a consensus about teen sexuality in a melting pot country, where everyone is very different and everyone’s entitled to their opinion? Certainly European countries have standards about sex education that are effective in both public health and social realms, but European countries tend to be more homogenous that here in the States.
At the same time, just because those who are liberal generally like comprehensive sex education, doesn’t mean that conservatives don’t have a say in what sex education should be. Also, just because someone is a conservative doesn’t necessarily mean that their idea of teen sexuality or what age-appropriate means directly depicts a scene from “Leave it to Beaver.” It’s just that we are one united country, and we all value our kids and teens. Therefore, all of us have a say.
It’s still an idea that I am fleshing out, and I am still unsure whether finding a middle ground that allows comprehensive sex education without disenfranchising some more conservative individuals is possible. All I know is this: if anyone thinks that kindergarten kids are too young and too “innocent” to hear, “boys and girls are different,” then I have no faith in humanity.
What do you think?
In all academic school subjects, states have decided what and how much of each subject a student should be learning. In Ohio, in order to get an honors high school diploma, you need four years of English, three years of math (including Algebra), three years of sciences (including Biology and Chemistry), so much foreign language, and so on. But sex education in itself doesn’t have this specificity, as it is part of a health program that each school chooses (a semester of health is required here), and because it is not entirely academic, but practical and personal. When morals and/or social issues get whirled into a school subject so intimately, a subject becomes immensely harder to teach. This is why specially-trained and sensitive teachers for sex ed are needed desparately. Abstinence-only sex education would be similar to a history class in which the teacher treats one president as the greatest president of all time and teaches nothing else- could you imagine Reagan-only or Kennedy-only history education? History teachers, however, may be able to avoid political bias in history classes because they have primary and secondary sources- from diary entries and personal interviews to research articles from esteemed historians.
With sex education, you’re dealing with sexuality, a constant hot-button issue in our society. It seems as though everyone has an opinion about different aspects of sexuality- homosexual practices, sex in film, and especially adolescent sex. So just like a history teacher that tries to avoid political bias in their classes, we wonder how to avoid this bias in sex ed. Currently, we try to find the answer in using a rhetoric of public health- how can we stop the spread of STI’s among adolescents? After that, we may delve into the thought of avoiding teen pregnancy, which starts becoming a more social issue. Add in feelings about sex as taught by our society that would like to silence sexuality and research that says contradictory things about sex (although the general public doesn’t have the time to check the quality of research studies and sources), and there is nearly no way to avoid some kind of personal opinion when it comes to adolescent sexuality.
Where are those primary sources with sexuality? Penthouse letters of questionable accuracy and legitimacy, Cosmo “embarrassing moments” stories, erotic nonfiction, and other sources intended to arouse, which most people would agree are not appropriate for a school environment, even though many teens would get aroused at sources not meant to arouse. What about secondary sources? We have sex manuals for all groups of people, for all subjects from STI prevention to advanced “techniques.” Even with hard evidence, our society’s inhibitions and silence keep us from talking about it- because we don’t know how to do it. Those sex advice manuals might not be available in your local bookstore- only one of five here in my college town has any section devoted to books of this sort, and the section is way in the back. Sex is relegated to a lesser level than other subjects because it isn’t rocket science to learn the basics on your own. I can only imagine the struggle that sex educators and therapists have in trying to recognized as having legitimate careers, that they aren’t perverts that are just in it to talk about sex with strangers. And if we can’t face questions and stories about sex for our education, for adults, how will we ever help teens face these questions? How do we find the balance of giving kids information without suggesting that they have sex that is risky or not meaningful to them? How do we teach them to make their own decisions? How do we make sex ed useful for all populations of students? We’re so terrified of sex in the first place, people almost don’t want to come up with an answer.
But as I say, sex is a legitimate subject, the study of which crosses so many disciplines. We can not allow teens to be thrown aside, expected not to have sex, or expected to “do it wrong” if they do.
I just wish I had a greater effect on this now. I mean, I’m patient, but this little blog…who reads it? Is one person going to be changed by reading my passionate words? I can only hope.
I’m just saying that I can understand how this is all so iffy. We’re dealing with an already-loaded subject, with a system that is siphoning limited funds to subjects that are considered “important” and can be measured with a standardized test, with various social groups that are subject to stereotype and unfair assumption, including, of course, teens.
I’m talking about education for life, for health, the most important asset anybody anyone has, something that people can control to an extent. A student may never use calculus after high school (no offense to those who do, of course), but knowing how the birth control pill works or how to negotiate sexual activities is something that is useful for life.
Whether sex ed is a subject or not is not a subjective matter. Sex ed is for all people, and it is indeed a legitimate thing to study. It’s that simple.
Innocence. When it comes to sexuality, the concept bothers me.
What is innocence? When we use it in court, we mean to say that someone hasn’t done something bad- a crime. They say that children have innocence, which by this definition, means that they haven’t committed a crime. What crime? The crime of being sexual?
Some of us on “our side” (I really dislike the concept of “sides”) say that all children are sexual. While I do believe that they are in non-post-pubescent ways, people can’t fathom the idea of their child having sex or being sexual, because that would ruin their “innocent” nature that they were born into, and I could postulate that many parents see their children as perfect beacons far removed from from things that are “scary,” “dirty,” or “bad.”
I accepted long ago that my parents had sex to have me. My parents are adults- sexual human beings like everyone else. Do I go around thinking about it? No. But apparently, I’m supposed to be grossed out about that idea. Even my own mom, in the past, has tried to gross me out by acknowledging in my presence that she and my dad “did the deed.”I am indeed disgusted by that assumption- because my intelligence is insulted just that much. If I strive to accept my parents’ sexuality, why shouldn’t they strive to accept mine, no matter what age I might be?
You’re either innocent and good, or you’re guilty. Guilty. A word we use when referring to guilt, a strong negative emotion relating to regret. So by this logic, the opposite of sexual innocence is sexual guilt. Every time a person refers to innocence, it’s a small, non-gender-specific, Madonna-whore complex every time.
When we don’t refer to innocence in the legal sense, we refer to it as harmlessness, naivete, and a natural lack of understanding. Children are supposed to be adorable and sweet and aren’t supposed to have adult materials foisted on them. Certainly most people could agree on what “adult” material is, but where do we draw that line? Is it in any sexual information at all?
We see innocence as a level of purity, which is simply a more widely acceptable way of saying “chastity.”
Every time we refer to innocence, we perpetuate a concept of sex as a dirty and unnatural thing. Children should certainly not be exposed to sexual content beyond their understanding, but the more we treat children as pure and innocent angels, the more problems we cause for ourselves and for them in their future sexual lives.
Because parents- your children may be angels at home, but at school, they’re using swear words and talking about sex with their friends, who share this information with them. They go on the internet and accidentally find porn. But will it ruin their childlike sense of magic and wonder? No!
Is this innocence? Do you really want to create a standard of behavior based on a loaded word that creates classes of “good” kids and “bad” kids that stems from a conception of naivete and childlike worldview? Do you want to enforce this standard of behavior in abstinence-only sex education classs for, say, 15- to 18-year-olds that are far beyond that state?
I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t.
UPDATE 11/20/09: I was doing some research for my final Sociology of Gender paper, and I found this gem:
“Research about children’s relationship cultures has shown that the notion that children are ‘innocent’ and lacking in knowledge is problematic in two, interconnected ways. First, children often do hold complex knowledges about sexuality, but they vary from and sometime overlap adult understandings. Second, children and young people do not simply learn about sexuality, passively, but the mould and re-produce such knowledge, articulating it in diverse ways within their friendship cultures while forming their own social identities (see, for example, Kehily et al., 2002; Reynold 2005). This understanding of children’s friendship groups as producers of identities differs greatly from older socialization models, where young people were seen as simply replicating the pre-existing socio-cultural order (Kehily et al., 2002)”***
So, to summarize: kids do think about sex, and they think about it and talk about it in their own ways. Perhaps kids are more capable than we judge them to be.
***Mellor, D.J., & Epstein, D. (2006). Appropriate behavior? Sexualities, schooling, and hetero-gender. In Skelton, C. (Ed.), Fransic, B. (Ed.) & Smulyan, L. (Ed.), The SAGE Handbook of gender and education (pp. 378-391). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc.
Sometimes, it’s good to know that you’re not alone.
Scarleteen sometimes has users write blog entries of interest, and I fell in love when I came across this one. The entry is called, Comprehensive Sex Ed for the Comprehensively Celibate. She makes a clear and simple point: that knowledge does not equal doing, and that “abstinence does not equal ignorance.”
It made me look at condom use in an interesting new light- as a life skill. No matter what, one needs to know how to keep themselves safe. If we teach small children not to talk to strangers, then we should teach teens how to use condoms.
Simple logic. Simple, sweet logic.
At times, I wonder whether I am alone in my passion for fair sex education. I mean, it’s not like I’m obsessed with sustainability or poverty or another issue that gets discussed so widely. I mean, my feelings about abortion and reproductive rights come close, but few people are really fully aware of the weight of this issue and how it relates to other sexual inequalities- yet another reason why I write this blog. Then, I read Scarleteen and other websites, and I have a place to go home to.
I thank the writer of this entry; she is clearly a kindred spirit.
Also, a little housekeeping. Halloween was this past weekend, so I got thrown off with the posting, as Halloween is a big deal where I come from. So I thought that I would give you a small preview of what’s to come:
- A review of the 2007 horror/comedy Teeth
- A few notes relating to sex education and healthcare reform, specifically Orrin Hatch’s recent amendment
- My treatise against the concept of virginity
- Perhaps some notes on my college’s production of The Laramie Project, if I can get out and see it
- A new permanent tab at the top of the screen, in which I set out my feelings about sex education in full form- what it should probably include, how the facts should be treated, and the delicate issue of weighted and biased language.
- My very-first-ever VLOG! For my review of Grossman’s You’re Teaching My Child What?, I thought that experimenting with a vlog would be a good tool for emphasis.
So stay tuned everybody! There’s plenty more content to come! <3