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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What, for Pete's sake, do we mean by sexuality education?

The Pew Research Organization released a report in which they make this claim: "78% - Favor Sex Education in Public Schools." At first sight, I thought that I knew that already. But what they mean by sex education is terribly misleading. 78% of those polled (a sample they call "the public") wants education about birth control. And a full 76% wants schools to teach their children abstinence. Seculars (who are they?) have a little more reservation about this, though 62% of them still favor abstinence education.

Truly, there is a lot of work to do for those who want to increase sexual literacy in this country. The pew organization is a place to start. Teaching about birth control does not constitute sex education, we have to spell it out. Have a look at SIECUS's online library for a more comprehensive idea of sexuality education. It is a great library.

to that library I would like to add a discussion about the ways in which the republican party has used sexual stigma and sexual shame for great political advantage. I will return to that another time. That so many people want schools to teach abstinence tells me how successful they have been and how much sexual shame exists for them to wreak further havoc with.


  • And see, the point that really busts my buns is that education about birth control (i.e., condoms) and education about abstinence (i.e., the choice to not have sex) always appear in contrast to one another. Here are the points that comprehensive sex education must include:

    1. When it is appropriate to have sex - that is, when it feels right and good to everyone involved and everyone is mature enough to make that choice for themselves. Much more detail is needed in the classroom, of course.

    2. How to not have sex when it is not appropriate. This includes phrases and actions you can take to make your ambivalence clear to yourself and your partner.

    3. How to be safe when having sex.

    I am a sex ed instructor, and I always talk about abstinence - which I define as the choice to not have sex. I have found that, in general, teenagers love hearing that it is their choice to have sex or not. That's just not something they hear very often. It's much more common for them to hear "Don't have sex!" or "Use condoms!" But no one really guides them on how to make sexual choices for themselves.

    By Blogger Karen Rayne, Ph.D., at Tue Sep 18, 12:19:00 PM PDT  

  • Is abstinence even sex education as it avoids sex altogether? Regardless, I often think about sex education in my high school days where it was a few hours sitting in a classroom watching slides of human genitals degrading from STDs. Although my instructors figured this was teaching me something, however, the reality was I was scared to have sex back then. It wasn't until college when I figured I could enjoy sex (without any fear of contracting an STD) as long as I was safe and responsible.

    And just think of all of the healthy sexual experiences I could have had in high school, but didn't because I was too afraid.

    By Blogger Dan, at Tue Sep 18, 10:39:00 PM PDT  

  • Well Dan, if you think you can have sex without any fear of contracting an std you need to revisit some of the lessons taught in that class. There is no such thing as safe sex. Safer, maybe, safe, no. It's like saying you are absolutely safe driving your car if you obey the laws and wear a seatbelt. It just isn't that way. And yes, teenagers need to know it is their choice, but they also need a clearer picture of the consequences including the truth about what abortion is. I have ran into way to many girls who say, "oh, if I get pregnant I'll just get it taken care of." They usually don't realize by the time they "get it taken care of" it has started feeling, moving, and usually sucking its thumb. We need to teach our youth more responsibility. If you get in a bind, it's likely your fault, and could have been prevented if you hadn't been as selfish or irresponsible.

    By Anonymous Sheena, at Sun Sep 30, 06:21:00 PM PDT  

  • Sheena, I will never become afraid of sex ever again, nor should others feel the pressure to follow suit. STDs, on the other hand, is another story altogether. However, promoting sex-terror insinuates what exactly? Good question. I agree the concept of “safe(r) sex” is a reality founded on preventing unwarranted sexual risks (namely from STDs) is a debate nowhere near solved. Conversely, if I were to encourage any type of intercourse between consenting teenagers and adults, I would promote responsible sex, which incorporates a far productive and proactive stance rather than “selfish” and “irresponsible” behavior. And despite your experiences, teenagers are capable of choosing healthy sexual practices while at the same time fulfilling their own emotional and physical needs. It’s easy to call teenage sex “selfish” and “irresponsible,” but the issue does not become any clearer when we grind this sex-terror AS sex education; sex is not a disease, nor should it be interpreted as one.

    By Blogger Dan, at Wed Oct 03, 12:54:00 AM PDT  

  • Dan, you're completely right. Sex education should present sex and sexuality as a healthy and fun part of being fully human, regardless of your age.

    However, the decision to not have sex (to be abstinent) is really important. Teenagers need guidance in how to know whether or not to have sex with someone - that is, they need guidance in how to make that decision for themselves.

    And herein lies the problem. It is far too common for sex education to either try to make the decision of whether to have sex for teenagers (abstinence-only sex education) or offers effectively no guidance on the matter of whether or not to have sex (safe sex oriented sex education).

    Teenagers often want input on how to make this very important decision. And teaching them how to decide when to say no and then how to actually say it is teaching them about abstinence.

    By Blogger Karen Rayne, Ph.D., at Wed Oct 03, 10:26:00 AM PDT  

  • Dan, in a lot of ways I think you're spot on. The thing is, teenagers aren't all responsible, we can't force them to be responsible and the other this is, most of them will certainly have sex. The human body is practically programmed to start having sex as soon as a person hits puberty. The hormones go haywire and any little thing could set a teen overboard.
    I think you do need to make a distinction between sex ed for girls and sex ed for guys. Young men are encouraged to have sex at a younger age, women are encouraged to hold off, EVEN TODAY!
    When I was in 9th grade I was given an "abstinence card" where I was supposed to sign my name and promise to hold off until marriage. I never had sex in highschool, but had it not been for the openness of my mother, and my very liberal reading (Bust Magazine and various feminist texts) I too would have been consumed with fear.
    Having sex is our right as humans. That includes heterosex, gay sex, upside-down sex. Everything carries a risk, but that risk is substantially lowered if a person has the knowledge to prevent the spread of disease or pregnancy.
    My 17 year old brother impregnanted his girlfriend because he didn't know how to properly use a condom. He was using them, so he thought he was being responsible, but he didn't know how to use them correcly. No one ever told him that condoms shouldn't be put in a wallet, or that oil based lubes will break down a condom in seconds. If he had had the knowledge it would've been safe.
    Thankfully, this girl did what was best for her, and had it "taken care of." The embryo, the collection of cells that was not fully human, was taken out. She now has the opportunity to make something of herself. This is a perfect example of how the current system is failing our young people.
    Sex isn't scary if you know what you're doing.
    Sex is an important part of a healthy relationship.
    Having sex is one of the most life affirming and loving things a person can do.
    That's what teens need to know.

    By Anonymous Neesha, at Wed Oct 03, 10:54:00 AM PDT  

  • You all have valid points. I'd like to add to the scenario, the education about the psychology of sex. For some teens and adults, sex is used as a weapon, either to get back at absent or neglectful parents, or to prove some kind of point to their peers, and it doesn't stop there. What about educating on the emotional risks of sex, std's, and "getting it taken care of" as we're putting it?
    I also agree with Neesha on the issue of gendered sexual education. Why don't we have three types of sex-ed: one for boys, one for girls, and one for both?
    I absolutely agree that absitence is not the only thing to teach. I believe that Karen is right in teaching choice. True, proper sex education is not available everywhere because of the American "fear" of all things sexual. But seriously, perhaps we ought to take this opportunity to discuss how to fix the psycho-dibilitating (I think I just made that term up) issues surrounding sex-ed before we start accusing people of being right and wrong.
    There are motivations, all which are valid in their own ways, behind the two choices: abstinence teaching and education on the machinery. But aren't we missing the most improtant part?
    We're all so different and we all have different motivations. First let's stop the fear of sex, then let's give the options. But what are they? Where do we start?

    By Anonymous Valerie, at Wed Oct 03, 01:26:00 PM PDT  

  • First of all, I completely agree with the points that Neesha and Valerie raise. Teenagers have sex whether they are educated about it or not. I think it is dangerous to ignore teaching teenagers how to use condoms and forms of birth control effectively (i.e. Neesha's brother's situation). I also think it's dangerous to ignore the psychology of sex as well. I agree that gender differences in sex education do exist and should be addressed. However, I find it problematic to have one course for girls and one course for boys. I think it should be discussed how gender constructions operate to deliver different messages to teenagers in accordance with what "group" they tend to "fit" into. I don't think that it should be divided to where males and females are separated and receive two different styles of sexual education. What happens to the teenagers who do not fit neatly into the gender categories? By absolute separation, the teenagers are shown that they do not belong, they are different or weird. I believe a dialogue should be formed about the way narrow gender definitions affect sexual choices and sexual education, but I don't think they should presented as the only possibility. As someone who is consistently described as a masculine female, I have always tended to identify more with masculinity. If sexual education was approached to me along gender categories I think I would have tuned it out, but it is important to understand how these constructions operate.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Oct 03, 01:45:00 PM PDT  

  • I just wanted to clarify that I didn't mean that sex ed should be segregated by gender, but that in some ways it already is. Sex ed is usually taught from a heterosexual perspective which doesn't take into account trans-sexuality, bi-sexuality or otherwise. Women in the dominant culture are taught to think about sex in one way and men in another. My own experience in sex ed in highschool reinforces this. I think it's important to tell teens that they shouldn't feel pressure to have sex because "everyone" is doing it. But in many ways, abstinence only programs rely on fear instead of knowledge. They rely on dogma, seperation and in many instances, moralistic proselytizing. It doesn't have to be this way, but in most cases, it is.

    By Anonymous Neesha, at Wed Oct 03, 02:32:00 PM PDT  

  • One of the basic problems behind deciding what sex education should be is the stigma attached to sex in the first place in this country. Sex is still, in many homes, considered "dirty". The "solution" of promoting abstinence through fear is much the same as raising the drinking age to eliminate underage drinking: teens will do what they want, they will do it whether or not their parents or authority figures want them to, and they will do it BECAUSE their parents and authority figures do NOT want them to.
    There is a psychology behind every action, including those of the school districts and governments, and they seem to be concerned with caging youth in an attempt to keep them as children rather than taking into consideration THEIR psychology and needs, taking into consideration that they are people, they are in a transition to adulthood, and this will not happen behind a curtain of censorship. Teens brains do not work like adult brains (in most cases the pre-frontal cortex, used in decision making, is not fully developed); they need proper guidance to really stop to think about what the right decision might be, and if their brains are more apt to make rash decisions, arm them with the knowledge to be as safe as is possible.
    It is human nature for people past puberty to want to have sex. They are GOING to have sex. What is wrong with parents and school districts that they cannot come to the conclusion, here in 2007, that it is not 1955, and their kids will indeed be reading The Catcher in the Rye and thinking about intercourse?
    The three main points that Dr. Rayne had presented about what should be included in sex education can apply to everyone, no matter the gender or orientation. In this day and age, no one should be excluded. We are supposed to be a youthful nation, the United States are teenagers themselves among other countries of the world. So, why are we so backwards in our thinking?

    By Blogger The Artful Blogger, at Wed Oct 03, 03:27:00 PM PDT  

  • Artful - What do you mean by "American is a youthful nation"? Just interested in hearing you extrapolate on that a bit.

    By Blogger Isaac, at Thu Oct 04, 02:51:00 AM PDT  

  • Well, the United States of America is young compared to other "superpower" countries of the world. We were founded on new beliefs, new principles, new ways of life: people trying to get away from oppression. We have people from all walks of life; folks come here from all over looking for a fresh start, looking for freedom. "Freedom" is a word that is always thrown around when talking about "America" and "pride" and "patriotism". Freedom. Yet, we do not have the freedom to be educated about our own bodies because we are not old enough for vote? It's like giving a child a gun, saying it is very very dangerous and forbidding him to use it, yet letting it sit there in his hands. If you don't explain what will happen, what it does, WHY it is so dangerous and can, when handled correctly, be less dangerous, curiosity, a condition of our humanity, will kick in.

    I would expect a youthful America to act like ex-hippie parents, to be more open-minded and sensitive to their children, rather than turning around and doing exactly what their parents did to them. When I really think about it, America is only youthful in theory, unfortunately, as a large majority of the nation is ailing from backward thinking and statistically are less than literate. I say this as someone who has studied literacy.
    I hope this answers your question. I tend to go off on tangents in the wrong direction sometimes.

    By Blogger The Artful Blogger, at Thu Oct 04, 03:31:00 PM PDT  

  • I'll echo Dr. Rayne's comments/points, and add that we also need to teach them how to make intelligent decisions about when to have sex. Not just when it feels right, but how to understand the processes (biological, psychological, etc.) that make sexuality work like it does and how to make sound, rational decisions about how to manage and be responsible for their own sexuality. Additionally, factors about gender, sexual orientation, etc., must be included.

    I also agree, of course, that abstinence should be taught as a legitimate, viable option. Abstinence must be more than just saying "no," however. Those who choose abstinence will, at some point, become sexually active and will need the same, exact information than those who choose not to remain abstinent as teenagers do.

    By Blogger Caitlain's Corner, at Fri Oct 05, 09:27:00 PM PDT  

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