Category Archives: social justice
A recent article in The Atlantic discussing the censorship of sexual health content on Twitter and other social media sites got me thinking about we police sexuality. We live in a sex-saturated culture where mainstream heterosexual sex permeates the very pores of our visual cortex. It’s impossible to turn on a TV, computer, radio, or drive down the road without encountering sexually themed content in one fashion or another. We are either selling a completely unrelated product with sex, or watching grown and presumably mature adults dance around the topic via comic interludes and cheeky grins. This extreme dichotomy has resulted in a complete lack of grounding when it comes to having a healthy, mature conversation about anything sex-related. How is it that we can flock to a movie like 50 Shades of Gray but cringe when someone dares to offer advice on how to put on a condom?
The Middle Ground is Threatening
The ends of the sexual content spectrum are easy to discuss, and easy to pass judgement on, either in favor of or against. They fit nicely into the misguided ideological labels of “liberal” and “conservative”, whereby one has come to mean complete sexual freedom and liberation, and the other a complete lack of sexuality for fear of offending our uninformed notions of religious doctrine. Scholars such as Sharon Lamb have attempted to make the argument that sexuality and sex-education debates have gone afoul because comprehensive advocates ceded the moral argument to conservatives, less there be more than one definition of morality. The same is true in a broader sense of the entire “Sex Wars” debate that has been raging for more than 30 years. “Morality” has become the sole purview of religious conservatives when discussions of sexuality (education, health, reproduction, behavior) emerge, and it’s been a brilliant ploy. How do you really argue with someone’s beliefs? Everyone is entitled to believe what they want, regardless of the facts. The response has been a constant stream of statistics, health warnings, and legal arguments, but at the end of the day, none of that matters to the middle ground of America. We vote with our hearts, not our minds. We commit to an ideological perspective and feel compelled to hold onto those beliefs no matter what evidence seems to interrupt it. Why else would we still be talking about the global warming “debate”, the evolution “debate”, or insisting that dinosaurs roamed the Earth with humans. Seriously, people, these are not debates. The science is pretty clear. There is always room for more discovery, which is why research continues, but we’ve more than reached “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
The Middle Ground is Unclaimed Territory
The result of committing so vehemently to one side of a topic or the other is a vast undiscovered territory. The middle ground of sexuality discussions and conversation is akin to international waters controversies. Everyone can lay claim to it, but right now nobody is fighting all that hard to stake that claim. There have been folks that have attempted to bridge the gap in this discussion, such as C. Everett Koop, but they often set foot into a black hole of ideological banter and find themselves falling victim in one way or another to the overwhelming gravity of a minority of voices. The future of our collective sexual health and understanding of sexuality doesn’t rest with artificially elevated icons like Ben Carson (seriously, did anyone really know who this guy was before he opened his mouth and immediately found a size 12 sneaker hovering outside it?). The future of this movement, and of our sexual identity as a society rests on forcing discussion in the middle ground. Sexuality is not a simple topic to discuss and we do everyone a disservice by simplifying it or watering it down. We need to spend the time lingering in the middle. We need to share information about sexual health, provide alternative models for sexual morality and sexual values, flood social media, mainstream media, and print media with nuanced discussions of sexuality that replace the caricatured portraits we are forced to choose from now. It’s ok to be comfortable with discomfort. We need to dispel the myth that being “liberal”, “conservative”, “Christian”, or “feminist” must be only one set of things. Our identities are our own and we are free to make those choices every day, and change our minds every day. It’s certainly more work than listening to the talking heads on MSNBC or Fox News, but it means we can own it, invest in it, and spread out to inhabit that middle ground. There’s plenty of room, folks.
Viagra hit the market in 1998, and by 2012, was in the hands of over 8 million men around the world. Sales have reached close to 2 billion dollars a year, and the little blue pill that could has become a household name. In its short lifespan, it has entered our cultural vernacular in much the same way that the birth control pill did 40+ years ago, albeit without the same level of controversy. Many critics claimed it was a cure looking for a problem, but the term “erectile dysfunction” quickly reached American households with the speed and efficiency apparently lacking from a multitude of male genitalia. It was a biological problem with a pharmaceutical cure that was seen as heaven-sent for the millions of men who had been taught over generations that their self-worth was tied to their sexual prowess.
Almost from the time the FDA approved Viagra for use to combat erectile dysfunction, whispers began about gender equality and the need for a female equivalent. Surely men were not alone in suffering from biological roadblocks which prevented satisfying sex lives. It seemed an obvious banner for feminists to wave, and many quickly adopted the call for researchers to level the playing field. However, I question whether or not this knee-jerk reaction is an over-simplification of a much larger oppressive structure that has been building for well over a century. It’s important that, as critical feminists, we not jump so blindly onto the FSD (female sexual dysfunction) bandwagon without first questioning who is driving.
Recent debates over women’s reproductive rights, and reproductive justice more broadly are merely the current representation of a long history of the medicalization of women’s bodies and their sexuality. Even before the University of Pennsylvania founded the nation’s first medical school in 1765, control over women’s bodies and the shifting of medical responsibility from women to men was taking place and would have lasting effects on women, entrenching much of the oppression that now binds many women. As mid-wives were pushed out of the birthing experience, and deliveries transitioned from the home to the hospital, more and more men assumed roles of responsibility for the health and well-being of women’s bodies. While reproductive control was being subsumed by the increasingly male-dominated medical profession, so to was the construction and dissemination of knowledge regarding women’s sexuality.
This shift in control can be ironically and symbolically represented by the rise in the diagnosis of hysteria among women. This catch-all diagnosis is one of the oldest in Western civilization, and can be traced back 4,000 years, and was, for a majority of that time, solely an ailment which befell women. Among its many treatments, both stimulation to orgasm and abstinence from sexual activity were prescribed. Since women were not believed to possess any sex drive or desire, the paroxysm treatment was perfectly acceptable. Alas, male doctors were complaining about their achy wrists after so many stimulating treatments, and the electric vibrator was born in 1880. Today, as many as 1/3 of all American women own one of these “personal massagers”.
The rise of the social hygiene movement in the early 20th century positioned the focus of sexuality squarely on disease prevention. The risks of venereal disease were high, especially among soldiers during WWI. During this time, much of the sexuality research being conducted was done on men, for men, and by men. As before, women’s sexuality was of no concern because the prevailing assumption was that it did not exist, although I’m sure most women at the time would beg to differ, even if they didn’t have the words to articulate their desires. The underlying message to girls and women continued to be that it was not acceptable to be “sexual” in any way. However, our public images of women began to tell a different story.
Following the first world war, during the roaring 20’s, new beliefs about dating, relationships, and marriage led to shifts in courting behavior, along with dress among young people. Through radio and print media, and eventually television, girls and women received very distinct messages about what was expected of them. Although the definition of “beauty” changed with regard to fashion, very clear messages about body and appearance remained the definition of attractive became thinner and thinner.
These unrealistic expectations of girls and women culminated with the popularity of the model and actress Twiggy, whose thin frame created an unhealthy expectation that many attempted to emulate. Although cultural definitions of beauty have shifted away from such an unhealthy level of thinness (to some degree), the dangerous messages that girls and women receive on a daily basis have remained consist, as Jean Kilbourne has so brilliantly documented for almost 40 years.
While these expectations of beauty were being entrenched into the minds of generation after generation, the general belief that girls and women should avoid discussing sexuality and exploring their bodies was also cemented into the collective cultural psyche. This idea was reinforced by the continued focus on men in sex research. In addition, sex education courses, which have fluctuated widely in content and scope over the past 100 years, have failed to properly education young girls and women with regard to issues of desire and arousal, not to mention anatomy and physiology. Second wave feminist publications, such as Our Bodies, Our Selves, have attempted to fill this gap, but the misinformation and lack of information remains firmly entrenched in societal discourse.
These parallel and contradictory strains of discourse, the over-medicalization of women and the construction of unrealistic body images, are important to understanding the latest push for “pink Viagra”. Flibanserin, the newest drug claiming to treat FSD, was rejected by the FDA in 2010, and again in 2013, but a PR campaign led by Sprout Pharmaceuticals (the maker of the drug) and others forced the FDA into reopening the discussion. Along with the expected claims as to the benefits to women suffering from FSD, these campaigns (including www.womendeserve.org and Even The Score) are focusing on the fact that there are currently 26 drugs on the market (really only 6 drugs marketed under different names), including Viagra, to treat erectile dysfunction, and no FDA-approved drugs to treat FSD. This has resulted in a co-opting of the women’s equality narrative, and has been reinforced by claims that the FDA is sexist in their approval process.
These efforts are troubling for a number of reasons. To begin with, concerns over female desire (interest in sex) and arousal (physical reaction to sexual contact) have been regularly conflated, to the point that they have been lumped into one general diagnosis, Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD). This distorts the reality of two very different ideas, which have very different potential causes, and thus different potential treatments. In the search for a biological cause, which we can understand (and treat with a pill), we have failed to appropriately consider the social and psychological factors which influence desire. This is not surprising considering desire has been noticeably absent from even the most comprehensive sex education curricula. We’ve spent decades telling women not to explore or understand their bodies, and we are now jumping at the chance to medicate them based on a diagnosis without appropriate research to justify its existence. To date, there is no diagnostic test which indicates a biological cause for differences in desire. On the contrary, one of the main factors seems to be differences in desire between partners.
Furthermore, the comparison of Flibanserin to Viagra is misleading at best, and irresponsible at worst. Whereas Viagra is intended to be taken just prior to sexual activity on an as needed basis, Flibanserin is meant as a daily medication that builds up in the bloodstream. Our Bodies, Ourselves was one of many organizations that signed a letter to Dr. Janet Woodstock at the FDA, expressing just such concerns.
More to the point, however, the gender equity argument ignores the real safety difference between flibanserin and the drugs approved for men: a different indication for use, specifically the dosage and administration. All but one of the drugs approved for men are taken on an as-needed basis, whereas flibanserin, a central nervous system serotonergic agent with effects on adrenaline and dopamine in the brain, requires chronic — daily, long-term — administration. This raises toxicological concerns that make it appropriate for the FDA to subject flibanserin to elevated safety scrutiny. Substantial adverse events reports and drop-out rates in the trials rightly required serious consideration.
Previous sex research, conducted mainly on male subjects, provides us with little understanding of female sexuality, and fails to acknowledge biological differences. The Flibanserin case is just one instance of what some would call “disease mongering” or attempting to create illness where none exists. The economic motivates become clear in a situation like this, as Sprout Pharmaceuticals stands to make millions off of this drug.
Ultimately, the capitalist push for the FDA approval of Flibanserin relies on the perpetuation of myths about female sexuality. Supporters claim an epidemic of female sexual dysfunction, but that implies we know how female sexuality functions and we have established a baseline. Unfortunately, our inability to care about women’s bodies for anything other than reproduction means we don’t possess that understanding yet. As a result, we don’t even know if this drug will actually be effective, and strong placebo effects echo this concern. As the National Women’s Health Network states,
The reality is that no amount of public relations or slick marketing can get around the fact that the drugs currently being proposed for Female Sexual Dysfunction simply don’t work and may be quite dangerous. Poor efficacy, a strong placebo effect, and valid safety concerns have plagued all of the drugs that have been tested so far. There are many reasons why the proposed drugs may not have been effective in increasing women’s sexual enjoyment; chief among them is the heterogeneity of female sexuality and, of course, research demonstrating that sexual problems are mostly shaped by interpersonal, psychological, and social factors. Nevertheless, pharmaceutical executives will continue to drum up hype over the possibility of a “pink Viagra” because the profit market for this type of drug is estimated to be over $2 billion a year.
The push for FDA approval of “Pink Viagra”, whether in the form of Flibanserin or another drug, is only the latest attempt at controlling women’s bodies by characterizing aspects of their identity as biological concerns in need of a cure, which those in power sitting in a boardroom are none-to-happy to prescribe and profit from along the way. We continue to send girls and women the conflicting message that their value rests in their beauty but they should avoid too much familiarity with their body below that skin-deep appeal. The result is a gap in the understanding of desire and arousal, which drug companies are all to happy to fill with more pills regardless of the potential long-term consequences. There’s no question that these issues are connected, and the continued oppression of women is the tie that binds.
I recently returned from Philadelphia, having attended the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Conference. This was my second time attending the conference, and it was once again an academically rewarding experience. There is no question that the sheer size of the conference can make it a bit overwhelming, with thousands of educators (PK-16) from around the country converging on the Philadelphia Convention Center to present and discuss their research and practice. The organizational achievement alone is enough to be proud of, and this conference and organization, more than any other, highlights the amazing diversity of educational research being conducted around the country.
The theme for this year’s conference was “The Power of Education Research for Innovation in Practice and Policy“, and was described as follows:
“We live in exciting times in education research, where every day new ground is being forged in research design, methodology, instrumentation, and assessment. Questions regarding how people learn, what should be taught by whom, and to what ends remain at the core of our field, enveloped in a “cloud” of new ideas and technologies. In our rapidly changing world it is clearly time to take stock of the value of education research, of how it has spurred innovation, and of its problems and the potential solutions it can provide for improving the learning and well-being of children and adults. The theme for the 2014 Annual Meeting aims to encourage submissions that link the possibilities of education research, recognizing how evidence of varying types can be used for tackling persisting issues in education and for their innovative resolution.”
This theme left me excited for the possibilities of exploring sex(uality) education research and learning about the scholarship being done in this area around the country. After all, one of the main goals of sex(uality) education should be to improve “the learning and well-being of children and adults.” The wide array of research in multiple disciplines around issues of sex(uality) education, which is showcased in other professional organizations and research arenas, seems like a perfect fit for such an immense educational research organization. Surely the topic of sex(uality) education must come up in many presentations among the hundreds and hundreds being offered. A review of the program guide as I was preparing to leave for the conference revealed some interesting information. Many topics related to sexuality were represented prominently, including, but not limited to those below.
Now, each of these topics is certainly relevant and critical to understanding and discussing sex(uality) education. However, further examination of the program guide revealed just one presentation explicitly discussing sex(uality) education…mine (there was one other presentation which discussed sex(uality) educators). This fact baffled me! Well, I should say that it baffled me for a moment. Perhaps I got my hopes up too quickly, or made assumptions that I should have made. Unfortunately, the silence surrounding sex and sex(uality) that I observe in many other facets of society had crept into AERA as well. In a conference of more than 17,000 educational researchers, with 12 divisions and countless special interest groups, nobody was talking about sex(uality) education.
I suppose that statement isn’t entirely true. I did have some very interesting and intellectually stimulating conversations with colleagues who were researching the above topics. It’s clear that their interest does wander into sex(uality) education as a curriculum area. However, the above topics seem to be safer to discuss. It’s ironic that issues and topics, all social-justice focused, that can quickly become polarizing and taboo outside the walls of a professional conference such as this, are represented prominently. It’s certainly an exciting environment to be a part of, and to be able to talk openly about the above issues with other educators is a breath of fresh air to say the least. It is reaffirming to know that so many folks are doing such amazing work on these topics, and pushing the boundaries of scholarship. However, why aren’t we talking about sex(uality) education?
Clearly there are many scholars, activists, and community members doing amazing sex(uality) education research, curriculum design and development, reform, and policy implementation work. However, that work continues to be pushed to the shadows of academia. The pervasive culture wars of the 1970s and 1980s that positioned sex(uality) education as a hyper-liberal attempt at indoctrinating young people seems to have effectively silenced many folks to this day, and created an area of academic interest that folks may explore, but rarely discuss outside their own research and organizational circles. It continues to be controversial to talk openly about sex, even in academia, where the celebration of intellectual curiosity and freedom is key to our work.
The ability to overcome the damage caused by a small but vocal minority of abstinence-only advocates rests on our willingness to bring the discussion back into the mainstream. The research speaks for itself, but only if someone is giving it a voice beyond the pages of the journals it is currently trapped in. Comprehensive, multiculturally-inclusive feminist sex(uality) education is of the utmost importance for the continued support, growth, and education of young people. The work of scholars who advocate on behalf of this need must be given a mainstream voice so this critical aspect of education is not left in the shadows, away from the major educational discussions currently taking place. I truly believe that we are at an educational crossroads in this country as we debate the merits of curriculum, assessment, access, and identity, and sex(uality) education can and must play a part in these discussions.
“In countries all over the world, children who do not speak the societal language face many difficulties in schools” (Valdes, 2001, p. 10). These difficulties extend to all aspects of the curriculum, and are increasingly difficult in content areas such as sexuality education, where the topic is politically contentious and teachers are uncomfortable delivering the content, even in their native language.
The debate over the content and delivery of sexuality education poses a clear problem for educators in the United States. This pressure to develop and implement a certain approach has made educators across the United States apprehensive about what they can and cannot teach or even address with students. Additionally, their own political, social, and religious beliefs continue to impact their willingness and confidence in presenting this material. Furthermore, the level at which educators are prepared to have these conversations is not universally adequate either. This tension is in large part due to the lack of continuity of curricula across the U.S.
Many similar debates exist over the delivery of bilingual education. Many of the same changing perspectives on the parts of politicians, administrators, and educators have impacted the ideology and practice of bilingual education over the years (Andersson & Boyer, 1970; Crawford, 2004; Lyons, 1990; McCarty, 2004; Miguel, 2004; Ovando, 2003; Wiley, 2002). “The challenges of educating students who do not speak a societal language are enormous. In the United States, it is not just a question of teaching English; rather, it is a question of providing large numbers of students with access to the curriculum at the same time that they are learning English” (Valdes, 2001, p. 14). These challenges mean that newly arrived immigrant Latino students entering American schools at the secondary level face significant challenges as they navigate the educational system (Chamot, 1992; Davis & McDaid, 1992; Lucas, 1992).
These overlapping debates make the study of the content and delivery of sexuality education of bilingual students of particular importance. In essence, sexuality education is made up of “social spaces where cultures meet, class, and grapple with each other” (Pratt, 1999, p. 584). As such, this has “brought to the forefront pedagogic questions about how to address important but potentially contentious issues of social identity and inequity and what exactly a teacher’s role, and goal, ought to be in such endeavors (Pennycook, 2001, as cited in Nelson, 2009).
According to Ward and Taylor (1992), sexuality education as it is currently taught does not meet the needs of large percentages of children in the United States. In particular, students of color are not represented and given a voice in the design, content, and delivery of sexuality education. When viewed as socially constructed, sexuality education can be seen as being created and delivered within a larger social and political context, which includes inequalities based on race, class, and gender. Furthermore, “various cultures interpret, define, and regulate sexuality differently, and cultural group members socialize their children to cultural norms, taboos, and expectations regarding sexual behavior” (Ward & Taylor, 1992, p. 183).
This lack of representation for cultural and ethnic minority groups represents an even greater problem when one considers the increased rates of pregnancy among Hispanic adolescents especially, which is 1.7 times greater than that for whites. Many of these adolescent girls also represent English Language Learners or bilingual students as well, but “sexuality education is seldom introduced in bilingual education classrooms, and children with limited English language proficiency” (Ward & Taylor, 1992, p.187). Additionally, the topic may be of far less significance for students attempting to adjust to a curriculum and school culture that does not support their language, culture, values, and beliefs. When access to sexuality education is provided, “language differences and the necessity of adjusting to the linguistic concepts in a new culture may affect comprehension of sexuality education course content” (Ward & Taylor, 1992, p. 187).
Much like many other aspects of education, sexuality education curricula are inaccessible to a majority of bilingual students, and teachers are doubly unprepared to present difficult curricula in a language and culture they are equally uncomfortable working with on a daily basis (Pick, Givaudan & Brown, 2000). This poses a significant problem for bilingual and ESL students, who statistically possess higher rates of teen pregnancy, STD contraction, and lack of contraceptive use. These concerns lie in sharp contrast to the assertion that “the development of sexual identity and the skills necessary to navigate healthy sexual relationships should begin early and continue through adulthood”(Pick, Givaudan & Brown, 2000, p. 98).
In much the same way that sexuality education rarely addresses the needs of a diverse student population, language education research rarely represents linguistically or sexually diverse student groups (Nelson, 2005). In both cases, the needs of mainstream student populations are effectively addressed, but those of diverse student populations are not met in a substantial way. Furthermore, “although identity research in language education draws on critical social theory, postcolonial theory, gender studies, and, increasingly, critical race studies, for the most part, queer studies remain oddly overlooked”(Nelson, 2006, p.2). For the most part, the queer education work that has been done has focused on a monolingual subject group, and “is only beginning to give serious attention to how issues of sexual diversity interface with issues of cultural and linguistic diversity, especially transnationally”(Nelson, 2006, p.3). Thus, the fates of sexuality education and bilingual education are uniquely intertwined as efforts for reform move forward.
The positionality of teachers of English as a second or foreign language play a significant role in the means by which sexuality education is presented and provided as well. As Duff and Uchida (1997) assert, issues of sociocultural identity and representation are very important in EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classrooms. These same issues are equally important in ESL (English as a Second Language) classrooms.
These aspects of sociocultural identity and representation intersect individually with the teaching of English as a second language and sexuality education and are exponentially increased when discussing aspects of sexuality education within an ESL context. Teachers must be prepared to navigate the social and political contexts of the material they are delivering, and must understand the broader implications of what and how they delivery information in the classroom. Additionally, teachers must understand their own positionality with regard to these issues before they can navigate them on a broader scale.
Academic, moral, and political issues such as sexuality and bilingual education can be approached from a variety of perspectives, and the implementation of these educational forums is influenced by the beliefs, background, and moral and political leanings of those conveying the information. Both aspects of education will remain highly controversial issues for at least the immediate future. As the number of children being served by ESL and ELL programs increases, the significance of an equitable approach to sexuality education for these students will be more and more important. As a result, the process of reform involves numerous key stakeholders.
This process begins with those individuals funding the curriculum, extends to those developing the curricula, and ultimately rests with the K-12 educators charged with implementing the curricula. The approach to bilingual education thus has a direct impact on the content and effectiveness of sexuality education provided to ESL students, which in turn plays a significant role in influencing rates of STD contraction and pregnancy, as well as fostering a stronger sense of identity in line with their own cultural backgrounds and beliefs.
Andersson, T. & Boyer, M. (1970). Bilingual Schooling in the United States (2 volumes). Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Laboratory.
Chamot, A. U. (1992). Changing institutional needs of language minority students. Third National Research Symposium on LEP Students. Washington, DC: Department of Education.
Crawford, J. (2004). Educating English learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom. Los Angeles, CA: Bilingual Education Services.
Davis, D., & McDaid, J. (1992). Identifying second-language students’ needs: A survey of Vietnamese high school students. Urban Education, 6, 217-244.
Duff, P. A. & Uchida, Y. (1997). The negotiation of teachers’ sociocultural identities and practices in postsecondary ELF classrooms. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 451-486.
Lucas, T. (1992). What have we learned from research on successful secondary programs for LEP students? A synthesis of findings from three studies. Third National Research Symposium on LEP Student Issues. Washington, DC: Department of Education.
Lyons, J. J. (1990). The past and future directions of Federal bilingual-education policy. In C. B. Cazden & C. E. Snow (Eds.), Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 508, 119-134. London: Sage.
McCarty, T. L. (2004). Dangerous difference: A critical-historical analysis of language education policies in the United States. In J. W. Tollefson & A. B. M. Tsui (Eds.), Medium of Instruction Policies: Which Agenda? Whose Agenda? Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Miguel, G. S. (2004). Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States 1960-2001. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press.
Nelson, C. D. (2005). Transnational/Queer: Narratives from the contact zone. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 21(2), 109-117.
Nelson, C. D. (2006). Queer inquiry in language education. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 5(1), 1-9.
Nelson, C. D. (2009). Sexual identities in English language education: Classroom Conversations. New York: Routledge.
Ovando, C. J. (2003). Bilingual education in the United States: Historical development and current issues. Bilingual Research Journal, 27(1), 1-24.
Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction.Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pick, S., Givaudan, M. & Brown, J. (2000). Working for school-based sexuality education in Mexico: Strategies for advocacy. Reproductive Health Matters, 8(16), 92-102.
Pratt, M. L. (1999). Arts of the contact zone. In D. Bartholomae & A. Petrosky (Eds.), Ways of reading: An anthology for writers (5th ed.), pp. 581-596. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins.
Valdes, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
Ward, J. V. & Taylor, J. M. (1992). Sexuality education for immigrant and minority students: Developing a culturally appropriate curriculum. In J. T. Sears (Ed.), Sexuality and the curriculum: The politics and practices of sexuality education (pp. 183-202). New York: Teachers College Press.
Wiley, T. G. (2002). Accessing language rights in education: A brief history of the US context. In J. W. Tollefson (Ed.), Language Policies in Education: Critical Issues. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Over the past two weekends, I completed a 32-hour advocate training program with A.C.C.E.S.S. (Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support) in town. This wonderful shelter and organization provides resources, counseling, and shelter services for victim survivors of domestic violence (DV) and sexual assault (SA), as well as outreach to the community for education and training. I’m humbled by the opportunity to volunteer for this wonderful organization, and although the work is difficult, it is also incredibly important and rewarding. This is work I’ve been involved with in various capacities since my undergraduate days at the University of Minnesota, and something I am very passionate about. The nature of the work, and my identity as a White male continually gives me pause as I consider my positionality, and how I engage, advocate, and assist others.
Following the training, I engaged in quite a bit of reflection. I’ve been thinking about and working with issues of DV and SA for close to 15 years now, but the work I did was previously only loosely connected to my professional life. Now that I am also teaching and researching various aspects of sex(uality), this volunteer work seems to take on an even greater significance in my life. One topic that arose out of this training, and one that I hadn’t previously considered to any great degree, was the connection between sex(uality) education and sexual assault. I firmly believe that sex(uality) education is key to eliminating sexual violence.
There continue to be conflicting studies on the hereditary nature of violence, as well as research on the impact of violent media on the actions of young people. I’m not sure we’ll ever reach a conclusion in either one of these areas, and even if we did, what would significant change look like? In this era of globalization and capitalism on steroids, any quest to squelch the violent nature of media content and the multi-billion dollar pornography industry is an uphill battle with no end in sight. I would like to believe that making changes here may decrease the violence we see in real life, but without a clear endpoint, arriving at such a conclusion is difficult. On the other hand, comprehensive, feminist, multiculturally-inclusive sex(uality) education is within our grasp, and presents a very real opportunity for positive change.
Currently, only 22 states require that schools teach sex education (loosely defined), and only 19 of those states require the information required to be “medically accurate”, a term that varies in meaning and scope (National Conference on State Legislatures, 2014). Opponents of sex education continue to push for more and more restrictive content, despite a constant flood of evidence that indicates that access to information does not increase risk-taking behavior (Mayhew et. al., 2014), and that rates of sexual activity do not increase with comprehensive sex education. Furthermore, rates of unintended pregnancies continue to remain a concern for health educators and policy makers (Finer & Zolna, 2014). These facts alone make it clear that more sex(uality) education is necessary, not less. However, the numbers get far more disturbing when we look at rates of violence against women.
Congress struggled to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013. The main objections involved extending protection to additional groups of women, including undocumented women, Native American women, and LGBT women. Reporting rates for sexual assault are notoriously low and continue to be so, and we struggle to even agree on how to define sexual assault for reporting purposes. On an even more fundamental level, the topic of consent is rarely discussed, and high school and college students (along with many adults) fail to understand what it means.
Now, I should be clear in stating that sexual assault is not about sex, desire or pleasure. It is about power and control, and a fundamental lack of respect for women (and men) as human beings. Thus, educating young people about respect and consent in the context of sex(uality) education is crucial. We need to begin educating young people much earlier than we do about their bodies, their identities, and healthy relationships. Many teens are already the victims of sexual violence before they receive any sort of sex(uality) education. The myth persists that young people must reach a certain age before they are “ready” to have “the talk”. However, sex(uality) education is a scaffolding process, just like any other subject we teach our young people (and test/assess them on, I might add). They need to begin with developmentally appropriate content, and build on that foundation with more and more information. Not only does this provide them with greater access to the information, but also with the language to ask the right questions and a comfort in doing so when they arise.
This information begins with learning to be comfortable and knowledgeable about their own bodies. There is no excuse for adults who can’t say penis out loud and then teach their children to say “wee wee” and “pee pee”. There is no reason why boys are socialized to be comfortable (to a greater degree) with their anatomy, but girls are taught to be ashamed of their bodies and view them as dirty and not even be able to look at their vulva in the mirror. On top of this, we continue to segregate boys and girls for what little discussion does take place. We need to talk about sex(uality) with all young people in a gender-inclusive manner. The human body isn’t a secret, and you certainly can’t respect something or someone who you don’t understand.
We also need to acknowledge that many young people have already experienced sexual violence, either firsthand or as an observer, and they need an outlet for conversation. They need an advocate in the one consistent environment they are in outside of the home. They need to know that asking questions and sharing information is ok, and that teachers and other adults care about them and are willing to listen and help them if necessary. We encourage kids to report other problems, and seek out the help of adults. We talk about “stranger danger” and they have a vocabulary to voice those concerns. They don’t have the vocabulary to voice questions about their sex(uality) or about sexual or domestic violence. They receive the message loud and clear, through what is said, what isn’t said, and through body language, that sex(uality) is not something that we talk about. Perhaps this brings us back full-circle to the media and the beginning of our conversation. If young people aren’t comfortable discussing issues of sex(uality) and sexual violence with other adults in their life, then they increasingly turn to the media for answers. If the media is to blame, in any way, for the violence taking place around the country, then perhaps it’s because young people were taught that it was the only place to get answers, and there is nobody inside their TV or computer fact-checking.
Young people deserve to learn respect for themselves, and learn about the importance of respect for others. Through sex(uality) education, we have an opportunity to instill that respect, along with a thorough a timely understanding of the diverse aspects of sex(uality) that each of us possess and engage with every single day. In doing this, perhaps we can decrease the rates of sexual violence and raise our young people to have a healthy respect for themselves, their bodies, and those of others in the process.