In matters of education, as with many social concerns, there continues to be a disconnect between policy and practice. Sex(uality) education has long suffered from ineffective policies handed down by federal, state, and local agents (i.e. politicians) that don’t bother to critically think through the decisions they are making. I remember a conversation that took place during the 2008 presidential election surrounding the appeal to the “average American” (whatever that actually means) by politicians. They wanted to demonstrate that they could connect with the hearts and “minds” of “every man” (yes, the use of man is very intentional) and in doing so, seemed to limit intellectual discourse. A journalist (I wish I could remember who) responded to this trend in the most logical manner I had heard in quite some time by making it clear that we shouldn’t want an “every man” in the White House. We should want our president to be the smartest person in any room they walk into around the world. Unfortunately, that just hasn’t been the case, and the evidence continues to mount as we suffer from over-simplified justifications for otherwise illogical policy decisions.
Most recently in the ongoing sex(uality) education debate, the Louisiana legislature struck down a bill that would have given the state Department of Education the ability to ask teens about their sexual health. These questions, which are a part of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted nationally by the CDC since 1991, ask young people about sexual activity and sexual risk behaviors. The survey is grounded in a solid public health approach, which is in keeping with a majority of mainstream comprehensive sexuality education, and avoids any discussion of morals or values related to sex(uality). However, legislators were concerned that asking about such activities would desensitize them and give them “ideas”. Louisiana law currently reads that
It is the intent of the legislature that, for the purposes of this Section, “sex education” shall mean the dissemination of factual biological or pathological information that is related to the human reproduction system and may include the study of sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, childbirth, puberty, menstruation, and menopause, as well as the dissemination of factual information about parental responsibilities under the child support laws of the state. It is the intent of the legislature that “sex education” shall not include religious beliefs, practices in human sexuality, nor the subjective moral and ethical judgments of the instructor or other persons. Students shall not be tested, quizzed, or surveyed about their personal or family beliefs or practices in sex, morality, or religion.
Sex education is not required in the state, and is even banned in elementary schools. It amazes me that in 2014, when children are born with smartphones in their hands and Netflix accounts embroidered on their baby blankets, that we are still worried that discussing sex(uality) is somehow going to lead to increased rates of sexual activity. I realize that this is the same logic that has led to debates over discussing homosexuality, as if the mere mention of it will “turn kids gay”, but I can’t help but continue to shake my head. How long must we cater to an anti-intellectual fringe minority instead of the educators and researchers who continue to produce sound scientific evidence and pedagogically effective means of providing our young people with a well-rounded education that teaches them to think critically about the world around them. I can only assume that the ultimate threat isn’t that asking kids about sex will make them go have sex, but that it will encourage more critical thinking, which will lead to young people not blindly following outdated beliefs in the first place.
Clearly, those screaming the loudest in Louisiana aren’t presenting a more effective sexuality education curriculum and yet we continue to deny young people access to important health information. This out-of-touch ideology has led to a full 25% of students in the state not having had any education concerning HIV/AIDS, and higher than average pregnancy and birth rates (in a country that already has the highest rates in the industrialized world). Not surprisingly, the rates of HIV and STI infection in Louisiana are also well above the national average. Most recently (May 27), the legislature took the added step of banning any organization the provides abortions from distributing sex education materials in schools (H.B. 305). Planned Parenthood, who no doubt was the main focus of this legislation, is perhaps the largest private provider of sex education in the country.
Now, there are folks in Louisiana, as there are nationally, that are trying to combat these educational mistakes. Legislation has been presented in Louisiana several times over the past five years that would require comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education for young people but it has been defeated each time. Most recently, Rep. Patricia Smith (D), who sponsored the bill, went as far as to say that a lack of sex education “is really a form of child abuse.” These policy debates play out across the country every month, and young people are left twisting in the wind as a result. Until we make it clear to our elected officials that we want them to vote based on educated and informed evidence, they will continue to strike an unwritten bargain with a vocal minority that doesn’t reflect the beliefs of most citizens or the scientific evidence as a whole.
I realize that relatively small legislative decisions such as this can get lost in the black hole of larger social and political issues, but each of these decisions are connected to one another. As educators, it is our responsibility not only to provide young people with open-minded, diverse, and critical perspectives on a host of issues. We must also engage in these policy debates and voice our opinions to those elected officials that are responsible for defining the bounds of our discourse. They may not remember any single vote a few years from now, but our young people will be feeling the effects of those votes for years to come. Policy matters.
Did you have “the talk”? You know the one I’m talking about. The conversation with a parent, guardian, sibling, cousin, or some other random (hopefully not stranger) person related to you about that awkward and uncomfortable topic. I’m talking about SEX! Uh oh, the cat’s out of the bag. I’ve gone and named it. I said the “S word”. The next thing you know, I’ll be busting out the “F word”. I can probably guess what you are thinking, but I mean feminism. Anyway, the fact that you remember that conversation, or remember the general lack of an appropriate conversation is probably significant. In short, sex(uality) matters.
From the moment I picked up D’Emilio & Freedman’s Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, I was hooked. My own “talk” or lack there of, is fodder for another post. First, some introductions are in order. Well, I guess that could be part of the introduction, but I don’t want to give away the whole story when we’ve just only met. Let’s get to know each other first, eh? This blog is my attempt at broaching the diverse, intimate, often controversial, and seldom discussed topic of sex(uality). My word choice and formatting is quite intentional, and hopefully will continue to provoke such head-scratching moments as you are now experiencing- “what does he mean by ‘sex(uality)’? Why doesn’t he just say ‘sex’?
The answer, like many things, is complicated. As a researcher and generally well-meaning participant in our society, I view sexuality as a socially constructed notion falling somewhere in the space where history, identity, biology, politics, psychology, and theory intersect. The result is a pretty darn messy Venn diagram, but you get the idea. Over the lifespan of this blog, I will do my best to sit down with each of these intersecting ideas and have a sometimes serious, intelligent conversation. My goal is to explore the many ways that our ideas about sex and sexuality impact us on a micro, meso, and macro level. There is no sex(uality)-related topic that is out-of-bounds (until I stumble into it, anyway), and you will hopefully find yourself nodding in agreement at times, as well as questioning my ideas, and jumping at the opportunity to proffer a new or alternative idea. I welcome those comments, and look forward to the opportunity to engage you in dialogue on these topics, while also sharing resources, new research, current events, and doing my best give voice to marginalized groups in this discussion.
In many ways, most people in our society have been silenced around issues of sex(uality). It is a form of oppression that has many faces, and is often misunderstood. With that being said, our discussion and discourse around issues of sex and sex(uality) has historically been very White, middle-class, European, like many other aspects of society. The result has and continues to be a gap in the understanding of and education for historically marginalized populations, which is saying something considering the generally poor (but optimistically improving) state of sex(uality) education in this country. I approach these discussions from a feminist multicultural perspective, for reasons which will become clear as time goes on. I am guided by and motivated by my background, my identity, and my educational pursuits.
So, if you’ll indulge me, I invite you on a journey. This journey will chronicle my research endeavors, my ever-changing understanding of my identity, and hopefully some unique and interesting discussions on the topic of sex(uality). Together, let’s explore just why sex(uality) matters. Let’s have “the talk”.