1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

Remember the Teenagers. A response to the abstinence-or-comprehensive sex ed fight

I support comprehensive sex education — programs that provide teenagers with information and options in the context of teaching emotional and social processes of self-care and empowerment. But today I’m not writing for the sole purpose of arguing my position. I read yesterday’s Boston Globe editorial on this topic and the comments that other readers have posted. I have many responses and opinions of my own that I will, down the line, articulate. Today, I’m writing because I want to remember the teenagers.

Where are the voices of the teenagers? I didn’t read their words, and no one seems to be advocating for them. The people commenting miss the fact that they are debating the education of real people — people that feel, think and do, every day. Yesterday, while adults fought on the Internet, teenagers across the country said yes to sex, said no to sex, asked to wait, asked for more, showed off their virginity pledges, showed off their hickeys, had their first kiss, gave birth, broke hearts, pledged their love, watched foreplay on television, saw rape in a movie, lied about their age on the Internet, lied about their sexual history, told the truth about their sexual history, viewed cleavage while flipping through a magazine, took a birth control pill, used a condom correctly, used a condom incorrectly, hated sex, enjoyed sex…

Yes, reading those comments from fighting adults, I just really missed teenagers and the intensity of their daily realities. Teenagers are real people, with bodies, sexualities, lives, and multiple senses — and they take in a lot more than they let on.

Most importantly, teenagers are a lot more diverse as a group and a lot more complex as individuals than these adults seem to give them credit for. We learned a while ago in education that we can’t approach all 20 or so students in one room as if they have the same needs. Instead, we practice differentiated instruction, working as much as possible to help students achieve according to their own level, style and potential.

Not all teenagers will decide to abstain, nor will all teenagers decide to have sex. But one theme that I did find in many of the comments from both “sides” of the fight was the desire for teenagers to learn to respect themselves and others.

Teenagers will only have a chance to learn respect when the so-called adults in this situation model such behavior for them. We need to respect each other. More importantly, we need to respect the very teenagers for whom we claim to feel concern. In order to respect teenagers, we must recognize them as full human beings with their own thoughts and feelings and dreams. They can’t vote, which immediately renders them less-than-relevant in any debate over policy. But this policy is about their lives, and this debate puts their right to their own humanity on the line. They are more-than-relevant, and we must treat them as such. We must respect, include, and listen to the teenagers themselves.

3. Queer Stuff, 6. Youth Development & Education

A More Specific Question

What are the best ways of responding to students who called something “so gay” in order to cast it apart as weird or wrong? The best response will entail having a conversation — communicating with the students, engaging them, challenging them.

In order to plan a caring and effective response, I’ll start by applying the very communication skills that I teach in health class. When preparing to have a serious conversation, first determine a good time and place. If I’m not in the middle of teaching a class, I can ask the student to step into the hallway with me and I can address the issue immediately. If I am in the middle of teaching a class, but do not have a class directly following, I can tell the student to speak with me after class. If neither of these options is available, or if the student spoke these words in the context of other disciplinary issues, then I will keep the student in my classroom after school.

That’s when the hard part starts. What can I say to help them understand better why they said it, why they shouldn’t say it again, and why homophobia hurts all of us? Those are my three objectives. What’s my plan?
1. Guide them through taking responsibility for what they said.
2. Ask them why they said it and listen to where it was coming from.
3. Help them think of more effective and respectful ways of expressing their feelings.
4. Use this moment to teach them…

… insert 5-to-10 minute, developmentally appropriate lesson on homophobia here. Any suggestions? I have lots of ideas, but I have yet to determine the best strategy. Right now I’m trying out what I feel is most applicable to the given student in the given situation. But I would love more feedback on planning ahead for this too frequent of challenges, for I’m sorry to say it will come up again.

5. Connection/ Community, 6. Youth Development & Education

Towards an Emotionally Intelligent Sex Ed Program

In addition to providing accurate and accessible information, sex ed teaches values, sending explicit or implicit messages to students about who they are, how to relate to others, and what roles to seek in society.

Schools end up teaching values wherever they want to or not. We need to take responsibility for the values and behavioral patterns we instill in students. One recent movement known as Character Education focuses on explaining what it means to have good character and be a good citizen. A new approach that can be called Emotional Education has the capacity to go deeper than that. I read about emotional education recently in the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and I’m enthralled.

Emotional education and sexuality education are inextricable from one another. In order to learn how to develop sexual agency, we need to know how to identify our own emotions and figure out what we want. In order to negotiate with potential sexual partners, we need to know how to recognize and respond to other people’s emotions. In order to develop healthy relationships, we need to communicate, debate and support each other in emotionally healthy ways.

Emotional education must also be antiracist, feminist education. In order to support all of our students, we must ensure that they receive the instruction and encouragement that they need, intentionally countering legacies of oppression and instead providing them all with opportunities for development as full and complex emotional beings. While the imperative to bring in the political analysis may not seem as obvious, I believe it is an essential basic element of such a curriculum.

I’m excited to continue to explore the potential for teaching about sex in the context of emotional education.

4. Body, Movement, & Dance

My analysis

What happens when we put the body at the center of our analysis? What can we learn about our own personal challenges? What can we learn about our relationships? Moreover, how can such an analytical process help us to transform our society?

My analysis centers around the body. All of the issues I address and care about bring me back to the body, and the importance of our having bodies and our having our own power over our own bodies. Through my body, I experienced myself and the world. By hearing about my embodied experience, you can understand my plight.

I learned many different radical critiques that use slightly different lenses for analyzing and critiquing the world’s inequalities. Is it all really about who has the most money? Is it all really about who has the most power over others? I think it’s about who has the most power over their own body and over the bodies of others.

My analysis uses the plight of our bodies as a lens for critiquing our society. In advocating for healthy, happy, safe, self-asserted, consensually involved bodies, we can sort through the myriad of oppressions that afflict our world.

We begin and end in our bodies. We feel our bodies constantly. We relate to each other with our bodies, through our bodies, in our bodies.

I’m not trying to make a concluding point in just this one entry. I’m trying to make a starting point. When we started from our bodies, where can that take us?

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

Talking about talking about sex

Last week, a friend of mine invited a couple people to dinner with the specific intention of discussing sex.

Why did we need a specific event in order to engage that topic? Why is it talking about sex something that happens on its own? I wish it were. I wish I had more frequent and more open conversations about sex with my peers. And even though I don’t do it enough, I bet I actually get down to talking about sex more than other people do. But much more than I get to talk about sex directly, I have conversations about the process of talking about sex. Meta-discussions. Discussions about discussions about sex.

We talk about why sex is so hard to talk about in the first place. We talk about what holds us back, our fears perhaps, or shyness, or our perception of other people’s fears or shyness. And social convention. Oh, social convention. It’s not usually done, so it doesn’t usually happen. How can we start making it happen?

Part of the issue is that we don’t have an easily accessible, already agreed-upon rubric for how such talking about sex could work. Is there such a thing as “too much information” (TMI)? What kinds of comments would be inappropriate? What “ground rules” can we use to build a “safe space” in which everyone feels more comfortable?

How can we honor the feelings that hold us back from talking about sex, and also move forward in seeking the discussions we desire? Please comment, for I would love to read your thoughts and feelings.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

Desire, Desire, Desire

I would’ve benefited from learning about enthusiastic consent in high school. I wish I’d known why to say no every time that I didn’t actually really, really, really want it.

But what makes a person enthusiastic? Desire. And what is that desire for? Pleasure. I think that these concepts are essential to transformative sex ed. They are essential to the process of countering rape culture and the epidemic of sexual violence. Recently, I’ve become more able to articulate these convictions thanks to the new anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape

Once we encourage each other to get in touch with our personal desires for specific pleasures, we can begin planning to fulfill our desires. That’s agency — being our own advocates.

I’m just beginning to get a sense for how extremely empowering these concepts are in my life and the lives of my friends. I want to figure out how to teach them to my students to empower them, also.

I started the 8th grade unit on sexual violence prevention by defining pressure as trying to get someone else to do something without considering whether the other person actually wants to do it or not. Pressure takes away the other person’s ability to consent by erasing the importance of desire. During the teen dating classes, I’ve expanded the concept of pressure to the concept of control, which is any use of power to make another person think, feel or act a certain way. Again, control violates the importance of the other person’s desire.

Next, I will tackle directly of the issue of rape and sexual assault. I hope the themes that I’ve developed through the preceding lessons at least somewhat prepare my students for what’s about to ensue.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

My Work

I currently teach health in a public middle school, and just today spent two classes with seventh graders explaining the anatomy of the male and female reproductive systems. “Why do we need to learn this?” the students often ask. Variations on this question include, “why do we need to learn about both males and females?” and “why do we need to learn this in school?”

I’m hoping to empower them. I explain that this information will help them care for themselves and their relationships — that at some point in the future they will want to be familiar with their friend’s and/or their partner’s reproductive system. I tell them that I want them to discuss it with me, at school, because I want them to have the opportunity to develop a positive attitude towards bodies, to hear from someone who doesn’t consider it weird or gross, and to ask questions of someone who is excited to provide answers.

On www.ratemyteachers.com, one of my students wrote about me, “She is a little weird how she talks about things with both boys and girls together and it looks like she enjoys it but otherwise she is a good friend?” Today, in a similar vein, a student asked me to my face if I enjoy teaching this topic.

“Yes,” I wanted to shout, “this is the best thing ever! I wish I had more time at you so I can teach you in more detail, make up many more activities, and ensure your mastering the information.” I didn’t say all that, but I did clearly affirm that I do enjoy it, and that’s why I teach it.

And why shouldn’t I? Is it weird to enjoy my students’ discomfort — or is it thrilling to open up a conversation with them that they’ve never had before quite this way? Is it wrong to be able to say words like vagina and penis with steady calm, or is it beautiful to make room for young adolescents to air their confusion and concern?

Maybe doing this work is weird in that it’s unusual, but I think that is one of its most important qualities. I believe that it’s thrilling, beautiful and fun. I’m in the zone while I’m doing it. And I’m convinced that most of the time my students are enjoying it, too.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

My Dream

I believe in sexuality education as a site of social transformation. By talking about our bodies, our relationships, our desires, and the restrictions and pressures on all of these, we have the opportunity to develop new ideas and ways of thinking that will change our lives and our society. In order to embark upon this project, we need to transform our conception of sexuality education. We must move beyond the debate between information and abstinence-based curriculum and reach for new paradigms in structure, pedagogy, and content. We will transform sexuality education so that sexuality education can in turn transform us. We will develop and articulate new values to guide us. We can achieve love, freedom, agency, and a system of support for the health and wellbeing of all. I strive for social change. Please strive with me.