A Little More On The Issue of Sex Education

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about sex education.  My last post on the subject was a case for comprehensive sex ed in the United States, outlining the benefits that we could derive from switching from our current abstinence-plus sex education to the more-informative comprehensive sex education.

Clearly, sex ed as taught in “Mean Girls” is not the answer.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in the middle of completing some research on the issue of teen pregnancy, and more specifically the ways in which teen pregnancy is discussed in the United States and how this influences our approach to handling the issue.  I promise, I will share a piece of that once the paper is finalized and handed in (finals week is the worst, y’all), but in the meantime, there’s a bit of the paper that I’m cool with releasing early, and it deals with the issue of sex education and ways that it could be changed to more meaningfully achieve its presumable goal of encouraging healthy sexual behavior.  The following is an excerpt from Whose Fault is it Anyway? The Framing of Teenage Pregnancy in Public Discourse and Popular Media:

There is also a push for sexuality education, or more sex-positive sex education, for several reasons.  Fields (2008:19) argues that current models of sex education are disempowering to young people by creating a binary between innocence and vulnerability; in doing so, sexual education often fails to recognize young people’s sexual agency and fails to discuss any concept of sexual rights, sexual pleasure or sexual risk (p. 17).  Moreover, Fields argues that it is crucial that young women’s agency be recognized if they are to be empowered to make mature decisions, not only with regards to sex but in all areas of their lives (p. 110).  Allen (2001) provides conclusions which support this, presenting evidence that the negative information provided by parents and educators regarding protection from negative outcomes is often trumped in the minds of young people by information gained through friends, media and personal experience regarding the maximization of pleasure from sex and relationships.  Put simply, adolescents are less receptive to negatively framed messages than positively framed ones, and sexual education as it is currently taught is primarily negative in its discussion of sexual outcomes.  Correspondingly, a change to more sex-positive sex education would likely be better received by adolescents and might have a more positive impact on their behaviors.

As sex is currently discussed in the United States, taboos on female sexuality create a “good girl” paradigm wherein “good girls are still supposed to ‘just say no’” (Tolman 1999:133).  This, too, represents a structural issue wherein female sexuality is simultaneously frowned upon and commodified such that young women are unable to identify with their own sexual agency; Fine (1988) argues that adolescent female sexuality is framed in terms of danger, victimization, and individual morality such that girls are not meant to be able to positively identify with sexual experience.  By making the principle sources of conversation about sex and sexuality more sex-positive, young women can be empowered to make choices, and therefore make healthier choices, regarding their sexual behavior. Additionally, sex-positive sex education has the potential to address other issues, such as what constitutes consent and how to build healthy relationships.  These issues are fundamental to reducing problems such as unwanted sexual contact, which is has also been linked to adolescent pregnancy, as well as a lack of dialogue between partners that is fundamental to the development of healthy sexual relationships.

(Saunders, 2012)

I’m sharing this because a) I felt that a positive post was much needed on this blog, b) I just spend the last hour working on this paper and c) I think there’s an interesting point buried in all the academic writing I just read: because women are socialized to divorce themselves from their sexuality (see: Orenstein 2011), they are not necessarily taught to understand themselves with sexual beings who have sexual rights and sexual agency.  Femininity serves, in this case, as a barrier to healthy, positive decision-making, because taboos on female sexuality deter, in some cases, substantial discussion about sexual health, especially for teenage girls.

The problem isn’t so much that teens are having sex, it’s that they’re not having safe sex, and many of them don’t fully understand their right or ability to assert themselves in order to develop healthier sexual relationships and make better choices.  And that’s a problem that our sexual education doesn’t solve for in the United States, and it’s a problem that we can and should be working to alleviate.  Women need to be made to feel like their experiences are significant, to be given back their subjectivity, not made into the objects of sexual health disaster prevention programs.  Objectifying women in the way that our current sex education does, as cherished possessions to be protected, isn’t helping anyone.

Sources referenced in the excerpt:

  • Allen, L. (2001). Closing sex education’s knowledge/practice gap: The reconceptualisationof young people’s sexual knowledge. Sex Education, 1(2), 109-122.
  • Fields, J. (2008). Risky lessons: Sex education and social inequality. New Brunswick, NJ:Rutgers University Press.
  • Fine, M. (1988). Sexuality, schooling and adolescent females: The missing discourse ofdesire. Harvard Educational Review, 58(1), pp. 29-53.
  • Tolman, D. L. (1999). Femininity as a barrier to positive sexual health for adolescent girls.Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, 54(3), 133-138.

You can view Part 1 of this series here, and Part 3 here.

~ by Randi Saunders on December 15, 2012.

3 Responses to “A Little More On The Issue of Sex Education”

  1. […] had already posted an excerpt of my research on teen pregnancy, but there are a couple more bits of it I want to share.  I […]

  2. […] can find Part 2 of this series here, and Part 3 […]

  3. […] on women having to remain chaste, which conflates abstinence with responsibility, and which constructs a good girl paradigm  that frames female sexuality in terms of danger or victimization, making it something to be […]

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