Last year, for the first time, I taught about gender and sexuality in literature. My kneejerk reaction was, I can’t talk about sex to teenagers. Arrggh!
On reflection, this reaction had everything to do with my hangups (to use a good old-fashioned word) and nothing to do with my students’ needs.
This is a common problem in sex education, with the current brouhaha in the United Kingdom serving as an example.
British prime minister Rishi Sunak has, according to the Guardian, “asked the Department for Education to “ensure schools are not teaching inappropriate or contested content” in the subject of relationships, sex and health education… Sunak confirmed the review… after a Tory MP, Miriam Cates, said children were being exposed to sex education classes that were “age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate”.”
Numerous Tory MPs are on board, one of their complaints being that young people are being taught about oral sex — a classic case of adult prudishness being prioritized over teen well-being.
Chambers et al. (2004) is quoted by Leung et al., 2019 saying Britain’s “value-led approach [to sex education] merely reflects the interests and principles of stakeholders, while overlooking the actual needs and wellbeing of youths.”
Sex ed in the internet age
Does anyone with two brain cells to rub together think not discussing oral sex, or any other sexual act, proclivity or topic, is going to prevent kids from knowing what it is, discussing it, watching it and even doing it?
Children are handed internet-connected screen devices almost as soon as their chubby baby fingers can hold them, in many cases.
Statista data show that 58% of British children own a smartphone by age 8; by age 12, that jumps to 93%. You can bet the farm they aren’t just using it to watch Sesame Street.
Sexuality isn’t a switch that flips at puberty. Sexual behaviors and curiosity are apparent in early childhood.
This might make grown-ups uncomfortable, but our discomfort isn’t useful. Parents and teachers have a duty to help kids navigate this vital part of life.
If we don’t step up, the internet will.
Student needs versus teacher discomfort
In an op-ed, 25-year-old journalist and editor Sasha Mistlan writes (re: Andrew Tate and the importance of proactive sex education): “My friends and I didn’t get any proper education about sex, consent or relationships until we were 13, by which time we had learned it all from internet porn and lads’ mags.”
How can educators ignore this need?
I am a literature teacher; the biology of the birds and bees are beyond my remit. But it isn’t the birds and bees that students need to know about.
They need models of relationships and ways of relating that affirm sexuality as an important (but not overwhelming), natural part of adult life, and of sex as a source of joy and connection. They need love stories with happy endings. They need, also, stories that are unhappy or ambiguous; stories that show mistakes and heartbreaks as a navigable part of human sexual experience, not reasons to drink poison.
However awkward I may feel, students need a safe space for curiosity and discussion. Because lord only knows, they are talking about sex outside the classroom.
Sex positive education
Does the phrase ‘sex positive education’ make you a little uncomfortable?
It does me.
But what does the alternative imply? Sex negative education doesn’t prevent young people from having sex.
Data from the worryingly puritanical United States show that even students who promise to abstain from premarital sex… don’t.
Research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics found: “Five years after the pledge [to abstain from sex], 82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged. Pledgers and matched nonpledgers did not differ in premarital sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and anal and oral sex variables. Pledgers… did not differ in lifetime sexual partners and age of first sex. Fewer pledgers than matched nonpledgers used birth control and condoms.”
Scaring teenagers away from sex has never worked; ignoring sex in the hope teenagers won’t notice it is ludicrous.
The best, bravest, least-comfortable option is to say: hey, sex is a huge part of life, however whenever wherever and with whomever you do it (or don’t), and it can be one of the most joyous parts of life, or one of the most damaging. Let’s talk about how to make it joyful, empowering, pleasurable, safe and beautiful.
As a literature teacher, I can do my part by teaching texts that articulate the delights and challenges of sexuality and sexual identity, and working with my colleagues in health, science and psychology to create a safe, affirmative atmosphere for conversations about love, sex and gender.
This requires making careful choices about what my students read. Many of the canonical ‘love stories’ of European literature are anything but — think Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliet where ‘love’ and violence are inextricably mixed.
The search for affirmative literature requires looking beyond the cano and seeking stories that reflect a variety of experiences, cultures, orientations and gender identities.
Next week, I’ll share a list of powerful literature that treats sex with the openness, thoughtfulness, honesty and sensitivity it merits.
Suggest your favorite teen-appropriate, sex-affirmative story, poem or film in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke