Earlier this year, a Minnesota teacher took some flack for taking her students to a "progressive sex toy store for everyone" known as Smitten Kitten. The store prides itself on offering a wide range of products for people of all ages, genders and orientations. Select members of a class attended an educational workshop routinely held at the store so that students could discuss sex in a safe, judgment-free space. Not surprisingly, some parents flipped out.
"...[taking children to a sex toy shop] is just a major breach of trust," one parent told Star Ledger. "You can't erase those images."
Well, duh. The point of education is to provide information that stays with students long after class is over. In that context, the trip was definitely a win. Starri Hedges, the teacher in question, has said that she may not be able to continue attending these workshops with students, which is a shame.
"What I saw happening on our trip, I thought it was beautiful because kids could talk to these sex educators without any shame, without any fear," she said. One might wonder if there aren't people who want to instill a certain level of shame in our kids with regard to healthy sexual expression.
Providing Sex Ed Becomes Increasingly Difficult Each Year
Some educators say that sex education becomes more difficult to teach each year. This is not because the students are difficult, inattentive, or don't want the material. Rather, it has to do with parents or administrators who want to limit content. As a result, talk about subjects as basic as masturbation, oral sex, and homosexuality are eliminated. Figuring out what's "age appropriate" can also be difficult since some children reach puberty at ages as young as 8 or 9. Then there's so-called "abstinence-only education," which doesn't really seem like sex education at all.
One Michigan mom famously live tweeted her son's abstinence-only high school class. The results are about what you'd expect. Claims made by students that abstinence-only education doesn't reduce STD transmission or unwanted pregnancy were dismissed outright. The class included a speaker who attributed his unhappy life with premarital sex, and went on to slut-shame the two women he impregnated (the mothers of two children of whom he was a "less than [an] ideal father").
"The girl who says no is the one you pursue," was a resounding theme in the class.
Yikes! The class made no mention of the safety of backup contraception, of abortion, or sex acts other than penis-in-vagina. It also included a dice game that asserts intercourse results in pregnancy every one-in-six times, even with protection. Um, what?
Providing Access to True Sexual Facts in America
Newsflash: Kids already know how to not have sex. What they need is truthful information and access to verifiable facts.
It's worth noting that America is the only developed country where abstinence-only education exists in public schools. In Papua, New Guinea, the Trobrianders give children nearly unfettered access to each other at very young ages: 6-8 years of age for girls and 10-12 years of age for boys. The Trobrianders see nothing shameful about consensual sex, and feel that it's a vital part of living a healthy life. One can see the value in saying that behavior that's normal and natural for an adult shouldn't be shamed in children.
Exclusively heteronormative sex education is also something we can do without, although it remains the norm in much of the country. California has recently proposed legislation that would include HIV prevention education, and to include LGBT information as part of the standard curriculum. California Assembly Bill 329, as it's called, was approved by the state assembly and is currently en route to the state senate. Parents still have the option of removing their kids from sex ed class. That's better than the previous opt-in option that required parental approval before a student could attend a sex education class at all.
The landscape of sexual education in American public schools is filled with rocky terrain. Only 35 states require that any sex education be taught at all. Of those that do require it, a few allow for only abstinence-only education while others insist on a more inclusive and realistic curriculum. With no national standard in place, it often falls to specific districts or even individual teachers to determine what's best for their students at a given time.
I think most teachers can be trusted to know what their students are ready for; the impact that a single teacher can have on a student's perceptions about sex is enormous. Yet, being taught sex negative things at an early age can have lasting repercussions that lead to devastating consequences. Kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart famously explained that the sex-negative information she received in an abstinence-only class made her reticent to try to escape her attacker. She had been told that non-virginal girls were akin to a "used piece of bubblegum" leading her to presume that she had lost her value as a human being because she had been kidnapped and raped.
How do we go about getting comprehensive, evidence-based sex education in all 50 states? I'm really not sure. I do think it will take effort from teachers, administrators and parents working together. Hopefully, this happens without input from groups who seek to deny students the information they need and deserve. Some kids are going to have sex no matter what they're taught. The least we can do is to provide information that lets them explore their sexuality safely and with their dignity intact.