Stop calling it Sex Education: Human Development Classes and Reinforcing Gender Bias
There is perhaps no more embarrassing moment in a middle schooler’s life than having to sit through Human Development class in 7th grade and, depending on the school, sometimes even younger. I attended a fairly progressive school during the 1970s and I clearly remember the stunned look on everyone’s face as we watched THE film.
There were the diagrams and the pull down charts and the hand outs and the descriptions, but THE film was a whole other level. The music, the lighting, the plush carpeting, the bi-racial couple and the sex. Real sex. Not fake sex, but real sex. Full on intercourse. 10 minutes of absolute silence in the darkness which flickered with projected images on the pull down screen, followed by the lights going on, blaring into everyone’s eyes; eyes seeking a point of focus away from any direct contact with anyone else. Not even a single joke, no smart aleck remarks or funny noises or giggling laughter. Just a bunch of highly confused and embarrassed 13 year olds wondering what comes next. When I went home and told my bohemian mother about THE film, she said, “Good for them and good for you. Did they also demonstrate oral sex?” I immediately went into my room and shut the door behind me.
There were the diagrams and the pull down charts and the hand outs and the descriptions, but THE film was a whole other level.
Any discussion regarding sex education, particularly in the United States, has been and continues to be a politically loaded conversation. Questions revolve around messaging, information versus promotion, and, of course, who gets to own the agenda. Sex education in schools can sound so liberating. It can sound so progressive. There is potentially no worse name for it than sex education, mainly because, as many schools have realized, this framing provides no student, ever, with what they need to make smart choices. Very few people learn chemistry in school because they will spend their lives engaged in scientific experimentation. And, while many of us enjoy reading, we did not take English classes in order to annotate literature and write essays. Whether you call it Human Development or Health or Life Skills, the purpose of having such classes is to provide students with a sense of human dignity, ownership over their bodies and the knowledge to take care of themselves in multiple situations.
What can often happen instead is the opposite. Sex education materials can be laden with messages which reinforce gender stereotypes. Abstinence only programs, prevalent in many sexual education programs, promote not only misinformation as a form of scare tactic to dissuade teens and preteens, but are clearly driven by intentions to maintain the very worst and dangerous of gender assumptions. In one text:
“Girls need to be aware that they may be able to tell when a kiss is leading to something else. The girl may need to put the breaks on first in order to help the boy.” (Reasonable Reason to Wait, Student Workbook, p. 96) Or:
“A guy who wants to respect girls is distracted by sexy clothes and remembers her for one thing. Is it fair that guys are turned on by their senses and women by their hearts?” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 94)
Whether you call it Human Development or Health or Life Skills, the purpose of having such classes is to provide students with a sense of human dignity, ownership over their bodies and the knowledge to take care of themselves in multiple situations.
As scholar John DeLamater puts it, “The first quote reinforces the stereotypical belief that it is the girl’s responsibility to manage the couple’s sexual behavior. The second quote suggests that male and female sexual arousal are governed by different processes.”*(See source below) I would then take DeLamater’s logic to its intended consequences: Women are at fault and responsible for men who force women to do what they do not want to do. Why should women be outraged by sexual harrassment, assault or rape when they are the cause of provoking impulses that men really have no control over? Abstinence only education would be better titled Girls-only education as they are seen as the only ones capable and responsible for the sexual landscape between men and women. In this learning environment, there is no dignity or respect allowed to anyone, just ignorance and biased assumptions which damages everyone.
I could not really tell you what information I learned from my Human Development class in 7th grade or if I walked away from THE film a more enlightened 13 year old boy. I do know that my school was trying to frame this part of my education in such a way that I would respect others and myself more than I did before taking the class. Abstinence education does not work for many reasons but what it can claim effectiveness in doing is promoting gender stereotypes that are in fact dangerous or even deadly.
*DeLamater, John. Gender Equity in Formal Sexuality Education. In: Klein, S.S. (2007). Handbook for Achieving Equity Through Education. New York, NY.: Routledge