A Body-Literate Society (The Case for Sex Ed Part 2)

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In continuing my series making a case for sex education (see part 1 here), I’d like to make the point that we need sex ed in order to ensure that we live in a society where everyone knows how their bodies work. This includes anatomical functions like puberty and pregnancy, STI transmission, orgasm, and much more.

As a folklorist, I’m aware that there are narratives and beliefs informally circulating in every society that may not be scientifically accurate. This is only a problem when there’s not an evidence-based program to rigorously counter these narratives (often urban legends) and beliefs. The book Did You Hear About the Girl Who…? Contemporary Legends, Folklore, & Human Sexuality by biologist Mariamne Whatley and folklorist Elissa Henken documents and interprets many of these folklore items which are currently in circulation.

For example, teenage and college-aged girls listed beliefs about how not to get pregnant – by urinating after sex or having sex during her period – which are patently false. Other folks listed beliefs about how one can get HIV from mosquitos or toilet seats. Narratives about STI acquisition, the effects of masturbation, and insect infestation of vaginas also abound.

My stance as a sex educator and scholar is that we need to do better at providing accurate, shame-free sex, body, and relationship information to our fellow American citizens (and citizens of the world, really).

This is especially crucial since we live in a democracy, and our citizens vote on policies that affect all. If anyone remembers the “legitimate rape” debacle in recent politics, wherein Representative Todd Akin said “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down,” then you’ll understand why it’s important to make sure both our voting citizens and our politicians have an accurate grasp of both the biology and the social trends around sexual violence, pregnancy, and more.

Put quite simply, I don’t want to live in a world where my neighbors might think that you can get AIDS from a doorknob, or believe that only a stranger can commit rape (and further, in the Akin case, that a female body is incapable of becoming pregnant from rape). I can’t campaign for the elimination of folklore, because then I’d have nothing to study, and it’s not like all folklore is untrue; rather, folklore gives us amazing insights into the anxieties, fears, and hopes of people in a culture, and it’s incredibly useful in that regard.

Our current sex education is not up to the task. As Nancy Kendall documents in her ethnographic study of sex ed in the U.S., The Sex Education Debates, abstinence-only classrooms tended to deemphasize the importance of condoms in preventing HIV transmission (and other STIs as well). She quotes from her fieldwork, observing an abstinence educator saying: “They say condoms protect you, at least physically, but actually condoms don’t even do that well.” (132)

Um… no. According to the CDC, correct and consistent condom use reduces the risk of STI transmission, including HIV. I’m really unhappy with the fact that classroom educators (often federally funded – your tax dollars at work!) can make erroneous statements like the one above to students who may not know where to look for correct information.

For many abstinence-only folks, sex is at heart a moral issue, and thus it’s reasonable to ignore the biology behind STI transmission and strategies for risk reduction. Kendall writes: “Reduction of STI and pregnancy rates is not a reasonable concept to [abstinence-only until marriage] supporters, because it is the sex act itself that is immoral. All sex before marriage is inherently dangerous and wrong, and the moral risk can never be reduced. In contrast, all talk of sex after marriage was glowing and full of pleasure; no [abstinence-only] program presented any information about the risks of STI transmission or unwanted pregnancy…Since sex within marriage is morally acceptable, these unwanted health outcomes are not in and of themselves a problem.” (132)

Does everyone realize how problematic it is to assume that marriage confers such a sacred status to sex that it obviates the need for accurate information around how pregnancies and contraceptive methods work as well as how STIs can be transmitted and prevented? Sexual assault can be a problem within marriage too. So can gender and sexual identity crises. So can substance addiction.

We need more accurate sex ed in our culture so that everyone can understand the physical dimensions of bodies and sexual acts, but also so that we have a framework in which to make sense of pervasive issues like sexual violence, and what marriage can and cannot do for you (unlike the magical, wishful thinking that abstinence-only folks seem to be displaying).

And yes, it is correct to draw a connection between folks who receive less sex education and folks who are engaging in behaviors that will lead to higher teenage pregnancy rates and higher STI transmission rates. Dr. Debby Herbenick discusses these connections in her TEDxBloomington talk, “Making Sex Normal” (which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it). There’s also definitely a social justice angle to this issue, since demographics that are already disadvantaged (by living in poverty, being a person of color in a racist culture, by being LGBT) are even more vulnerable to systemic harms, but I’ll talk about that separately in another blog post.

I mean, if you want to live surrounded by people who are by no fault of their own ignorant about the workings of their own bodies? Go find a time machine. Ignorant people are more easily controlled and instilled with fear. I’d rather live alongside citizens who are empowered by knowledge when it comes to their bodies, their sexuality, and their ability to make informed choices.

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