Welcome to my blog post series making a case for sex education (you can catch up and read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here). In this post I’ll analyze how concepts of gender and sexual activity intertwine in contemporary American culture, and how accurate sex education can help.*
Since I just taught Dr. Nancy Kendall’s The Sex Education Debates, an ethnography of sex education in 5 different U.S. states, the book is very much on my mind. One of the chapters is devoted to how gender is represented in abstinence-only and comprehensive sex ed curricula.
Building on her own classroom observations as well as the interpretations in Kristin Luker’s book When Sex Goes to School, Kendall describes how gender roles and sexual behavior have become intertwined from both progressive and conservative standpoints. Perhaps surprisingly, the abstinence-only (and usually socially and religiously conservative) folks talk more of empowerment for girls and women than the comprehensive-leaning (and progressive/liberal) folks tend to. Part of this is because comprehensive sex ed curricula tend to lean heavily on neoliberal ideologies that paint each individual as a rational actor, making free choices in a context where all else is equal. This viewpoint ignores influences like class and economic disparities, trauma histories, gender socialization, and so on.
However, the type of “empowerment” preached by ab-only educators is anything but. As Kendall writes: “It is not empowering of women’s voices, desires, decision-making, or freedom of choice. It is not supportive of structural equity. It restricts women’s power, tying it entirely to their ability to control those with greater physical and social power – men – in order to assume their only rightful places in society as mother and wife” (162).
And this is where the connection between gender identity and sexual role emerges. Ab-only teachers (and to a large degree, comprehensive sex ed teachers) do not question this connection between proper femininity and masculinity, and the right way to be sexual as a man or as a woman. While there’s a difference in the messages “no sex til marriage” and “if you’re gonna do it, here are some ways to protect yourself,” both approaches to sex ed largely convey the same gendered messages, telling women that they are the gatekeepers of sex, that they need to not tempt men by dressing or acting certain ways, and that it’s their fault if they get raped.
To quote Dr. Kendall again, she makes this observation of ab-only approaches, but it applies pretty well to many of the comprehensive sex ed curricula she observed, too: “This model of empowerment also denigrates men’s capacities and choices, and silences male voices and experiences concerning emotional connections in relationships, responsibility toward women and children, and desires for gender egalitarianism in relationships. Just as it figures women as weak, emotional, and manipulative, it figures men as unaccountable, animalistic, and incapable of deep spiritual or social connection” (162).
This, incidentally, is why I tell everyone (especially men) that I’m a feminist: because normative gender roles suck for everyone. They suck in different ways, and to different degrees, and they certainly suck intersectionally too. But as blogger Cliff Pervocracy writes in the classic Myth of the Boner Werewolf, “If someone started telling stories about how my gender was controlled by our genitalia and sexual arousal turns us into rapist automatons, I would be outraged. I would explain in very small, very loud words that I am a person and I can goddamn control myself.”
In other words, gender role and sexual behavior are deeply intertwined in our culture in a way that impacts everyone, yet it’s mostly feminists and other sex-positive folks calling into question this connection. However, it’s deeply problematic, and it needs to be interrogated by/for all. A comprehensive AND sex-positive AND critically analytical sex education classroom could accomplish these goals, maybe, under the right circumstances (a teacher who’s trained in sex education, given enough time in the curriculum and who wasn’t being monitored by a paranoid school board or parents who’d rather condemn their kids to ignorance than have them learn things that could save and/or improve their lives).
If our educational system and our cultural discourse prioritized conversations about gender that neither revolve around false dichotomies (I’m looking at you, “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” bullshit), nor incorrectly superimposed sexual norms atop gender roles – if we had realistic conversations about gender as a social construct, and how that gets layered with sexuality – then maybe we’d have a shot at raising a healthier generation. Disentangling gender from sex acts and from sexual orientation is a huge task, but the benefits (reduced victim blaming and slut-shaming, greater tolerance for non-gender-conforming and non-heterosexual folks, more life options for all) seem to be worth it to me.
*The title of this post, about disentangling gender from sex, is not a new concept in feminist and queer studies. Theorists from Simone de Beauvoir up through Gayle Rubin and Judith Butler have done great work on it. For a cultural history of how gender has mapped onto biological sex, see Thomas Laqueur, The Making of Sex. What I’m suggesting here is that more attention to the gendering of biological/anatomical sex and sexual acts is a crucial part of the mission of contemporary sex education.