Knowing Our Bodies Means Better Public Policies (The Case for Sex Ed Part 9)

Thanks to Sean McGrath on Wikimedia for the image.

After taking a brief hiatus (moving in the middle of the semester is fun!) my blog post series making a case for sex education is back.

In this post, I’d like to talk about the widespread ignorance and disgust around bodies – especially women’s bodies – that could easily be remedied by universal evidence-based sex education. This ignorance has concrete and dire consequences because of how it becomes encoded in politics and public policy, and thus I think we owe it to everyone to do better on this front.

First, there’s the issue of gendered access to restrooms. In the recent Democratic Debates, Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break became a topic of comment. As this Huffington Post article points out, Donald Trump’s comment on the situation was: “I know where she went, it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it…No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting, let’s not talk.” For someone running for an elected office to claim that bodily functions are too disgusting to talk about is astounding. Toilets and sanitation systems are public health concerns, thus politicians must talk about them.

As the World Health Organization points out, bathroom access is a crucial public health issue, and further, it is a gendered one: “Child-friendly schools that offer private and separate toilets for boys and girls, as well as facilities for hand washing with soap, are better equipped to attract and retain students, especially girls. Where such facilities are not available, girls are often withdrawn from school when they reach puberty.” Not taking into account the impact of menarche on bathroom needs is thus a gendered discriminatory act.

Transgender identities are also often singled out for discriminatory bathroom policies, which again is a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of of how gender works (which I assert sex ed needs to address), and how sexual assault is patterned. LAMBDA Legal makes that case that restroom use is a significant part of the human rights needs of people who are transitioning, and ideally we’ll have policies that allow people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with (as opposed to this recently proposed Indiana law that seeks to fine people up to $5,000 and jail them for one year for using a bathroom that doesn’t correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth…seriously? that’s worth focusing on in a state that ranks as one of the worst in regard to sexual violence, violence that I guarantee you is not being perpetuated by transgender folks who just want to pee in peace?!).

Further, we as a society benefit when women’s specific health needs are understood, and policies to address these needs are implemented. Research shows that when women’s clinics are closed, and there aren’t nearby alternatives, the annual rates of women getting screened for breast cancer and cervical cancer drop. This disproportionately impacts lower-income women, too. Since early detection improves survival rates for these diseases, why aren’t we doing more to promote screenings? If, as I contend, it’s partly an educational issue, then we can and should do better.

Finally, every time I see a huge debate about abortion, I wonder how many people actually know that 90% of abortions take place in the first trimester (Guttmacher statistics here). Prior to the second trimester, the fetus is far from viable, only about 1 1/2 inches long at the 12 week mark. Due to the anti-choice movement’s marketing campaigns that focus on graphic imagery of supposedly aborted babies, I fear that a lot of Americans don’t have any idea of what actual fetal development looks like. has even had to debunk an urban legend about it! Knowing about how fetal development actually progresses might not dissuade serious anti-choice people from their stances, but it might help informed voters and policy-makers ensure that fear-based campaigns don’t get as far as they do. Abortion is health care, and it needs to be treated as such: as an individual matter for a patient and her doctor to decide.

Pregnancy remains one of the most dangerous things a woman can experience bodily. According to the CDC, pregnancy complications range from mild conditions to severe ones that can have a lifelong impact. This is one of the major pieces of evidence that counters the “just have the baby” argument that many anti-choice people make. As Natasha Chart writes at Reality Check:

To say “Just have the baby” is to say “Just risk a prolonged illness, surgery, and the loss of your income when you have a lot of new expenses.” It’s to tell someone casually that they should sign up for the possibility of experiencing more physical pain and agony than they thought a person could live through, and maybe having a great deal of it continue for days, weeks, months, possibly even years.

Demystifying how pregnancy works – and the impacts it can have on women’s lives and their family’s experiences – is an important part of educating the public about bodily matters that require some legislation to help out on a societal level. We need better maternity care, better maternity and paternity leave, and better child care. The maternal mortality rate has doubled in the U.S. in the last few decades, with Scientific American suggesting that this is both a result of improved reporting and of poor access to prenatal and postnatal care. All of this impacts an entire society, not just the bodies bearing children.

Whether the topic is women’s health (the need for bathroom access in general and while menstruating; pregnancy as a risky state; health screening needs) or sanitation and bathroom access for the general public or for transgender people specifically, the absence of comprehensive health and sex education leads to deficient comprehension of policies that have a real impact on many people’s lives. I believe that we must do better, and that unbiased, fact-based sex education is one of the things that can remedy this lack.

2 thoughts on “Knowing Our Bodies Means Better Public Policies (The Case for Sex Ed Part 9)

  1. Pregnancy is definitely more prone to complication than many people seem to think it is. Between the hyperemesis (and subsequent weight loss at a time when I wasn’t supposed to be losing weight), the gestational diabetes, the retained placenta, and the gallstones which required the removal of my gallbladder, I can definitely say I do not want to ever be pregnant again. I do know a lot of people who have breezed through pregnancy, but I also know more than one who has nearly died in childbirth, and that’s in North America with decent medical care.

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