I could not have possibly been more excited when I saw this article about the handful of sex-positive sex education courses taking place around the country:
The photos were a small piece of a yearlong sexuality education program called Our Whole Lives, or OWL. A joint effort by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, OWL aims to help teens understand sexuality. As Detwiler recalls the sessions of three years ago, the pictures demonstrating what sexual intercourse looks like were “shocking to kids, but also helpful. It helped them to grasp another dimension of sexuality.” So did the frank discussions about dating norms, the chance to pass around condoms, and informal conversation about the way sex is portrayed in magazines, movies, and music. OWL is among a handful of sex-ed programs that take a position more radical than it may, at first, sound: namely, that sexuality education should actually talk about sex. While events like the spike in teen pregnancies in Gloucester last year or the bulging bellies of youthful pop stars (or Alaskan first daughters) can prompt outcries for better sex ed, most of what we call “sex education” is really about preventing the bad stuff. As one Newton teacher puts it, “It’s all been reduced to two issues: teen pregnancy and STDs. That’s all really important, but I feel we’re losing other important things.”
With US sex education heading into its second century, some educators are suggesting that sex ed can, and should, be about more than just all the things that can go wrong, that adults need to do more than robotically recite statistics about condom failure or the merits of abstinence. This new approach, almost too small to be called a movement, exists largely outside the public schools, but it’s a new twist in a debate that often gets bogged down in finger-pointing and name-calling. The “sex is good” mentality involves talking frankly to teens about sexual pleasure and about when and how to achieve it safely. It means focusing less on whether kids have had vaginal intercourse, and acknowledging that teens (like adults) will engage in a variety of sexual experiences. It’s an approach that might make some grown-ups uncomfortable, but it’s exactly what sex ed needs if it’s ever going to grow up.
*Hops up and down* This is what I’ve been suggesting! For so long! It’s the kind of sex education I’ve written about extensively here, and in my essay for Yes Means Yes. Someone — in the U.S.! — is actually doing it!
Okay, so there are of course a couple of caveats. This isn’t exactly what I’ve been promoting, first of all because these are voluntary programs not being taught in schools.
But probably a lot more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of explicit discussion about meaningful consent. I hope it’s in there (I mean, I really hope it’s in there), but in the otherwise really great article that you should go read in its entirety now, it doesn’t get a mention. Of course, if the writer (who seems to really strongly promote sex-positive sex education) just didn’t feel that it’s an important enough aspect of teaching teens to value sex as a good thing to include it, well that’s just a whole different problem on its own.
The thing is, though, that while it’s not enough in my book, teaching teens that sex is a good thing, and something that is supposed to be fun and okay to desire, gets us a big part of the way to enthusiastic consent lessons already. It’s not equal to explicitly saying “both partners have to want and agree to each and every sexual act that’s engaged in,” but it is planting a seed entirely different from the one that we usually let grow in people’s minds.
It takes away the idea that girls don’t like sex and boys need to “obtain” it from them, or it will never happen. That dynamic is, in fact, subtly changed to one where sex is supposed to be enjoyed, in a wide variety of forms, not achieved. That is, even if unintentionally, taking a big old hunk out of rape culture, balling it up and throwing it out. Teaching that women are sexual beings, so long as it comes along without a message that women aren’t always sexually available, is in itself adversarial to a lot of what enables certain kinds of rape.
Indeed, this part of the article, about a different sex education program than the one discussed above, might have made me happiest of all:
“Sexuality is a great thing. It’s not something you should be afraid of,” says Ortiz. The program gives a lot of reasons for girls to delay intercourse — getting a good education before starting a family; avoiding disease — but instead of assuming that girls have sex only to please boys, Girl Talk speaks frankly of safe, alternative sexual practices that “make you feel really good.”
“If you look at the public health data, they’re going to do things,” she says. “My big thing, as a public health person, is that we don’t want unwanted pregnancies or STDS. But we want sexually happy people, so we talk a lot about masturbation.”
Wow. Messages that sexual desire and sexual pleasure are okay, being aimed at teenage girls. What a novel concept. And one I desperately hope to see spread.