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04 June, 2007

Blogging For Sex Education Day

Blogging For Sex Education, hosted by Renegade Evolution, who is keeping this link roundup.

I'm quite certain that someone else is out there pointing out that starting sex education at the point at which people's brains are starting to be scrambled up by puberty is bone stupid, or perhaps boner stupid. I'm quite certain that someone else is out there pointing out that the statistics from Europe indicate that extensive sex education covering all of the physical mechanics and such seems to lead to lower teen pregnancy rates, lower teen sex rates, a later age of first sexual activity, and all that stuff. And even if someone doesn't have it covered, I'll presume that all seven of my readers are capable of googling for those factoids now that I've mentioned them, so I don't have to go do it. These are things that matter to me, but they're not the big, personal rant I have to make. So now that I've at least gestured at this other stuff, the thing.

Knowing the mechanics is nowhere near good enough. It's not good enough to have an encyclopedic knowledge of STDs, how to use birth control of a dozen different varieties. It's not good enough to have access to this stuff either.

The hardest part of sex education is not the facts. Facts are easy, if you can get someone to teach them: they just are, they sit there in little rows and are factual.

The hardest part is knowing what to do about them.

Adolescence is a confusing, complicated time to start out with, full of all kinds of emotional shifts, and into that mix is the development of more active sexuality from its inchoate roots. I think in general the culture I grew up in is not very good at navigating this time, and it is terrible at doing so with matters involving sexuality.

And part of this is the emphasis on giving out facts. Which are, again, important, but not the whole shape of things.

When I was maybe twelvish, I got given one of those "Okay, you're entering puberty, this is what you can expect" books. And it was useful, and full of facts, and I read it several times. And I still say that my left breast is stuck in Tanner Stage Four -- in fact, I said it to my new doctor last week. And then when I went back to reread, mostly what I pored over was the single chapter on emotions. Over and over again, trying to get something that would help me sort out how I felt about sex and sexuality, how to actually relate this to what I was experiencing. I saw the author had another book on the subject, and asked my parents for it -- I'd been told to ask them if I had any questions, and that was the one I asked -- and when I got it, I read through it, hoping for something that would help, and it didn't have anything that would help me evaluate the stuff in my head or do anything useful with it.

The stuff I wanted to know was stuff like:

How do I relate the stuff in my head that hooks into my sexuality (much of which was entirely incompatible with the real world levels of fantasy world construction) to dealing with real people? (And here, I think, a lot of stuff that would really help young folk who are wrestling with issues of their kink would fall, even without necessarily going into kink explicitly.)

How do I evaluate what I want to do in general? How do I do sexual scouting missions safely so I can learn what I'm comfortable with? How do I define my boundaries? How do I defend those boundaries from people who are not actively malicious? How do I defend those boundaries from people who are actively malicious?

How do I negotiate with people about sexuality and romance and all of this new stuff? How do I approach people? How do I respond to people who want to approach me? How do I get enough space to think about all of this usefully?

How do I say no in ways that will be clear and likely to be respected?

How do I know when I want to say yes?

And I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I didn't know how to think about this stuff when I was fourteen. I didn't know how to evaluate it, how to determine whether or not I wanted something, how to say no clearly when I'd decided that I didn't, how to say "This is going too fast", how to say, "I don't like that", I didn't know how to say any of that -- and I had to build the ability to even think about it up from scratch, because I didn't have any tools to apply to these questions at all, and I didn't know how to ask for them or do anything other than build them myself, which is a slow, difficult process and could not keep up with the progress of a relationship with someone notably older who had presumably worked a lot of this shit out for himself already.

And that's where sex education failed me: I do believe that had I been clearer, more able to communicate, more able to understand what I was going through and what I wanted, I would not have been sexually assaulted. The guy who assaulted me was also a reasonably inexperienced kid, but not a Bad Person, and he could've used a little training on "How do I ask if she wants something?" to balance my needing a little training on "How do I figure out what I want?", and I really do think if I had known when I wanted to start saying 'no' he would have been able to listen to me.

But neither of us had the damn skills to navigate that social situation, because learning about how to implement sexuality is done by throwing a bunch of adolescents into a school system and seeing who survives. There's no knowing how to think about it, or evaluate it, and these days the abstinence-only shit pre-assumes the correct answer to "What do I want?" and doesn't give any tools for actually getting there.

I want more people to survive adolescence whole -- and that means I want people to figure out how to think about sex, how to make reasonable judgements on it, evaluate the risks -- not only physical and temporal but social and emotional -- and make and hold to decisions they make on it. I was never given those tools, or a way of getting to those tools, and because of that, I didn't make it out in one piece.


Anonymous said...

"I didn't make it out in one piece"

Surviving adolesence is hard enough without emotions becoming all screwed up.
I totally agree with you that the social and emotional aspects need much more attention than they are given. And teenagers have enough trouble deciding what is still basically a slut or a prude choice, your damned if you do and your damned if you don't. Throw a sexual assault into the mix and its going to effect them for years.
Sex at an age when the mind is not emotionally mature enough to deal with the demons that inevitably come with it can lead to loss of self respect, self esteem and confusion. Thats what they need to teach as well as the foundation facts.
great post

Dw3t-Hthr said...

When I did become consensually sexually active, still in my teen years, one of my friends was absolutely convinced that I was going to get pregnant, or come down with some disease, or suffer some horrible off-her-map consequence of unspecified nature. (Perhaps the standard slasher flick death due to having a sexuality. I really don't know.)

And I sort of see that, these days, as another manifestation of the same thing. She didn't have the stuff to evaluate the information about sex, critically examine it and decide what she wanted or figure that other people were capable of making such decisions safely, and so she completely panicked at the concept.

That ain't education.

I like to think that I made reasonably good choices once I got to the point of being able to sort out what I actually wanted, though (due to the whole emotional damage thing) I pushed them hard and fast to sort of stress-test the whole sex thing. (If I didn't think I made reasonably good choices at the time, I wouldn't be living with the fellow, y'know?) But the learning curve to get to the point where I was able to make those choices was a killer ...

Anonymous said...

I was doing some research for my Masters thesis on the ethics of sex education and found your beautifully written post. You go straight to the point of what is missing in sex ed. Boundaries between abstinence and comprehensive sex education are blurry, they both teach a little bit of abstinence and birth control. They both lack the essence of sexuality, what is beyond the basic biological facts. There is a lack of ethical teaching. Teenagers are not told about the 4 prevailing paradigms of sexuality (reproductive, communicative, pleasure and romantic/ metaphysical) and as a consequence are caught in the angel/slut binary, the 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' polarity.
I hope you found the answers to your questions and keep writing about these important issues.