The debate over abstinence-only education usually breaks down pretty predictably. On one side, you have social conservatives who claim, "Abstinence-only sex education is the only way to protect young people from unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and emotional turmoil. Sex is sacred and must be saved for marriage."
And on the other, you have liberal folks like myself who respond, "Studies actually show that abstinence-only sex education is less effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies and STIs than comprehensive sex education. Sure, teenagers probably shouldn't be having sex, but they are, so we better educate them to protect themselves."
In their own ways, these perspectives are both myopic, and I'm wondering if it's time to take a new approach to the conversation. We've debated ourselves into a tizzy, framing sexual activity as the shared -- whether preventable or inevitable -- evil, throwing poison darts of statistics and dogma back and forth. In the process, we've lost sight of the target all together: Education is supposed to promote self-aware, healthy, whole human beings.
As Brazilian Paulo Freire taught us, education is supposed to have libratory potential. He wrote, "Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."
In this context, it appears that we've been inculcating young people into America's hypocritical, schizophrenic "present system." We ask them to conform to either one of two views -- that their sexual desires are sinful outside of the context of marriage and must be tamed, saved, and resisted, or that they are helpless to resist them, sex being natural and they being hormonal teenagers, so they must be responsible and protect themselves. In either case, sexuality is not a joy, not a means through which human beings actualize their unique desires and relationships, not a potential site of transformation. It is a landmine.
Part of the myopia comes from defining sex so narrowly. When we frame it as solely heterosexual intercourse, of course we obsess about pregnancy and STI risks. It's as if we offer young people a worldview with 95 percent of the frame blacked out. Touch, comfort, fantasy, intimacy, experimentation, healing, not to mention masturbation and other sexual practices with no disease risks, are written out of the narrative altogether.
Young women learn to see their bodies as ticking time bombs and young men to see theirs as the uncontrollable fire that could lead to explosion. Instead of promoting self-awareness, responsible exploration, respect for the diversity of sexualities, or compassionate communication, we teach them that their bodies are dangerous. Conservatives want that danger staved off until marriage, where it suddenly becomes holy, and liberals want it staved off along the way -- through the use of accessible contraception.
While I obviously advocate safer sex, I also feel like progressives have let ourselves (as per the usual) be only reactive, instead of re-authoring the questions. We must not only ask how we can protect young Americans from unwanted pregnancy and STIs, but how we can encourage them to be self-aware, healthy, and happy. How can we inspire them to author their own questions?
We inculcate young people into our system of inauthentic extremes -- where government officials publicly decry prostitution and then are discovered to be frequent clients, where pastors rail against the evils of homosexuality and then participate in same-sex relationships behind closed doors, where teenagers at Christian camps have sex for the first time in bathroom stalls.
What could sex education in this country be if it weren't steeped in our hypocrisy and based in our fears?
Sociologist Jessica Fields, author of Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality, has an idea: "Sex education's aim need not be limited to reducing rates of adolescent pregnancies, disease, and sexual activity. Rather, the aim would be to create classroom environments in which students and teachers listen to one another out of a commitment to recognizing and contending with sexual desires, power, and inequality. In a critical feminist sex education program, students and teachers would confront and strive to suspend -- even momentarily -- the sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism inside and outside the classroom."
In this way, the classroom becomes not a reflection of our larger culture of sexual repression and explosion, but a more honest, more enlightened way of relating to ourselves and our own desires. It allows for realism; as Shere Hite pointed out in a recent op-ed over at AlterNet, "The definition of sex should change to include such stimulation as a normal part of sex"; according to the The Hite Report on Female Sexuality 94 percent of women are able to reach orgasm from non-penetrating stimulation.
This new approach would allow for diversity; not all teens desire sexual interaction, and some of those who do aren't interested in normative heterosexual intercourse. Perhaps some teens could be liberated from the tyranny of low expectations -- that they'll be irresponsible, hormone-crazed, unkind -- if we acknowledged the diversity of their desires and invited them to be patient with the unfolding.
It has the potential to break apart stereotypes about men's uncontrollable hormones and women's sexless purity, revealing a far more nuanced truth -- that our sexuality, like other facets of our identity, is both innate and malleable. It could point the way toward the basis of a healthy, embodied sexual life: self-awareness, pleasure, and courage.
While pundits and educators grow agitated over the best way to protect teens from their dangerous sexual desires, we've forgotten that they're already living with these desires, already making choices every day. If only we could see that reality not as a danger but as potential, as the chance to heal our totally screwed up sexual culture.
As Fields so beautifully puts it, "Young people's desires and pleasures have the potential to remake the world. Their desires are calls for more -- more information, more liberty, more possibilities, and more gratification than the world currently offers."
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