There are a lot of cultural messages out there about boys and girls when it comes to sex. People hear that…
- The sex drives of boys peak earlier than those of girls.
- Girls have lots of feelings.
- Testosterone = masculinity, toughness and aggression.
- Estrogen = femininity, sensitivity and kindness.
- Male condoms. Female condoms.
Each of these concepts is tightly woven into mainstream sex education programs like abstinence only, abstinence plus, and even comprehensive sexuality education. By all means, let’s talk about gender and gender roles as they relate to sexuality, and how we navigate sexual health in light of them.
But if you haven’t addressed gender until it’s time for sex ed, it might be too late.
Ever had a conversation with teenagers about consent? You’re inevitably talking about gender. Dialoguing around teen parenting? Gender. Using barrier methods and contraceptives? Gender.
Long before we imagine ourselves as sexual beings, we are acutely aware of our gender and the firmness of our gender roles. Beginning at birth, a girl is outfitted in a dress and taught that is her norm and ideal. In teaching sex ed without first providing students critical thinking tools around gender, we run a high risk of reinforcing the very roles we’re critiquing in dialoguing about sexual health, safety, and pleasure. The same girl who was placed in the dress is now told its short length serves as a gendered invitation and she must expend energy protecting her gendered body.
“Well why didn’t anyone talk to me about what this damn dress means until now?!?”
Students need to learn about gender identity, gender roles, and gender equity prior to any effective sex education.
We replicate gender norms through our presentations of healthy sexuality, without generating space for students to explore their gendered selves independent of intimacies.
Traditional sex education curriculum is loaded with gender stereotypes
As you might expect, American sex education from the 1950s is steeped in damaging gender stereotypes. And even though the Civil Rights Era has since passed, and one’s gender no longer necessarily casts one into an immutable role of domestic or provider, those historical roles are deeply ingrained within sex education materials. From sex-segregated classrooms sanctioned under Title IX to a stark absence of dialogue around gender inequality, the full spectrum of modern sexual health curricula offer little to no content on gender and critical thinking.
I can still acutely recall my first exposure to sex education. At 10 years old, I was sent to the basement with my best friend and tasked with watching a VHS tape as our moms sat upstairs and giggled about our profound discomfort.
A video my mom and I had checked out from a public library opened the topic with an egg wrapped in a wedding dress standing at the end of a lap pool. On the other end, sperm wore tuxedos, and leapt into the pool after the sound of the whistle, in pursuit of their prize. Inevitably, one lucky sperm reached the egg first and dug “himself” into “her.”
My mom’s desired takeaway: a sperm meeting an egg creates a pregnancy.
My takeaway? Maleness is aggressive, sexuality is heterosexual, and marriage is central to procreation.
Later on, sitting in sex-segregated health classes, lessons on fluids and foreplay landed in the part of my brain relegated to factual memory for the purposes of passing a test. But the lessons prompted much, much bigger questions: why were girls to expect sexual aggression on behalf of boys? Why was it only sex if there was male penetration? Why weren’t girls talking to boys in these conversations? Without the explicit opportunity to, I never pursued these questions – instead, accepting these gendered sexuality norms as natural.
2015: gender in sex ed is not yet a given.
In February 2013, the bill H.R. 725: Real Education for Healthy Youth Act was introduced to Congress. H.R. 725 would provide funding to sex education programs that, among other things, included in curricula the development of “healthy attitudes and values” about gender identity. In addition, it would prohibit the use of gender stereotypes within teaching.
Seems like a pretty neutral approach, right? Gender must be part of sex education. Two months after it was introduced, it was referred to a subcommittee. Two years later, the prognosis shows a 0% chance of enactment.
In any case, gender is independent from sexuality, and should be taught as such.
Increasingly, gender roles are integrated into comprehensive sexuality education curricula with activities and lessons challenging students to consider the ways in which health, pleasure, and consent are impacted by gendered expectations. More so, to push back against them binary gender roles and consider folks who may identify outside of the dominant narrative.
And yet, at that point in the game, students have already spent upwards of a decade internalizing their gender and gender roles, with the awareness of gender coming around age 3 or 4.
The National Sexuality Education Standards indicate that sex education should precede the age of first sexual experience, or by the age that youth begin to experience societal norming and pressure around sexuality. Why not the same for gender?
Early education targeted toward facilitating healthy gender identity development in youth eliminates much of the imminent insecurities, tension, and confusion that arises in conversations around intimacy and sexuality. For example, if I have come to understand my gender prior to my intimate partner telling me it is aligned with a specific sexual role, I have a heightened ability to know and articulate that misinformation.
In addition, early dialogue around gender identity with students removes and thus destigmatizes gendered roles in intimacy. Discussions of risk reduction gain transparency and focus when discussed with regard to fluid exchange rather than muddled with gendered sex acts. Trans* students’ sense of belonging and participation in sexual health class is increased as their multiple positionings within bodies and identities are not eliminated in binary gendered discussions of sexuality. Condoms become neither male nor female, but protective for all. Hormonal shifts do not immediately translate to a mandated shift in gender role and expression but are understood to be physical aspects of humanity. My intimacies are not gauged by how well they do or do not reflect my gender role, but on whether or not they feel healthy to me.
Ideal Futures, Realistic Futures
Summary: we at minimum need gender in sex ed. As a distinct dialogue. About identity, and then relational identities. Ideally, make gender ed happen in kindergarten.