Intersectional Sex Ed: What We Need Now

Last year during my junior year of high school, eight classmates and I had the opportunity to research sexual health legislation, access, and education in Texas. We then traveled to Austin and met with the Texas Freedom Network; met with Dr. Karen Rayne, a sex educator; visited an abortion clinic; and even met with a “pro-life” group on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, among many other visits.

Whole Woman’s Health, Austin, Texas. (photo credit: Shauna Finn)

We chose Austin because Texas has some of the strictest abortion and sex ed laws in the country. Texas is just one of many states which does not require sex education of any kind. This includes information on STI’s or contraceptives. According to the Texas Freedom Network, Texas schools often teach sexual education through a “Fear-and shame- based instruction.” When sex-ed is taught in schools abstinence must be “stressed.” In fact, 83% of Texas schools teach abstinence-only or no sex ed altogether. 

We knew that as New Yorkers living in a liberal bubble that we would not receive the same views that exists in a vastly red state. Though I never thought my personal sexual education had been perfect, this experience opened my eyes up to the injustices that are happening in millions of classrooms throughout the country. Comprehensive sex education is being purposefully suppressed through poor sex ed programs that provide inaccurate or ineffective information. These programs promote an agenda that is harmful to young people, their bodies, and their minds.

This trimester I had the privilege of taking a high school feminism class.

My high school feminism class. Photo by Ileana Jimenéz.

Through learning about intersectional feminist genealogy and current forms of feminist activism through readings, field trips and my incredible teacher Ileana Jimenéz’s knowledge and guidance, I was able to deepen the vision I have for sexual health education.

To start, sex education must be accurate and scientifically backed. Young people should be given equal access to affordable contraceptives, counseling and information. While this is the core of sexual education, I now see sex ed as something that can include but go far beyond basic accurate logistics of sex and diagrams about sex and puberty. It should include support systems and deconstructions of harmful systems in order to better individual lives and the greater world. 

We must update current sex education curricula because as Audre Lorde asked the question in her essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.” When sexual health education is mandated by those who benefit from the suppression of accurate and inclusive information, then the curriculum given will be diluted and possibly non-existent. This is unacceptable.

One place we can look to is the current reform that is happening in the United Kingdom. Professor Emma Renold at Cardiff University is working to evaluate and reform “the future of the sex and relationship curriculum.” One proposed program is the “Protective and Preventive SRE,” a program which “supports children and young people to develop: social, emotional and physical literacy; resilience to cope with change, conflicts and pressure; the knowledge to recognise abusive relationships; and the confidence to seek support.” This is an excellent example of how sex ed is about more than just the physical. Sex ed and other health and wellness curriculum provides young people with the tools they need to effectively maneuver relationships and know their own needs, both mentally, emotionally and physically. The word “literacy” is especially effective in this particular passage because it translates an idea that transcends simple knowledge of a topic. This curriculum encourages students to foster healthy relationships with themselves and those around them. It gives them tools that will make them better friends, peers, workers and overall citizens of the world.

Professor Emma Renold (photo by Cardiff University)

An intersectional feminist lens is needed within sexual education because sexual health is interconnected with so many other aspects of life. It is an injustice to examine reproduction without first acknowledging reproductive justice and the continuous struggle to achieve it in the United States.

Organizations like Sistersong have laid the groundwork for Reproductive Justice work. SisterSong’s work has stressed the role of women of color and other marginalized groups in the reproductive health movement which affects everyone regardless of intentions to produce.  Reproductive Justice is defined in Radical Reproductive Justice as “…the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights.” This definition should be kept in mind and examined throughout sexual education. It is important to keep in mind that bodily autonomy is a human right. In order to achieve full bodily autonomy, people must be aware and informed of their rights and freedoms at an early age.

Sexual health education should begin as early as pre-school with discussions of the human body. This includes discussions of gender identity and the ways in which gender gets placed into a destructive binary system that promotes constant images of harmful stereotypes and cisnormative gender roles. I recently spoke again with Dr. Karen Rayne, whom I first met during our trip to Texas. She is a sex educator who writes comprehensive curriculum in Austin and goes into schools throughout the city to teach. Meeting her in Austin and looking at some of her work was the first time I really saw sex education as more than just sex.

Dr. Rayne explained to me that “there’s always age appropriate content to cover in sex education…so it’s something that ideally is starting at the beginning of school. And that can include things like images of bodies……and understanding families and how families are made up. These are all things that fall under the content of sex education and sexuality education”. Sexual education should not be a taboo subject but an integrated and regular part of school curriculums.

Consent education is also an imperative part of sexual education that should also begin as early as children are in school. Consent can be introduced at a young age as something that must be given in order to touch another person or their belongings, etc. This conversation can then develop into consent in a sexual context so that children grow up with the ideas of consent and relationships of any kind as being hand-in-hand. Consent will be so interconnected to ideas of interacting with those around us that the idea of sexual consent comes naturally and that the idea of not receiving such permission from others is seen as unthinkable. The message should always be that no consent = violence.

Through my learning experiences in both Austin and my feminism classroom I have been able to see that we should not accept less than accurate and effective education. Sexual education can be so much more than numbers on a page. It should be learning how to treat yourself and others around you and how to keep yourself safe and healthy and happy. In going past the necessary improvements I have listed in this blog post, sexual education can and should include: self care, mental health education, healthy diet, different abilities, learning differences, more intensive explorations of spectrums of gender and sexuality, body positivity and any other lesson which can help to provide life skills in and out of reproductive freedoms to young people.

Through my feminism class, I have been given the resources to challenge the master’s tools around me. I feel that education is the only real way to affect change. By altering the way we look at sex and health, we can move towards eradicating systems of oppression and achieving a culture where bodily autonomy and accurate education are not privileges but human rights.

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