Sex Un-Educated

I believe that my feminist beliefs about sex and sexuality started because of my early sex-ed class in fifth grade. This class introduced the idea of both physical and emotional safe sex. Sex must be physically safe in terms of having protection against STDs and pregnancy prevention. It must also be emotionally safe, in terms of having consent and both people involved are enjoying sex. I have always kept these early lessons in the back of my mind so that I could be prepared to use them when the time arose.

Depending on what school you go to, highly determines if you receive sex-ed or if you don’t. It also determines the quality of the sex-ed. I went to a majority white elementary school on the Upper East Side in New York City. I was only one of three Latinas in the entire fifth grade. Most of the few students of color in the school were in the special education classes. I almost suffered the same fate. My second-grade teacher recommended me for special ed because of her unfounded fears that I wouldn’t be able to complete the third-grade state exams. The next year I proved her wrong, as I scored very high in math and English.

I later learned that the school would have received more funding if I had been at the school as a special ed student. She assumed that because I was a girl of color I was prone to failure.  This is one of the many stereotypes many girls and young women of color encounter early in life. I wasn’t supposed to do as well as the other students. These are one of many barriers that we face early in our education and ultimately, because of these barriers, it impacts the kind of sex-ed we receive.  

 

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The typical sex-ed class from the movie, Mean Girls (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity)

 

Being the only Latina student at school later changed when I started middle school. I went to a majority Latino and very selective middle school in Harlem, where you to test to be accepted. This school was known for their rigorous academics. While I was at the school, inept principals and funding cuts resulted in eliminating our health teacher who taught sex-ed. Despite the NYC Department of Education mandate that middle schools and high school offer sex-ed in health classes as a graduation requirement, this did not happen at my school. This adds to the vulnerabilities already facing girls of color when it comes to sexual education.

Unfortunately, in my middle school, we didn’t get a much-needed sex-ed class. Instead, in the sixth grade, we had to complete a packet of questions about sex within a week as an assignment in our science class. The questions had to be answered without having had a class in the content that the questions asked of us. There was no discussion of any of the topics in the packet and this is essentially how we received our sex-ed education in middle school.

By the time I was in eighth grade, I had friends who were sexually active and were often slut-shamed or scolded because of their behavior. Many of the more developed girls had multiple relations with boys in the class. I remember many of them telling me that they didn’t use condoms. Unprotected sex was the norm.

As I transitioned into high school, I was exposed to the term, “hook up,” and usually that means that a boy and a girl are having sex. Hook-up culture also seems to assume that boys are horny and need a girl to fulfill their “needs.” Some boys force their fantasies on to other girls, making it seem as if it is wrong if she is uncomfortable or does not give consent.

On the other hand, girls are not taught to ask for their needs to be fulfilled the way boys and men are taught to think their needs are natural. It seems to be assumed that girls and women, and specifically straight girls and women, are only there to fulfill boys’ and men’s sexual desires. Instead, boys and men are taught to violently repress female sexuality by either psychologically, physically, or emotionally forcing girls and women to serve them. In our current society, more often than not, girls and women are not allowed to express their sexuality but when they do they are often shamed for it.

As a result of my feminism class in high school taught by Ileana Jiménez, I have thought a lot more about how sexuality and feminism are connected. I have also thought about my own sexuality and its connection to my emerging feminist and sexual identity. These are identities that I have struggled with like many young women of color and have not felt comfortable sharing or exploring. A lot of the expectations surrounding sexuality for young women of color and young women, in general, are tied to being a virgin and I have always resisted this idea. If it hadn’t been for that positive early childhood sex-ed class, I would not have the ideas I have now about what it means to embrace one’s sexuality and that pleasure should be a part of sex for girls and women as much as it is for boys and men.

 

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Photograph of Audre Lorde (Writing on Glass)

 

Black feminist Audre Lorde writes, “the erotic is the nurturer or the nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.” Lorde explores how we share the erotic and subconsciously know it exists within our bodies and souls. I want to know how we can share our knowledge of the erotic to help other young women explore and find their sexual identities and how this notion of the erotic should be incorporated somehow in sex ed education.

Lorde believed that women should be allowed to explore their sexual identities. As I read her work in my high school feminism class, I wondered why it is so hard to express and be confident about our erotic selves. The sexist society we live in uses different systems of oppression to repress girls’ and women’s sexuality and uses these systems as a form of dominance and control. Lorde writes that “we have been raised to fear the ‘yes’ within ourselves.” In so many ways, our culture tells girls and women to say “no” to our sexuality. Our sexuality is seen as dangerous. As a result, women are seen as only symbols of another person’s pleasure, not partners in pleasure.

What we need is stronger sex education programs for girls and young women of color, which includes education on the physical and emotional aspects of sex and intimacy.

An example of a successful support system is the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, founded in 2009 in Glendale, AZ by a collective of women of color of various ethnicities and sexual identities.

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Women of Color Sexual Health Network Conference (Women of Color Sexual Health Network)

Their mission is to provide these women with safe spaces and online blogs where they can feel accepted and welcomed. Where women can feel empowered about their sexuality and how they choose to express it. They provide resources in centers around Arizona and have a successful online presence where sexuality professionals of color can share their experiences without being silenced. They deal with a variety of topics and also offer mentors to women of color and people of color who are emerging sexually. They want to provide inclusion and deal with issues of sexual health and identity.

At the school where I am at now, I hope that we can create safe spaces of mentorship across the grades and among all groups including heterosexual students, queer students, and gender-fluid and non-binary students. We can use resources and research models that can help us create these spaces of dialogue to help support and mentor each other around these issues.

In High School, many of the students were fortunate enough like me to have a sex education. I decided to survey many of these students who knew about having protective sex instead of having enjoyable sex. I asked them questions whether or not they have had a sex ed class and how young they were when they learned about sex. In conversation with them in addition to explaining the erotic and about inclusion in sex ed, many of them agreed on that masturbation and orgasm should be included in a sex ed class. When talked about it is usually referred to as a male activity. Denying women of their sexuality, which is a form of control. Girls can equally benefit from self-exploration.

Teachers should include Audre Lorde’s idea of the erotic in sex-ed classes as a way of validating female sexuality and desires. It would help to move away from the mentality of condemnation if girls dare expressed their sexual femininity and desires. Girls should be taught about their sexuality in terms of their own needs and wants, not objectification. With an expanded curriculum of sex-ed and open conversation, young women and girls of color will not feel as if their sexuality is repressed and taken advantage of. Girls, especially girls of color could take control of their sexuality and how they want to express it. They will learn that they are allowed to define and communicate their wants and needs, without feeling intimidated or made to feel ashamed of their sexuality.  This would help establish equal participation of women in the sexual activity and should be respected.

 

 

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