Que(e)rying Sex Ed

Each year, I teach a course on gender and sexuality to a bunch of second year uni students. It’s focussed pretty firmly on challenging heteronormativity, in a way that most of the students, even those who are queer in some way, even those who claim (over and over, sometimes!) to be ‘totally cool’ with ‘gayness’, at some point in the course find confronting. And that’s mostly because we work really hard at unpacking the heteronormativity of spaces they’ve never really thought about.

The wonders this image has done for my sex life... ;-)

The wonders this image has done for my sex life... 😉

One of those is sex ed, and I have to say, as a resource for clarifying how wide, deep and broad heteronormativity (and I take this to include sexism, because heterosexuality and masculine and feminine gender roles are intertwined) is in our culture, sex ed just can’t be beat. Most people have some kind of an experience of learning about sex. But have you ever thought about your experiences of sex ed in detail? About how they construct sex and sexuality for us?

Here’s a reconstructed outline of how these exchanges kinda work (this could be self-indulgent and tl;dr, if so, skip down to the asterixes! Also, for the record, I’m not quite this directional in class; usually we have various stories about sex ed told along the way which we interrogate together as they come up…)

Q: What did you learn about when they said you were learning about sex?

A: About sex!

Q: What kind of sex?

A: (pause) Well, heterosexual, i guess.

Q: What kind of heterosexual?

A: (starting to get it, and remember this is a queer theory course…) Well, penis-in-vagina missionary position. (Sometimes, depending on how far through the course we are, followed up with:) Reproductive! In a marriage! Between two goodlooking, able-bodied white people! A man who is masculine and dominant, and a woman who is feminine and subordinate.

Q: Anything else? Any other kinds of sex?

A: No! But one student asked once about oral sex. The teacher blushed/refused to answer/gave a definition but didn’t really describe it.

Q: But was it really treated as ‘really real’ sex? Or something that might be a step along the road?

A: Just a step.

Q: Hmm, so I wonder where teenagers get the ‘must hit the finish-line a.k.a. have PIV sex!’ idea from… Not really going to lend itself to ‘do what feels good for you both’ sex, is it? Okay, and what else did you learn about?

A: Well… about condoms.

Q: Ah yes, I practiced putting one on a banana at school. Very lifelike [Need that sarcasm font; I use sarcasm a lot in the classroom!].

A: Me too! (or) We used zucchinis/cucumbers! (this generally leads to some ribald humour about which is most lifelike, and once, a bit of hilarity about me thinking someone meant telegraph cucumbers rather than Lebanese ;-)).

Q: And did you learn about dams?

A: (some) No! (some) [confused]

Q: That would be the name for the barrier that makes oral sex performed on women safe sex, and oral-anal sex performed on anyone safe sex… And did you learn about how to slice a condom to make a dam?

A: [confused look/laughter]

Q: You can, you know, if you’re desperate, though you need to be pretty careful with that one. So not so much on the ‘how to have any sex at all, if you and your partner happen to be the same sex’, then, huh?

A: Not really. Although they did say gay men have anal sex!

Q: Woo! Because of course gay men never have any other kind of sex. [Yes, there’s that sarcasm again, generally followed by pretend anxiousness that they didn’t get it, and:] Because you know that of course, there are lots and lots and lots of different ways that gay men and everyone else have sex, right? And anal sex, not just for the gay men. Straight people too! And lesbians even! I know! Amazing! And sometimes even straight men receive anal sex! Bend over, boyfriend! The world crumbles! [Wow, writing this out makes me realise how much sarcasm I use!] We shall talk more about this later. But, small piece of advice: lube! So, anything about girl-on-girl sex?

A: Ummm… no…. (generally with smirks from the queer women in the class).

Q: Ah yes! Lesbians are invisible again! And bisexual women! What are they?! Excellent! Anything about trans people at all ever?

A: Nope!

Q: Ah, of course, for as we all know, they do not exist! [yeah, more sarcasm] Except, of course, when they do. But what else did you learn about at school? What was most of sex ed about?

A: About, like, the insides. You know, where the uterus was, and the semen and the sperm… and all of that. And the clitoris!

Q: Ah yes! We did that too! And I’m sure many women are grateful people know where the clitoris is. And did you ever find that knowing where your fallopian tubes were improved your relationships? Or your ovaries? Because I know that for me, that has done almost nothing…

A: [laughter] No…

Q: And I don’t know about you lot, but I learnt that stuff in biology as well, so… And what about working out when to have sex? Whether you should have it? Or whether to say no? And how to say no?

A: [this one varies a bit] Well, we were told to always say no. I went to a Catholic school./Well, we were told we should always respect it if someone said ‘no’./Well, we were told we could say ‘no’ if we didn’t want to have sex, but not really how, or how to know when.

[That last one, I usually probe a bit more, to get into the complexity of consent, by saying something like: ‘And anything about working out whether you really did want to have sex? Or how to say ‘no’ without just yelling ‘no!’ in someone’s face? Because it can be a bit hard, if, say, the person you’re with, who you really care about, wants to have sex, and you’re not sure, and you kinda want to please them, and you’re not positive you don’t want to have sex. And then it slips too easily into not wanting to be rude and ‘would it be so bad to really give them what they want,’ where you’re not really thinking about what you want, just about whether you’re sure enough that you don’t want it to yell ‘no!’ at someone. Which obviously, can lead to the bad, especially for women. So any of that covered?’ Generally, the answer is ‘No’.]

Q: In fact, have a think about your sexual relationships, or those you wish were sexual. The things that you find hard about them, or complex, or those moments when you’re not quite sure what to do about them… you know, if you want to hit on or even come out to a friend you’re interested in, or want to say ‘no’ without it being a big deal, or want to try something new but can’t tell if it’s going to be a problem, or where you want to have sex but are worried the other person might think it means more than it does, or might think it means less… were any of these ever covered in sex ed?

A: Well… no, not really…


Okay, sure, I know, from my perspective, it’s really easy to pick on school sex ed, and I know that lots and lots of schools and teachers have a hard time negotiating the line between what they think sex ed ought to be, and what parents do, for example.

But here’s the question: how do you think sex ed ought to work? I’m not just talking about school sex ed, but sex ed in general? Should it happen in the info-dump form that it does at schools now? How do you think we ease up on the heteronormativity? How do we help girls feel both entitled to their own pleasure and entitled to not have sex? How do we encourage boys to recognise their own sexual pleasure (rather than the ‘social’ pleasure of being able to say you’ve had sex/the ‘achievement-all-hail-the-conquering-hero’ grossness) and learn how to negotiate sexual encounters without being unethical—whether that refers to various forms of coercion, violence or even simply being self-absorbed in a sexual encounter (obviously, I don’t think these are equivalently problematic, but they are connected, I think)—given that it’s so easy to learn those unethical behaviours from contemporary mainstream sexual cultures? How do we equip both boys and girls with the skills they need to negotiate their way around sex? How do we shift sex from being conceived of as so special, or as so natural an instinct we never need to discuss how and where and why it happens, or the kinds of power relations that are involved?

(For more thoughts on this, and for more of me being long-winded and opinionated, see The Divine Ms. S’s post about this topic, and the awesome comment section. And for those who haven’t heard about that pretty spectacular resource for teens, any further circulating of the wonder that is Scarleteen can only be a good thing. ETA: And one more awesome thing I have to share!)

Categories: education, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, relationships

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52 replies

  1. Great post. I hope you end up influencing the sex education classes my children eventually attend at school.
    I would add to your sex ed wish list – the options if an unplanned pregnancy happens, including abortion (without the scare tactics). Heteronormative though, I know.

  2. I have been wondering about some of this for a while now – especially the bit about how to say “no” – or more accurately how to say anything. I reckon every single sex ed class should start with one conversation being held between two people before, during or after sex. The meaningful, the silly, whatever – so long as it’s not “Are you awake love?”. You know, just to demonstrate that words have a place in sex. To give kids teens some scripts that are varied and genuine. I’m not sure where you can go to find such things, since they’re vanishingly rare in pop culture.
    I wonder whether it would be better to present a wide range of couples chatting (including all the people WP mentioned as well as PWD, and a wide range of ages) without discussion? I wonder if it is more powerful with younger teens to present potentially confronting stuff without remark as routine, or whether you need to address it explicitly. Or maybe you should just make a YouTube series and mark it unsuitable for teens.
    Reading Puberty Blues and Dolly mostly constituted my own sex education – so I knew a lot about how it shouldn’t be, and a lot about contraception.
    What proportion of sex knowledge comes from school I wonder? Very little, in my case but I don’t know how much that generalises. My gut feeling is that alternative media is a much better way to change attitudes and behaviours.

  3. This has reminded me of my sex-ed. Some key points:
    – Homosexual men got an “honourable mention”, sans details.
    – Lesbians, bisexual people, genderqueer, transsexual people, transgendered people… don’t exist.
    – STDs are horrible! See these pictures!!
    – Birth is gross!! Look at these pictures!!
    – It’s ok to say no. But if you do, you’re a strange, weird freak.
    I’ve been thinking about how to teach my children about sex when I have/adopt them. I want to teach them about everything, but I’m not sure how much information I can give them at one time. Perhaps when they’re young I can teach them that gender is fluid, not a binary, and introduce them to different sexualities. If they’re already comfortable with the concepts, it might be easier to teach them the mechanics.

  4. Mmm. See, I think the ‘not talking about it’ thing is larger than just, y’know, not talking about it. Especially for women, I think it’s bound up with not really feeling entitled to ask for pleasure on her own terms. That is, that it’s kind of okay if it happens, but not to ask, coz asking is embarrassing, because sex is, still, even if not explicitly, kind of shameful, or desire is at least. And that if the sex you then have is not ideal, well, that’s just the way it goes. And, flipside, that it might not be actually okay if it happens, but that you have to strenuously *know* that in order to do or say anything (like, seriously, for most women with their educatin’ in being peaceable and amenable and polite, what is it going to take for someone to actually say ‘no’, like sex ed says?! You have to *really* know you *don’t* want it to happen, probably, and that means you need a sense of what you want, and what you don’t, and that both matter.) There are all other kinds of issues around this, like women not letting themselves feel pleasure that isn’t what they think ‘ought’ to be pleasurable (so, like, lots of women’s issues with cunnilingus, so well illustrated by Lauredhel’s post earlier (https://hoydenabouttown.com/20090929.6812/vag-perfume-so-you-dont-have-to-fuck-drunk-anymore/) or being circumspect about being vocal about their pleasure (whether it’s ‘oh god!’ or ‘you know I love it when you do that thing!’) in order to avoid being treated like you’re strange or a slut for enjoying sex. I guess what I’m getting at here is that it’s not just models of talking about sex that are needed, but ways to make women feel like they can, should and ought, only be having the pleasure they want, and that they can should and ought to be able to ask for it. Side note: way beneficial for boys, too, as they then don’t need to a) worry they’re raping someone but that to ask would be ‘rude’/ruin the moment, coz if someone says ‘please fuck me,’ well, it’s pretty clear! and b) it reduces performance anxiety if you’re with someone who says ‘circle right here’ or even ‘god, that’s good!’ and c) they might actually get the chance to think about what *they* like, instead of assuming that insert, pump, repeat is the only option.
    As to the question of whether sex ed is the place to do this, well, I personally think that it’s pretty irrelevant to kids’ lives as it stands, and that that’s why it’s being ignored. I know that students in my course leave more educated not just about gender, sex and sexuality in a kind of factual sense, but in ways that apply to their lives, too. I recall a story about Dutch sex ed, which went from the kind we have here to extremely explicit, ‘no, for realz, there are so many fun things to do!’, with a side helping of ‘PIV ain’t the only kind!’. Teen pregnancies halved, and that’s just one of the benefits. The benefits of explicit sex ed like this is a) covering oral and other forms of non-PIV sex shifts the heteronormativity, b) it gives kids a way to talk about *kinds* of sex, which opens up possibilities for negotiation (as in, if sex doesn’t just equal PIV, some kind of discussion, even if not verbal, about what ‘sex’ is going to mean in this particular situation has to happen) and c) helps to strip PIV sex of its ‘we did it! gold medal!’ quality, which also means that negotiation is more likely, and people are probably more equipped to draw lines, because it doesn’t need to be so all-or-nothing.
    But to be honest, and I said this over at tigerbeatdown, I just think that kids need more explicit sex ed earlier. Why, precisely, do we tie younger children’s sex ed to reproduction? It sets up some really problematic stuff, I think. Because first, it suggests that ‘real’ sex *is* PIV, reproductive sex, heteronormative as hell. Second, the idea that it’s something that people do instrumentally – to get a baby – means that it’s detached from young kids’ experiences of their own body, which, to be clear, are pleasurable. We don’t just grow pleasure nerves when we hit puberty! (And as I suggested over there, those ‘naughty’ I’ll-show-you-mine/’doctor’ games that kids play are the perfect space for practicing negotiating touching and being touched, which could then just develop as children become teens, rather than making the introduction to sex laden with a thousand new things). But rantyrant. 🙂 I’ve thought about this a lot, so sorry to go on!

  5. Oh, and thanks, BlueMilk. I’ve slipped some of this stuff in with a bunch of students I’m teaching this semester who will be teachers, so, you never know! As for teaching people about unplanned pregnancy, well, it doesn’t need to be heteronormative, if it’s in the context of a variety of other possibilities. So, for example, my dream sex ed list would include dealing with unplanned pregnancy, as well as how to have the conversation about discovering you’ve got an STD (with partners and ex-partners, etc), as well as the possibilities for relationships (let’s decentre monogamy a little here, shall we, and allow it to be possible for sex with other people to not be the betrayal it’s always meant to be, for example), and about how sexuality is fluid, not just across a population, but within one person, over their life…. and a thousand other things, of course. Hey, it’s my dream 😉

  6. Yeah, I wasn’t proposing a comprehensive answer – but fighting the pop culture image of sex being silent (animal-type sounds optional), quick and very, very serious is a good first step. I know plenty of women who have no difficulty believing they have every right to pleasure and want to enjoy it, but have no idea how to use words during sex. I’m not arguing your point, just that it’s a skill that is necessary in order to implement the deeper things you are discussing.
    In terms of when we start sex education – I agree in principle, but I think starting much earlier rules it out of school – not on moral grounds but on developmental ones. Children come to a point where they are interested and care about sex and other kids’ bodies at very different ages. Anything from 3 to 10 or 11 (in my experience, YMMV), which means any time you start you are going to be missing the mark for most kids in a school setting.
    I would love to see some resources for parents to guide them in this. Media, examples of other people’s interactions with kids and so on. Every time I hear another parent talking about their kid’s level of interest, understanding, curiosity and so on, I pick up another tidbit. They all come at it from such different directions – playing doctor or even being interested in other kids’ bodies is far from a universal experience.
    I’m not meaning to be argumentative here – I just mean it’s something we’ve got so wrong as a society in the past that it’s a massive problem to work out where to go first and then beyond.

  7. Hm. Sex ed was 15 or 16 years ago for me, but I do distinctly recall discussing dental dams, although not how to make them, along with condoms.
    Also we discussed drug abuse in the same class, as it was “health class” and not specifically sex ed.

  8. Oh sure, discussing how to have the conversations around sex is definitely helpful. I just mean that without the backup of girls feeling like they are entitled to their own pleasure on their own terms, there’s not going to be much of a conversation. But it’s chicken and egg, and I vote for both.
    As for kids, well, a couple of things. Most kids find a point at which they’re interested in their own bodies and pleasures, even if not others’. And a lot of those ‘naughty’ games really do happen in private, or so incidentally they’re not really noticed by adults, I think (but I’m drawing on my own and others’ stories, so obviously still anecdata). The developmental story, as far as I’ve heard, goes that they discover their own pleasures, get taught it’s not really appropriate, and especially for girls, it kind of falls into the background until much later. Which is fine, obviously. But there seems to be this anxiety about not raising stuff with kids until they display explicit interest, and I’m not sure why sex gets to fall into this special category – I think it’s a kind of hangover from the whole ‘kids are innocent, don’t spoil them’ thing, which has its own problems. I mean, we talk to kids about going to school well in advance of them going to school, for example; why does sex become something where it’s problematic to have knowledge in advance of seeking it out? (Not that I’m saying this is your position, Ariane, just that it seems a fairly common, if implicit, assumption). I just think it’s interesting that sex gets set aside as something special, somehow, something that has to be raised at the right time, in the right way, and that it could be possible to raise ‘too early’ (what does that mean, exactly?), or that they ‘don’t need to know’ about until later; and I think it gives sex a significance it could kinda do without. A thousand other things kinda ‘just come up’. When did sex get so special?
    And I reckon proposing a ‘how to talk about sex with your kids’ website would have a thousand people contributing. Some would probably be heavily problematic, but I totally reckon it’d be great! Maybe we should think about doing this?

  9. I am a human sexuality educator for Our Whole LIves which is a comprehensive human sexuality program that is extremely inclusive. We discuss gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/intersex/asexual equally to heterosexual models (and by equally I mean the pie has 6 pieces.) There are parent resource books available. We even do adult sex ed (and have 80 year old people taking it!) Because one of the other common sexuality myths is that sex is only for young/er people.

  10. Ah, this is one of those things I’ve been thinking about for a while. I can remember the health education classes I had in high school year 10 (age 15), where they talked about sex (and half the class sniggered at everything which could be even vaguely smutty, so they didn’t have to take it seriously, and thus prevented the rest of us from talking seriously about the whole topic out of sheer embarrassment) and I tuned things out about three-quarters of the way through because I’d already learned about such things through the wonders of a long-term interest in anatomy and physiology (since age 6), a library card, and a functional text addiction.
    So, during the last year or so, I’ve been thinking about a comprehensive sexual and social education program for high school aged teens – starting with the nuts and bolts basics of biology, psychology and “how are babies made” in year 8 (age 13) and moving through the legal and social minefield of sexuality in year 9 (covering things like consent, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and how sexual behaviour fits into the social framework), ending up in year 10 with about 90% of the curriculum time being devoted to the mechanics of various sexual practices[1] and the complexities of sexual identity. Throughout the whole curriculum, I’d be planning to make space for discussions of other issues as and when they come up. Another chunk of what I’d like to be teaching kids (or at least discussing with them) by high school level is the etiquette of various social situations – how to ask someone out, how to turn someone down politely, how to accept a “no” politely, as well as the whys of all of these things.
    At present, the whole thing is a bit of a vague outline on my hard drive (and I haven’t actually looked at it since March), but it’s on the “Things To Do” list.
    [1] My guiding philosophy is “gods know, at least one of them is going to do it anyway; may as well have them doing it safely, sanely and consensually”. I doubt I’d be taking things quite to the Pythonesque level of having in-class demonstrations.

  11. WP, not sure if you have come across Moira Carmody’s work at UWS, but thought you would find it interested.

  12. Thanks so much for writing this article. Lots has become clear to me. Primarily why my kids when teenagers after sex education know absolutely zip.
    I went to school elsewhere and was 15 36 years ago where we had ‘real sex ed’. The PIV sex is just one TINY, tiny part of having sex. We had great discussions on oral sex, which was a relevation to some, different positions, how there are many parts on the body that can arouse great pleasure through touching, stroking etc, etc, etc.
    Now I understand why I’ve had to do so much speaking on this subject with my kids when they were teenagers. (Often to their great embarrassment, my daughter says: ‘isn’t it “great” how frank Mama can speak on this)
    Oh, and contraception of course. We were taught on ALL the contraceptive methods available and we were taught about sexually transmitted diseases.
    I think there is a case of an infringement of Human Rights by depriving people on the knowledge of what sex is all about and how to really negotiate a sexual relationship to the MUTUAL benefit of the parties involved. I reel at the notions that prevail of what ‘consent’ means. It is never emphasized over and over that there is no such a thing as ‘having sex’ if ALL the parties involved are not joyfully participating: GIVING and RECEIVING pleasure.
    We also discussed masturbation, and the myriad of ways this can be enjoyed.

  13. Oh, and also.
    As questioned before, WHY is sex put into such a special category here? Isn’t our sexuality a very, very important part of our being? To a question previously: discuss sex, or rather any aspect of sex, however small, with your children whenever the subject comes up. Like you would any other subject.
    It irritates the shit out of me that discussing ‘where babies come from’ and reproductive information is viewed in any way as ‘sex education’. It is biology. It is NOT about having sex in the way that we experience our own sexual life.
    It really irritates the shit out of me that there is this uptightness about when there is a ‘right time’ to tell children. My children asked these questions at very early ages: from where do puppies come from, where do these baby fish come from, why does that lady have a big tummy. Isn’t it perfectly normal to then explain to children this? I personally cannot remember not ever having known about reproductive biology. It is a marvelous and wondrous thing.
    My 15 year daughter tells me that basically a girl has to decide whether she wants to be seen as ‘frigid’ or a ‘slut’. Isn’t that the saddest thing? We’re discussing at the moment how there are many, many names for women in the English language that are sexually derogatory, but are practically non-existent for men. Names that are freely used by girls about other girls. I find this deeply disturbing.
    I remember one of my sons when younger challenging me and asking that if a girl offers to ‘give me a blow job why shouldn’t I take her up on the offer?’ After I praised him on being so obviously desirable to this girl I asked him do you like this girl? Will you give her pleasure back and give her oral sex? He shuddered and admitted no. So, that isn’t a case of ‘having sex’ then is it? He would be dishonest and grossly disrespectful with her by accepting. Having sex is not just about ejaculating and orgasms. Yes, I used language like that with my kids.

  14. Oh sex ed, that mythical beast. Sex ed was optional at my school, and hardly anyone went to them because the slightest interest in sex obviously indicated rampant promiscuity.
    It’s not perfect, but have a look at The Midwest Teen Sex Show for an example of teen-produced and oriented sex ed. Better than anything I had, for sure.

  15. My 15 year daughter tells me that basically a girl has to decide whether she wants to be seen as ‘frigid’ or a ’slut’.
    T’was the same when I was at school in the ’90s-’00s*. There was another option: is-she-a-dyke, but that state only lasted about a week before it moved to its next victim.
    God I’m old.

  16. Thanks to everyone who has chimed in with resources! I just wish that schools could be a little less bowed by pressure to be more conservative about sex ed, especially given there’s such great stuff out there. From the link Poletrix gave us: “The project began by interviewing young women and men aged 16-25 of diverse sexualities from rural and city locations in NSW Australia. We wanted to understand how young women and men negotiate sexual relationships and their views on the adequacy of current sexuality and sexual assault prevention education. They identified that their education failed to prepare them for the complexity of sexual intimacy including issues around consent, sexual negotiation and pressured sex. The young people felt existing programmes focused primarily on risk and danger and excluded positive skills for ethical intimacy.” And it’s true. Knowing you can say ‘no’ really doesn’t help you work out whether and how and what to say ‘yes’ to things, or to understand whether and how and to what someone else might want to say ‘yes’.
    YvonneL, I think you reiterate a really important point: that what we actually need to know about sex, and sexuality, has more to do with relationships than with biology. The biology is important, of course, at least the basics, but I think it’s interesting and a bit odd that when someone asks ‘where do babies come from?’ that the answer can be predominantly biological, with very little of the social stuff or even pleasure slipping in there. I know that for a while as a kid I was really unsure as to why exactly ‘when a man loves a woman very much, he will put his penis inside her’. I mean, without pleasure and the sense of physical intimacy, what kind of sense does that make? It’d be like inserting your finger into someone else’s ear. And why would being in love with someone make you want to do that?! Odd.
    I mean, at some level, I kind of get it. People get wigged about talking about complex things that they themselves are not clear about (and seriously, who of us can say we’ve got all this stuff sorted?), or which they might be worried might have some kind of negative impact on kids. And science is safe! It’s true! And safe! But first of all, I’m not sure what this negative impact might be, and second, I think we need to be clear that in offering the ‘objective’, ‘biological’ story, we’re concealing the moiety of our sexual experience: these too are truths, they’re just not scientific ones. I mean, honest to goodness, knowing that sperm originate somewhere else and then get mixed in with semen later… I’m just not sure how that is supposed to help anyone negotiate the complicated, emotional, often vulnerable spaces they’ll find themselves in around sex. Equipping people with names for their desires, and a bunch of skills about being attentive to your partner not just over drinks but in the bedroom, and emphasising mutuality would, I think, go a long way towards creating an ethical sexual culture.

  17. Wildly P, it might seem strange, but as a child, and mind you my parents were born in 1931, I fortunately was never confused by ‘when a man loves a woman he will put his penis inside her’ and then hey presto a baby! What a heap of jumbled up messages will a child end up with that? It’s a lie.
    Sex=babies. A man who loves=penis in vagina, ergo: no penis in vagina=doesn’t love the woman. I started drawing some more conclusions, but was getting myself into all sorts of knots. What does love have to do with it?
    It amazes me how conservative and idealistic everybody suddenly becomes when the topic of human babies arises. What does ‘loving very much’ have to do with it? The begetting of babies is purely a biological process. Humans get to choose when and with whom to have said babies. Yes, ideally it involves 2 people who love one another and have decided that they want to have children together. And yes, it should ideally involve great sex. But sex is only rarely used by humans ‘to make a baby’. We really need to differentiate the two.
    Having said that: having sex that includes PIV sex (therefore heterosexual sex only) could, no matter what precautions are taken, result in a pregnancy. So, my mantra to my children has always been: if you are going to include in your sexual adventure PIV sex or close to it, be aware that you may have to make a decision about an unplanned pregnancy. A pregnancy is a possible side effect of semen and an egg coming together and is ALWAYS a joint responsibility, NEVER EVER a burden for one party alone.
    Love is another subject altogether. And most certainly adds even more to your sex life, and is a truly joyful and amazingly thrilling experience, but love doesn’t=sex, just like sex doesn’t =love.

  18. I’m not sure that I was ever quite told that phrase, but it’s a pretty common discourse. It has a stack of problems, like excising pleasure from the picture, and like, as you say, heteronormativising sex until it’s solely reproductive, within a relationship and as an expression of love. Which the vast majority of sexual interactions just don’t fit within.

  19. My entire memory of school sex ed is “here’s the biology of PIV and USE A CONDOM BECAUSE HERE’S WHAT ADVANCED GONHORREA LOOKS LIKE ON A PENIS >:(“. Which was a somewhat ridiculous approach, I feel.
    I did ask a teacher after one of these classes if there was anything I needed to know about STIs and lesbian sex, and she told me straight-up that she’d been told she wasn’t allowed to talk to us about it, (which she was pretty angry about), and directed me to Scarleteen, which turned out to be 1000000x more helpful than anything I was told in the time I was at school.

  20. This is such a great post and has given me a lot to consider further. I have just deleted a comment because it was probably an overshare and probably triggering but I really believe that very early childhood is a good time to think about education about sexuality, beginning with correct nomenclature for the genitalia.

    It is really important for people with severe cognitive disabilities too and that can take some ingenuity and a lot of hard work on the part of their parents. Nothing is more frightening than going through puberty with no understanding of what is happening to your body and your thoughts but that is what happens for many people who have a disability.

  21. The one thing I really wish had been in either sex ed or biology or SOMETHING is an actual mention of mittelschmerz. Everyone I know who feels that pain around ovulation thinks they’re a freak until I tell them there’s a name for it, because we’ve never been told about it. Personally, some months I can spend a day or two doubled over – it can hurt worse than period pain (and is worse more often now than it was when I was a teenager; back then it was a *pop* sensation).

  22. Minna, Scarleteen’s an awesome resource. I just feel badly for the rest of the people in your class who never got to hear about or even really think about lesbian sex, except in the ways that MSM represents it, which eh, whatever.
    And su, the issue of disability in relation to sex ed is a really vexed one (though it really shouldn’t be!). This course includes a week on sexuality and people with disabilities. It’s an interesting week, partly because it makes sure that even those people who thought they were ‘totally cool’ with everything (generally a defensive move, I find!) are confronted with something they actually do struggle to be ‘cool’ with (which helps to unpick the ‘I know all about all and am fine with all’ problem which tends to close down conversation about the diversity of sexualities). As part of that week, we read a piece about the relationship between political agency and sexuality for people with disabilities, which includes some horrific stories about medical professionals and their bigotry (‘you can marry, but no sex’, for example), but also mentions how difficult it is for people with disabilities to access information about sex (even in the case of adults with acquired disabilities). The issues with sex ed around those with severe cognitive disabilities are so important to negotiate – not least because of the extraordinary levels of sexual abuse against this portion of the population. But also because people ought not to have to live up to some ludicrous ideal in order to be able to enjoy their sexuality. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that creating the sense that people are entitled to their pleasure is extremely important in helping them to be less vulnerable to coercion, abuse and rape… and I agree that finding ways of talking about such things with allchildren is probably a really important step in helping to entrench that sense of ownership.

  23. This is an important topic and one that I’ve been thinking a lot about myself. I agree that sex ed needs to be wrestled out of the PE/PH strand and placed elsewhere as a health perspective is waaaay to narrow a lens through which to discuss/teach about human sexuality.
    These things do have to be discussed early through. My daughter has already come into conflict with some of her kindergarten class mates (5 and 6 year olds) because we’ve taught her that no part of the body is rude.

  24. Sorry, my point was supposed to be that she’d been explicitly told not to talk about it, though my habit of plugging Scarleteen at every opportunity probably obscured that. Though I’ve no idea whether that came down from the school or from Qld Ed, and I suspect the former rather than the latter.
    Though as an aside, I’m petty and small-minded enough to still be grateful that it was another 18 months before ‘where’s your dental dam’ got added to ‘fucking dyke’ as insults of choice.

  25. … Or else ‘health’ needs to get a little less focussed on biology, which I personally think would be healthier! 😉
    And I kinda love the idea of a child convinced no part of her body is rude. Nice work, Ray 🙂

  26. Oh, sorry, Minna, I did understand that the teacher wasn’t allowed to, y’know, properly teach people. I just mean that there will probably have been people in your class without the guts to ask for more information, or whose perspective on same-sex desire might have been shifted by knowing that yes, we can actually talk about lesbian sex, and it doesn’t just need to be ‘haw-haw, can’t be real, no penetration involved’, which is pretty much what schoolyard talk amounts to, IIRC!
    Heternormativity, let’s be clear, doesn’t just mean heterosexuals get privileged and all others get marginalised; it closes down possibilities of love and fun and sex and ooh! pleasure for many, many people, whose only exposure to love and fun and sex and pleasure is that it happens only in heterosex. I know that lots of people have perfectly understandable investments in gay genes (or similar ‘just programmed that way’ stories) but I tend to think it’s more complex than that, and that heteronormative media and sex ed and so on reduce everyone’s possible futures. I don’t mean by this that ‘everyone’s really bi’ (what does ‘really’ mean in that sentence anyway? I’m not sure about this idea of an underlying truth to sexuality in all its guises) but that, for example, if gay sex were really talked about, I wouldn’t wind up with so many uncomfortable straight men when I talk about straight male anal eroticism, or so many titters behind hands at the thought of cunnilingus (srsly, people can seem to just slip back to 6th grade when we talk about sex!). Or, really, it just might mean that people could accept that experiencing pleasure in whatever way, from whatever body part, might be okay. Which, y’know, sounds simple but is actually pretty radical. 🙂

  27. I agree about the shutting down of alternatives – I’m not too invested in “gay genes” but I do think that people are born with a varying range of potentials and that heteronormativity shuts off whole avenues of pleasure in a massive range of ways.
    But I must confess to giggling behind hands at the word cunnilingus – it sounds like the biological name for a fungus to me – at least fellatio sounds like a character in an opera. Some words seem to have been chosen to sound unpleasant. I always liked the Shirley Valentine pronunciation of clitoris though, even if it doesn’t go as well as the Ford Cortina. 🙂

  28. That’s a pretty fair observation. It seems pretty agenda’d to have a blanket ban, so I wonder if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t want to deal with parental fallout’ things, and how that can be worked around. And for the homophobic rubbish, if it was discussed early and often that would probably be less of an issue anyway. 😦
    Mostly sex ed frustrated me at the time because it didn’t seem to accomplish anything even in the limited places they were applying it to. It’s hard to believe that you’re supposed to take STIs as serious business when the only prevention you’re taught about is only taught in the context of situations that also avoids pregnancy. Dams are probably a good example of that, actually -they’re something that should ideally be being used in straight encounters as well, but don’t even get a mention (presumably because PIV Sex Is The Only Real Sex Doncha Know *eyeroll*). Althought then again, hymens didn’t get much of a mention either and it seems like something that anybody who might end up having sexytimes as or with a female virgin should probably have a vague grasp of even just in terms of the physical health side that seems to be the school focus, let alone how dead scary the concept of penetration is when all the information you have regarding the biology of it is “the first time might hurt” with no idea of what level of pain is usual or acceptable, or what point it’s doctor time.
    I absolutely agree that the level of focus on what is a pretty narrow part of it fails. But if that’s all that’s going to be discussed it could at least be done properly! 😡 I get annoyed at ridiculous things sometimes.
    Yeah, I have real issues with the ‘it’s biology’ argument. Even if it could somehow be proven irrevocably, privileging biology like that doesn’t sit well with me anyway.

  29. Oh, I rarely use the technical term in class, Ariane, but it gets the same result (generally ‘going down’ or ‘oral sex’ is the phrase I use). Thing is, knowing there’s heaps of ways to feel pleasure helps *everyone*, regardless of who they prefer to have sex with; it helps them to shift their understanding of their own bodies, and those of others, and to shift the idea that there is the one-right-way to do the sexing thing. Which: yay!
    Also, every time I hear someone carefully pronounce ‘clitoris’, I remember the Doug Anthony All Stars ‘educating’ some kid in the audience in, uh, Latin… a very select group of Latin nouns, as it happens. Because they didn’t wish him to go home without learning something! Wish I could find a clip of it!

  30. My sole memories of sex ed at my Catholic high school are these: 1. pregnancy is ALWAYS part of a woman’s life (because if a woman doesn’t have a baby she explodes or something) and is ALWAYS intentional (even at Yr 10 this was a pretty fanciful idea). 2. Sexual pleasure is ALWAYS intrinsically related to reproduction, otherwise God would have put the clitoris on a woman’s left ankle (the woman really said that).
    Sex ed was one of those classes I attempted to schedule a music lesson during, rather like religious ed.

  31. Not sure if this is unusual, but the actual first sex education I received in school was in early primary school (like, year 2), and it was about sexual abuse. I remember 2 distinct sessions where we were taken out of normal classes and made to watch an educational performance piece on how to deal with being sexually abused. One of the shows was really accessible and clear, I remember, and kind of de-stigmatised the whole “adults talking to kids about sex” thing with puppets.
    The main message of “tell an adult if anyone touches you inappropriately or treats you in a way that makes you uncomfortable” was pretty good, and sunk in. But I think adults should also have some education about how to deal with kids telling them about being sexually abused!
    And even though it was useful, it didn’t really break out of the “children are innocent and pure and any mention of sex will warp their minds” mould, nor did it really de-stigmatise sex so much as make me (as a young girl) constantly question male sexual desire and see it as predatory, self-interested, and something to be kept at bay. But that’s also some of my own issues tinting the recollection, I think.

  32. Mmm, that’s really interesting, Fire Fly. I’m not sure it’s your issues tinting your reading of that. I, who had no inappropriate advances made toward me as a kid, also had this sense about male sexuality… and I still do, to some extent. Which. Not necessarily always wrong, sadly. But yay for when it is!
    I think there’s something problematic about how we teach consent, actually, which makes sex into something where you are vulnerable, where you can be potentially a victim. This is true, of course, but it also creates the kind of anxiety *about* sex that I think shifts the focus in problematic ways: to ‘am I okay with this?’ or ‘am I unhappy enough to say ‘no’ here?’ rather than ‘I don’t want it, so they should just stop.’ That is, in our anxiety about whether this situation is The Situation, we tend to lose the focus on the fact that all it takes for it to become a situation to say ‘no’ in is not actively wanting it to happen. I’m not expressing this very well, and I think I did better over at Sady’s, so I’m going to cut-and-paste from my comment there:
    “I’m a little wary of the wording of the warning [it’s in Sady’s original post, which is linked to up there in the OP]. There’s a big focus, around consensuality, on negation: ‘saying no’, ‘never feel’ etc. That starts to imply that there’s an inherent risk in touching or being touched, rather than rape being the result of someone else’s bad behaviour. This reinforces a vulnerability that is often a *result* of feeling like consent is the default, only undone by ‘saying no’. I’m committed to an imagining of consent as ‘this is happening because I want it to, and in the ways I want it to, too!’, rather than ‘this is happening because I haven’t said no’. Now, I’m not saying that the ‘saying no’ bit doesn’t count, but that it should be *part* of a larger schematic, in which things only happen because people want them to. Coercion, I think, is effective because people feel like whether they want sex or not doesn’t matter sufficiently (when weighed against their partner’s desires). That is, I think an ethical sexual culture is one in which you feel like you are *entitled* to say ‘Please do me right here right now and like this, please!,’ and in which you know that if you *don’t* say it, no ‘doing’ of any kind is going to occur. I’m also conscious that kids (unless I was an overly perverted child!) often do touch each other, and that this is fertile ground for practising how they will negotiate sex later on, and might even create adults who are *articulate* about what they want instead of hoping that this particular partner is a mind reader (that is, this is part of my whole ‘don’t set sex aside into another world’ thing). So, my suggestion:
    “They belong to you, and other people should only touch them or look at them if you want them to and they want to. And the same goes for you and others: you should always make sure that someone wants you to see their privates or touch them before you do, so make sure you ask them. If someone tries to see your privates or touch them when you don’t want them to, you should come and tell me, because you get to make the rules about your own body, and other people have to follow them.””
    That should obviously be adapted to the possibility of child sex abuse, which is never okay, but I think it maybe gets at some of the point you’re making…? Basically: people seem to think that the focus on pleasure necessarily means that kids (and teens, and adults!) will be less equipped to deal with situations of non-consent, but I’m not sure that necessarily follows?

  33. Well, by legal definition, children aren’t equipped to give meaningful consent (even though this problematically shifts control over their bodies to parents/guardians/adults, which can lead to abuse as well), so giving that message to kids won’t necessarily stop abuse. And I do think it does put the onus on the victim to call out abuse and to make sure they get it addressed, which I don’t think is healthy either.
    The key thing with sexual abuse is that there’s a power relationship in place. Being confident enough to say ‘no’ might shift the dynamics of an interaction, but won’t necessarily shift the inherent power dynamic. What might, though, is reinforcing the importance, to adults, of believing & supporting survivors, of giving them the skills & resources to address abuse when they do hear about it. And offering a variety of support resources to children around sexual abuse.
    But that’s something of a tangent. I think the legal issues do complicate giving that message to kids even if we know they’re engaging in playful sexual experimentation. Or even harmful sexual experimentation (of which I’ve heard quite a few stories…).

  34. My son has just had a unit at school aimed at preventing sexual abuse, and he’s in yr1. He hasn’t mentioned a word about it, so I will have to wait until the work book comes home so I can see what’s been said, how it’s been presented and what I feel might need to be addressed.
    He’s shown absolutely no interest in asking about any of these sort of issues, so this will have been his first formal discussion (other than “name that part” in the bath). I’m not sure that I’m terribly happy that his first contact is with a very negative message, and so this conversation is particularly timely for me. This is standard in NSW public schools, at least, so it’s presumably pretty common. I think I would have liked to have seen the content before he did so that I could consider whether I wanted to frame any of it for him – but then I’m not sure whether I’d have done that at all successfully anyway….

  35. I think we often teach “protective behaviours” without knowing it. That sense of bodily self-sovereignty that children have when they have been treated as an autonomous inividual from a young age is powerfully protective. That is one of the really good arguments against smacking IMO because I think it can interfere with that sense of ownership of their bodies that is so important just as a foundation for development generally, leaving aside the protective aspect. Each time we take the time to explain things to a child before we do something whether it be putting on shoes, helping with dressing etc builds that idea that they have control over their own bodies. That said there will still be times when there is no option but to scoop them up so they don’t run on a road or something similar but even if the explanation happens later I think it helps to build that idea that you negotiate touching, it doesn’t just happen.
    Similarly with a child’s emotions – if they grow to believe that they have a right to emotional expression (sounds banal but not very long ago parenting involved really suppressive attitudes to children’s emotions) then there are fewer barriers to talking about upsetting events. In many ways I think it is emotional distance between a child and their parents which is the point of greatest vulnerability. That distance is what is exploited. Again the protective factors go hand in hand with really healthy promotion of children’s development.
    The problem of transferring the onus to children worries me as well Firefly. And I think there should be some sort of parallel education for parents at least with some basic don’ts like don’t get emotional, don’t question them too closely. Use open ended questions and so on.

  36. Oh, I’m totally with you two, Su and Fire Fly, some education for adults is really, really important. And yeah, anything that helps shift the onus from being on children speaking up is good; I’m just scratching my head over alternatives, though I’m probably not thinking broadly enough. I like your observation, Su, about how to model good touching negotiations with your kids. Seems useful, and also seems an important way of demonstrating that sexual touch isn’t set aside in another world, where negotiation suddenly goes away (which I think is part of the problem with sex ed more generally; sets sex off in this other world where regular rules can be suspended). Which stands them in good stead both for protective behaviours, and for respectful negotiations with others either in experimentation, or as they get older.
    And as far as legalities go, Fire Fly, I know it wouldn’t work for schools, but it might in other spaces, which is more what I was envisioning; and there are spaces within the legal for underage kids to consent to sex with each other (not quite sure if the same standard of consent as adults applies, but I’d assume so?). I don’t know enough about kids and sex and the law, though, to really be able to comment. Anyone else know more than me??

  37. That thing about bodily autonomy really hit home for me. It was something that was incredibly stressed by one of my tutors, Gail. The basic idea is, children are humans, not furniture. You need to show them the same respect you give to adults.
    So; you don’t just hold their hands, you ask if you can, or you hold out a hand and wait for them to take it.
    You don’t just hug them, you get down to their level and ask or offer. Of course, if they hold their arms up or hug you, then hug them back.
    You always ask to check their nappy, you ask to change their nappy, as often as possible you let them get places on their own.
    Babies who are too young to articulate, you still tell them what’s going on. “Im going to change your nappy now!” before picking them up.
    Today at the centre I was doing most of the nappies, so I had to ask all the children if I could check their nappies. They all just stood up and let me, or nodded to me and stood up (except one girl, who wanted the other carer to do it, which is fine). This pleases me because it means the children are used to it, which means that the other cadets are consistant in their asking.
    Sorry, it’s a bit off topic. I’m really enjoying reading this discussion.

  38. ” (except one girl, who wanted the other carer to do it, which is fine)”
    Just wanted to say that it is REALLY cool that this was respected.

  39. “The basic idea is, children are humans, not furniture. You need to show them the same respect you give to adults.
    So; you don’t just hold their hands, you ask if you can, or you hold out a hand and wait for them to take it.
    You don’t just hug them, you get down to their level and ask or offer. Of course, if they hold their arms up or hug you, then hug them back.”
    While I agree, I just wanted to point out that this often *isn’t* how we treat adults. I don’t ask before I hug my partner, or my mum or dad, or indeed various friends.
    And indeed there are situations where if I’m responsible for a child’s safety, I’m going to hold their hand even if they don’t want it held – around cars, for example, even though I agree with the general principle that they ‘own’ their bodies.

  40. haven’t got time to read all comments, so sorry if I repeat!
    – sex ed NEEDS to include an acknowledgement that masturbation is a healthy and beneficial past time for young people. We need to teach that knowing your own body and loving your own body is paramount
    – it needs representations of (and support for and a political understanding of etc etc) all genders and sexualities and abilities
    – explanations of the complexity of consent – not just how to say no, but how to know if ‘yes’ means ‘no’ and how to engage with a potential partner respectfully and openly
    – the fact that fetishes exist and if you are thinking ‘outside the box’ (scuse pun) that does not make you a freak!
    – that there are people you can talk to and references to help you. the song says “the internet is for porn” – but kids should know that the internet is a resource for safe sex information and community, especially if parents are not supportive
    – reproductive options for different familes / people
    – that a monogamous, long-term relationship is not for everyone
    – that honesty is the MOST important thing in a relationship / friendship / family
    le sigh. Sex ed really is so deficient. I am grateful to have grown up with VERY open parents who discussed all of the above. I don’t remember not knowing what sex was or how babies were made – and no, I don’t feel like I was robbed of my child-like innocence. I was lecturing the other kids about feminism when I was 5!
    All my questions were answered. To this day friends are fascinated that I am able to discuss my sex life with my mothers – though we tend to talk analytically and intellectually about sex related issues rather than whipping out a “hey I had THE BEST orgasm last night.” The conversations are broad-reaching and so helpful to my growth as a woman and responsible adult! Just this year we’ve covered monogamy / polyamory, BDSM, sex toys and lesbian sexual health a number of times. Best parents ever! If only they ran our education department…

  41. While I agree, I just wanted to point out that this often *isn’t* how we treat adults. I don’t ask before I hug my partner, or my mum or dad, or indeed various friends.

    This is definitely true, but there are reasons for that. The first is that you’ve built up a rapport with these people as far as hugging goes. It is well established that I can hug my partner without asking, and He can do the same to me, and that’s fine. Children are like that as well. It doesn’t take long to figure out the ones who want lots of hugs, and those who you have to ask each time.
    The other point I’d like to make is that often we do ask if we can hug someone through the use of body language. When I hold out my arms to a friend, they know I am asking for a hug. When they then hug me, they are accepting the hug. Again, children are the same. They know what various cues mean, and will respond to them.
    Of course, if you held your arms out to a friend for a hug and they said “not today”, then it would make sense to not hug them (and in the case of my friends, ask them if they were ok). The important thing is the respect behind it.

    And indeed there are situations where if I’m responsible for a child’s safety, I’m going to hold their hand even if they don’t want it held – around cars, for example, even though I agree with the general principle that they ‘own’ their bodies.

    Oh, absolutely. I think this comes up less in a childcare environment because we often don’t come across those situations, but when they arise the child’s safety is most important.
    There are times when I have had to move children without their permission. For example, if one child is hurting another child, I will immediately remove the child doing the hurting and then comfort the victim. Or, if a child needs to be disciplined (not punished) sometimes they sit in the thinking chair. They get warnings “If you do that again you will have to sit in the thinking chair” and then they get choices “I told you not to do that again. Go sit in the thinking chair.” If the child doesn’t, then we say “Either you sit in the thinking chair, or I will put you in the thinking chair”.
    But yes, I definitely see your point 🙂

  42. What a fantastic discussion. I’m so with Su and Ariane. Though there are many points made by many posters.
    I have to say I’m very concerned about child sexual abuse being even remotedly related to ‘sexual education’. Sexual abuse is as far removed from ‘sex’ as is a physical beating is to dancing a waltz. Both involve movement and touching, even vigorous movement and touching, but are obviously not related.
    It is an issue that is really difficult I suppose, because the fact is that the majority of children abused are abused by people who are known and familiar to them. How does a child deal with learning that something wrong is being done by somebody they love, or at least are told they should love? Who do they tell? How can children, even children not abused, not learn to view sex as something probably dangerous when it is associated with ‘sex ed’?
    Maeveblog’s parents remind me of my own (born early last century!), I realize how lucky I was when I talk about these issues with others.
    Wildly P touched on that issue with her comments on consent, I found so deeply, deeply disturbing with Arndt’s message that it wasn’t quite necessary for wives to ‘want to have sex’ in order to enjoy it. There is this peculiar idea that a person might not really know whether or not she/he might want to engage in that most intimate of acts, sexual intimacy with another.
    If there is this reluctance, indeed difficulty, to acknowledge that an adult is perfectly entitled to own the right to give permission to be intimately touched how can we then hope to teach this to young children?

  43. Wow. Fantastic post. I learned a lot of great things at University, in a course on Human Sexuality, including trans* and asexual.
    I remember 8th grade science class having a movie on AIDS, The Ryan White Story. This was 1990-1. We had a required, one semester, Health Class in HS, which covered all sorts of health issues, not just sex. I remember watching And the Band Played On for that class. 😛
    It would be awesome if sex ed was more comprehensive! I’ve seen an episode of the Midwest Teen Sex show. Great stuff! 😀

  44. I’ve been thinking about WP’s discussion of sex being “set apart as something special” and questioning why we do this (it being a significant part of us and access to it being required to be “fully human” according Nussbaum /snark), and how that interacts with abuse.
    If we were to accept sex back into the fold as something that can be discussed by everyone all the time, that we accept that kids* experiment with in their own way on their own terms inevitably and isn’t a source of shame for anyone to want to enjoy it, any more than enjoying a good tickle is shameful, would that mean that sexual assault would also not be set aside as something special (from “ordinary” assault)?
    Oddly, I have more personal difficulty (at an emotional level) accepting the first part than I do the second. However, that isn’t relevant to the philosophical position, which is interesting, I think. If we consider that there may be all sorts of good reasons to keep sexual assault as a special case (and given our current society and the prevailing tendency to apologise for and accept sexual assault in all forms, I think there are plenty), does that mean we can’t stop viewing sex as something special?
    Or, on the other hand, would accepting sex as just another form of pleasure that we mostly keep behind closed doors (I don’t think too many people would argue that sex in public should be as acceptable as tickling, would they?) make the need for keeping sexual assault special obsolete? Or is the fact that we mostly keep it behind closed doors be enough to call sexual assault special without people still concluding that sex is special and separate?
    *I suspect all kids experiment with sex at least on their own, I don’t know what proportion of kids experiment with other kids, because I only have anecdata to add to everyone else’s anecdata, but there exists one kid who didn’t experiment with other kids. 🙂

  45. In terms of resources, one of the LJers I read had an interesting discussion of leading a discussion of sexuality and disability in the OWL curriculum and how she modified the resources:


    (A couple of things to note: the author identifies as a PWD, and LJ is a bit of a different space from blogs and the atmosphere of the comments may be different, as they largely know each other personally in some sense.)

  46. To me one difference between sexual assault and much common assault is the instrumentalizing of the victim. Common assault seems somehow more interpersonal in that there is a desire to hurt someone. Sexual assault seems more about using the victim as a means to some end, sexual gratification, the restoration of a feeling of dominance, demonstration of masculinity. There are probably layers of nuance I am missing. I can imagine crimes of violence that also instrumentalize the victims. Silence of the Lambs used that idea of impersonal violence didn’t it? Interesting that it seems to increase the horror factor. I know that one of the most horrible experiences I have ever had as an adult was when a partner picked up my unwilling hand and tried to force me to do something. I found it just as violating as some of the early stuff that to an outsider would have a bigger “Ick” factor.
    And now I’m aware that I am centering violence and assault on a thread about sexual pleasure. Bloody patriarchy.

  47. (Did you know, Ariane, that Foucault made just that argument? ;-)) Well, I think one of the things to keep in mind is that treating sexual assault like any other assault might actually raise the conviction rate, for a few reasons (less shame, less carry-on about ‘her past’, less likelihood of the police refusing to take a report (esp. from sex workers, which is a real issue), less likelihood of a woman’s morals being on trial instead of a man’s actions… there are definite benefits. I have problems with it because there’s a measure of ‘harm’ associated with, say, being punched, which is allegedly ‘purely physical’ (as in, I’m really not convinced that only that physical element is what is being prosecuted in any other assault case, because the emotional content of being harmed against your will matters too, but it’s what people will continually come back to, and they will likely in turn say that rape doesn’t (always) involve physical harm). And in this possibility, the thing to remember, too, is that there are actually lots of different kinds of assault laws, with different levels and kinds of harms, and sexual assault is, legally, one amongst many. So in that respect, theoretically, we could be in that situation now. But of course we’re not. :-/
    But all of this feels a little problematic to me, because as Su pointed out, we’re slipping very quickly from ‘talking about sex as about any other topic’ to sexual violence. These are two very very distinct things. Yes, teaching kids about appropriate and inappropriate touching is likely to reference sexual assault/abuse in some way, but that doesn’t mean that that’s the only, or even the main conversation we ought to be having about sex. Or, to be clearer, when I was asking why sex was special, I was asking why we set aside certain conversations, I was talking about the pleasure/negotiation around it and that side of things; I certainly don’t mean to say it’s not ‘special’ (well, it makes me light up like Christmas morning!) but that it’s not clear to me why it’s set aside as a topic of conversation. I’m also not sure that allowing or enabling people to talk about sex all the time means that rape is simply equated to other forms of assault? I might be missing a step?
    Sorry, feeling a little fuzzy today! Need my coffee!

  48. This is a great discussion topic, and I’m fessing up right now that I haven’t read everything everyone has said, so I’m sorry-in-advance if I’m repeating or rehashing stuff said. But I thought my contribution might help… would you believe, I’m even nervous writing this post, and although my head says I’ve done nothing wrong, its such a tricky thing to teach (see: the variety of parent comfort with this topic) that I’m never sure if I’ve done the wrong thing – its nerve wracking.
    I teach Yr6 in Victoria and its now ‘the season’ to do the sex ed stuff. It’s REALLY hard! Not the talking about – which I’m fine with, and have no nerves about when it happens – but the knowing when to talk. Because we don’t do reproductive systems as biology, talking about these areas is uncomfortable for lots of the kids. We have a high proportion of Asian and sub-continental kids, who don’t expect to talk about this stuff and, to be honest, there are many heads on desks for some topics around Sex Ed (I tell them to store it for when they really do want to know. There’s a great range of maturity in Yr6 – some still stand to watch the ambulances go by). But this term, with our brainstorming about the topic all sorts of words have come up and they ask “What DOES that word mean?” Sometimes I’ll say “It’s a part of the female reproductive system and will be explained thoroughly in Sex Ed – do you want to know more now or leave it till then?” Otherwise I’ll just tell them. (Sex Ed is provided by Family Planning Vic and includes a parent night. Last year it got really interesting when a parent asked if FPV would say that homosexuality was wrong, and the FPV educator said she wouldn’t. Heated discussion ahoy! YEY!) My class asked me if I knew of any teen pregnancies – at least one story there, including one of emotional blackmail resulting in a Yr8 pregnancy – and I think I said something like ‘Having a baby isn’t the end of the world, but its the end of a world for everyone involved, and its hard and its forever.” Another time, the class was brainstorming about words to do with reproduction and one kid wrote ‘rape’. Then there were others saying ‘can he write that?’ and I said no, he can’t, not because its a rude word but because its not to do with reproduction (or sex really, more about violence). So then a discussion about rape ensued – what IS rape, miss? – and there was a lot of discomfort around. I ended up saying something like ‘I really wish we didn’t have to have this conversation, but really, we get the Herald-Sun everyday; you should be clear about what these words mean.’ So you can see, there are all these tricky questions that come up and I have to choose: do I let/make this become a discussion, or do I do a quick simple answer or do I drop it? Sometimes you decide based on their faces, or how many heard the question, or the potential parent backlash, or your own principles, but not the curriculum, because it doesn’t cover this stuff and they’re about to slip into the next level of Vic curriculum standards/needs. I don’t want to be the teacher who shuts down an opportunity to have a positive conversation about these things, but I’m still figuring out how to phrase it all…
    I love the topic, and in 3 short weeks they’ve become much more comfortable talking about all the terms, asking questions and the topic in general. We have big full sized pictures of human bodies (they drew them, so a little inaccurate) with all the parts there and lots of questions to answer about how sperm is made, why its white, why is my period called ‘the curse’, what’s armpit hair for, and other body questions like ‘how do messages travel so fast in my body’, ‘how does my body know where to grow the teeth’.
    But they’re not quite ready for an awesome site like scarleteen. So far no one has asked about gay sex, but they will, and I remember last year, when the question about sexual activities got interesting, I said something like “If you can think of it, someone’s done it, and really, if the people involved are adults and consenting, its usually an OK thing to do”. Last year (my first year of teaching Yr6) FPV encouraged traditional sex as a positive thing, only when you’re ready (and described how you’d know), a trusting relationship-enhancing thing – very positive.
    So I thought it might help to read about what one teacher is doing somewhere at the moment. Though I should point out, no uni course has told me what to say: I’m using my own judgement and balancing it against: the curriculum, truths, what they’re curious about right now, what play-time conversations are about and how much (re)direction they need, and worrying about how the story is retold to parents (eep!). And I’m learning too, and still training myself to talk the talk of equality and broaden the norms of sexuality, but its hard to always get it right and know when they’re ready to hear it, because for all the wishes of when readiness occurs its really up to their parents to let these conversations happen, whether at home or at school.
    (OK, here goes… Submit!)

  49. Thanks for that perspective, Anon. I think teachers are placed in a really difficult position, around parental comfort with these kinds of questions. I have real problems, as you can probably pick up from my post, with the idea of PIV sex being set up as the ‘real sex’ and everything else as a derivative of, or even deviating from this ‘real sex’. I get that parents might be uncomfortable about that; I just think it’s so important. I get the question about whether to have the full conversation or not; my perspective would be that there are so few spaces in which kids can ask about this stuff, especially if their parents are awkward or unwilling or whatever, that the full conversation is actually quite important, if they feel safe and happy enough to raise the question… But that’s just my 2 cents 🙂 And clearly this needs to be covered at university a little more (there’s some great stuff that is going on in education theory at the moment, but there’s a teensy bit of reinventing the wheel, which is just another indicator that interdisciplinarity is kinda important!).
    In more political terms, I really really dislike the fact that the ‘lowest common denominator’ of parental comfort winds up winning out. The implication is a) that sex ed is dangerous, or problematic, or going to steal kids’ innocencez, b) that there’s more harm in hearing it than in not hearing it (which is so so so questionable), and c) that therefore those who don’t want their kids to ‘know’ this stuff (let’s be honest, they probably have heard about some of this stuff) wind up with their position mattering more than those who are more than happy to have their kids participating in these conversations. I guess my point is that I totally understand how your anxiety around this stuff can work, Anon, but I also think that these kinds of issues wind up with fucked up dynamics around them, where conservative parents wind up reconfiguring our perception of events as if kids not learning about this stuff is less harmful; which I just don’t think is true.


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