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.
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?
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!)