Sadly, This Deficiency Is The Norm
Froth posted this to the Feministe weekly self-promotion thread. She says she’s writing because this is typical, and I agree. Here’s her experience with sex ed:
Nobody told me I had a clitoris.
Nobody told me I was capable of having orgasms.
For five years I was given “sex education”. It mostly consisted of periods and condoms. It didn’t talk about consent. It didn’t talk about the actual mechanics of sex, about arousal and lubrication and oscillation. It didn’t tell me a single thing about relationships and it didn’t tell me I had a clitoris.
I only know now because of the internet. Nobody entrusted with my care and education has ever told me that the female orgasm exists, or about the parts of my anatomy necessary for it.
I didn’t find my clitoris until I was eighteen, after six years of active sexuality.
When I was in high school, it was the late 1980s, when het America woke up to the AIDS epidemic, and parents were scared enough in some parts of the country to want someone (NOT THEM, but someone) to tell kids how not to get a terminal STI. What did we get?
what all the STIs were and how they were transmitted, what infection rates looked like, all the birth control and STI-prevention methods, what they would do and how effectively. We even got that video with Rae Dawn Chong explaining anal sex, telling us that the anus was tighter and drier and required external lube as well as a condom. Wow! (It helped that, at 16, I thought Rae Dawn Chong was really hot.)
I can imagine a better program, of course. In fact, I did. I told you (in the way only self-righteous sixteen year olds can) how to make the program better. There are better programs at many universities. But what I didn’t understand at sixteen was that the education we got was as good a public school program as we could find then, better than anything the generation before got, and as I am reminded almost daily by younger readers on Feministing, almost immesurably better than what the kids get now that the religious conservatives have had a generation to pressure the schools.
Because it came with a heavy dose of pro-abstinence value teaching, I got all anti-authoritarian about it. I got more about sexuality as part of the whole person than what Froth describes; the part I took issue with was the communication of values that at the time I recognized as having a bias that I didn’t agree with. We did talk about orgasm and the clitoris, and we did talk about sex as part of relationships, though it wasn’t the kind of comprehensive treatment one might wish for it wasn’t entirely omitted either. I didn’t appreciate at the time that it was about the best that public school kids got, and it hasn’t been that good again in most of the US.
Part of the problem is squeamishness, and part of that is the schools. There is a loud minority of people who either really believe that teaching teens how to have healthy sexual relationships is an inducement to sin; or who want disease and death to be the inescapable consequences of fornication. They are just waiting for school administrators to let teens hear something that might win them allies among the rest of the public. Schools that have not bought the abstinence-only snake oil instead hew closely to a disease-and pregnancy prevention model, because it is most easily defended in the political arena, though it is far from all that our teens need.
Part of the problem is parents’ squeamishness and reticence. I’m not talking about the socially conservative parents who really want their kids to enter marriage totally ignorant. There is no point in seeking common ground with them. I’m talking about my friends and neighbors, my well-meaning peers.
Delilah Night is an erotica writer and pens a column for Carnal Nation, and yet when her toddler daughter masturbated during diaper changes, she went weak-kneed. She tells the story of a discussion in her mom group:
“Speaking of diaper issues,” I began. “So, I know it’s usually in the 2-3 year range, but…um…when I’m changing her diaper? Her hands? She likes to explore down there?”
Down there? Had I seriously just used the phrase “down there?” I have ranted on the subject of how much I loathe that particular phrase to friends and my partner at length and on multiple occasions. What is it about being surrounded by those who most likely do not share my values that made me fall into pathetic phrasing like “down there” as opposed to vulva, clitoris, or even vagina?
I also do not usually speak in the interrogative, choosing instead to leave that for the tweenagers I used to teach.
My cheeks burning, I glanced around at the other moms in the circle. The moms of other little girls seemed to take great interest in adjusting the barrette in their daughter’s hair, or in a spot of dirt on the opposite wall.
The moms of the little boys were unified in their approach of choice; misdirection.
“Keep a toy or a spare keychain handy,” one mom said with a knowing tone in her voice.
“We use a squeaky toy,” said another.
They nodded. Misdirection. It was the solution. Period.
“Okay! Time to play with the sand table!!!” the group leader, another mom of daughters who’d stayed silent, chirped.
The moment was over; the subject changed before I could really engage them in it.
I found it particularly interesting that in a group that is pretty evenly divided in terms of number of children of either sex, only the boys moms were speaking up. I was curious if that’s because it’s more socially accepted that a son would play with his penis as opposed to a girl playing with her clitoris, or if it was just this particular group of moms? Unfortunately, among my close friends who have children, I am surrounded by parents of boys, so they could not add much to the conversation.
But based upon my experiences in person, in our playgroup and online, only moms of boys are talking about this. But I’m under no illusions that my daughter is in a minority of girls who explore their genitals… only that she has a mother who is in a minority of moms willing to talk about it.
Apparently I’m not the only one who has been discomforted by this.
She reminded me of my own friends who struggled with what to name their daughter’s genitals, and blanched at “vulva”, which is the correct name.
To be blunt, I get annoyed at this. I have to remind myself that the cultural learning that makes sexuality education and even the acknowledgement of childrens’ genitals so fraught is long-standing and powerful. These really are well-meaning folks, and their fears of being judged are not unfounded.
Finally, though, I think squeamishness is only part of the problem. The other aspect, as I see it, is that sexuality education is too often seen as a piecemeal solution to specific informational deficits. The problems are STIs, unplanned pregnancy, ignorance of reproductive biology, etc. The solutions are to address those subjects narrowly. That’s the wrong way to go about it.
Our sexuality is part of our personhood. Each of us has a sexuality, whatever form it takes (including asexuality). We start as children, but we end up as adults. In between, we go through a maturation process. We don’t go to sleep as children one morning and wake up fully realized sexual adults the next.
We also go through a physical maturation process. We don’t go to bed in the bodies of third graders and wake up in our adult bodies. We grow into ourselves in fits and starts, we have our uncoordinated and awkward phases as we transform. (And we never fully stop transforming; our bodies at 25 are not our bodies at 45 or 65.) Our sexuality, physical and mental and emotional, develops. We gain our understanding a bit at a time.
The purpose of sexuality education is to connect the child to the adult over time, and to participate in that transformation: by imparting information, and by instilling values.
If we want our children to value consent, we should participate in teaching that. If we want our children to understand their bodies, we should participate in teaching that. If we want our children to have a model for good decision making around sex, we should participate in giving them that. The key, in my view, is not to think in discreet pieces, but to picture the adults we would like our children to be, and to try our best to set them on the course to get there. Isn’t that how we teach everything else? Or, at least, how we should?