Last week, Max wrote a great piece for us and Scarleteen called “Sex-Ed and Bleach” that got me thinking about my experience in the sex-education classroom ten years ago. I can’t tell you whether or not the public high school that I attended accepted funding for abstinence-only education. In many ways, my recollection of the curriculum resembles Max’s account of his school’s sex-education unit: condoms were mentioned, but abstinence was touted as the be-all and end-all of pregnancy- and STI-prevention methods.
Until recently, I assumed that my public high school taught a comprehensive curriculum. Of course, “comprehensive” doesn’t mean that educators cover everything that should be covered. Like Max’s, my sex-education experience was painfully heteronormative and erased sexual and gender nonconformity. But my vagina was never likened to a dirty toothbrush or a discarded piece of duct tape, so I figured that I hadn’t been a part of an abstinence-only classroom.
Then I started reading this amazing book by Jessica Fields entitled Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality. Fields analyzes sex-education curricula at three middle schools, two public and one private, in North Carolina. One public school espouses a comprehensive model, while the other adheres to abstinence-only policies under the state’s Teach Abstinence until Marriage bill, which was enacted in 1996. Surprisingly, Fields’ research reveals that the public schools’ curricula, whether comprehensive or abstinence-based, aren’t that different on the ground. The sex educator at the public school that accepted abstinence-only funding simply amended her existing materials to recommend abstinence until marriage. Certainly, this isn’t the case everywhere, but I’m accustomed to conceptualizing comprehensive and abstinence-only programs as starkly different from one another. Fields’ findings shatter this assumption. I actually started to wonder whether or not my sex-education experience was truly “comprehensive.”
In discussions of sex education, we often focus on egregiously sexist abstinence-only curricula that demean girls’ bodies and present gross misinformation about the birds and the bees. But how many classrooms teach the brand of abstinence-only education cited in Fields’ research? And is it “good enough” that these educators aren’t comparing young peoples’ genitalia to dirty toothbrushes? What about the social norms and values that surface, oftentimes unnoticed, in “comprehensive” classrooms?
Fields begins to answer these questions by turning a critical eye to the images and flip-charts used in sex-education classrooms that depict “normal” sexuality as white, able-bodied, and heterosexual. She dissects the scientific and biological language used by educators to depersonalize conversations about sexuality and points to adultist beliefs about adolescents’ feelings, desires, and curiosities. Fields forces readers who advocate for comprehensive sex education to rethink the ways in which lessons about sexuality, even those that aren’t abstinence-based, perpetuate social inequalities. Risky Lessons is truly a must-read book for all those who are interested in the emancipatory potential of the classroom and the reasons why even “comprehensive” sex-education simply isn’t “good enough.”