In her Sociology Compass article, Sexuality Education in the United States: Shared Cultural Ideas Across the Political Divide, Jessica Fields maps the terrain of sexuality education in the United States. While many people believe that debates about sexuality education polarize into two approaches (one favoring an abstinence based approach and the other favoring a more comprehensive based approach), Fields shows that both “camps” want to regulate adolescent sexuality and protect teenagers from the dangers of sexual activity and desire (STIs, pregnancy to name a couple). In other words, regardless of the type of education they advocate, most people involved in sexuality education debates agree on one thing: adolescent sexuality can be dangerous and adults need to use education to protect teens from themselves.
Fields ultimately arrives at a different model of sexuality education, one that embraces the ambiguity, confusion, and even desire that adolescents might feel. While she doesn’t want to eliminate discussions about the (often) unwanted outcomes of adolescent sexual behavior, she proposes that we substitute a curriculum that focuses on dangers with one that acknowledges risks; risks, she proposes, will make sexuality less ominous for teens.
This alternative model is provocative and, I believe, important. Still, many are reluctant to discuss a model of sexuality education that incorporates adolescent sexual desire. Even college students, a group that we may acknowledge to have abundant sexual desire, are wary to accept such an argument. Last year, I was asked to sit in on an upper level undergraduate sociology seminar at my alma mater, American University, over skype. My conclusions echoed Fields’: We need sexuality education that addresses more than just the dangers of sexualities. Sexuality education should embrace the fact that teenagers are sexual beings with sexual desires. At the end of my presentation, a student raised her hand and asked (something to the effect of): “Why would you ever talk about desire in the classroom? Why would students have to learn about this?” Her tone of voice suggested that she thought I was being absurd.
And so this begs the question, “Why is it important to incorporate sexual desire into the sexuality education classroom?” I suggest two reasons, but I would like to open a dialog. First, incorporating sexual desire moves adolescent sexuality out of a strictly clinical model that focuses on disease and pregnancy as unwanted outcomes (arguably, both are) to a model that might empower adolescents to make decisions about their sex lives. In other words, it may make sexuality a less embarrassing thing to talk about. Studies show that talking about the acquisition of condoms can be a source of embarrassment for teenagers (see this article by Bell and this article by Faulkner and Lannutti). And anecdotally, as an avid watcher of the MTV show 16 and Pregnant, I see the teenagers’ apprehension about getting and using birth control, sometimes because they were reluctant to go into a store and buy condoms and at other times because they didn’t want to talk to their parents about sex. Perhaps if sexuality education could normalize adolescent sexual behavior and desire, teenagers might feel more empowered to make decisions that prevent these undesired outcomes.
Second, and an important point for sociologists, this type of education acknowledges that we are always becoming sexual. Sexuality and desire are not static and unchanging, nor inherent and natural. We learn how to be sexual beings (an idea introduced early in the sociology of sexualities with Simon and Gagnon 1973). With this in mind, do we want adolescents to learn to be fearful of sex? The classroom could be a space not just to teach about pregnancy and disease prevention, but also to explore what constitutes a healthy and positive relationship in an emotional and physical sense. In a time of their lives where teenagers are bombarded with messages about sex from the media and their peers, the classroom could be safe space to sort out some the issues that they confront, to explore sexuality and desire.
Having noted this, what do you think? Should the sexuality education classroom address adolescent sexual desire?
Fields, Jessica. 2008. Risky Lessons: Sex
Education and Social Inequality. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Fine, Michelle and Sara McClelland. 2006. “Sexuality Education and Desire: Still Missing After All of These Years.” Harvard Educational Review 76(3): 297.
SIECUS. “Sexuality Education Q&A.” Accessed July 4, 2012. Available at: http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewpage&pageid=521&grandparentID=477&parentID=514.