by: Cassandra Avenatti
Do you remember your experience of sexuality education in school? How did the instruction provided to you shape your ideas about sex and relationships? Perhaps it terrified you (the sex=pregnancy or death approach) or left you feeling confused, flawed or invisible.
School-based sexuality education is a fundamental force in the construction of adolescent sexuality. Sexuality instruction presents ideas about what is considered ‘normal’ in youth sex and relationships, and is designed not only to reduce teen sexual behavior, disease and pregnancy, but also to instruct young people to adopt specific normative relationships to their sexuality.
I believe that sexuality education has the potential to challenge ideas about normative sexuality and gender, and to facilitate critical discussions about inequality, power and privilege. Unfortunately, current sexuality education in the U.S. is not fulfilling this potential. Eighty-six percent of public schools in the U.S. employ Abstinence-Only Until Marriage (AOUM) or abstinence-based models of sexual health education. These models promote the idea of sex as heterosexual, coital and procreative, and places sexual choices made by many youth outside of the limits of ‘appropriate’ behavior.
This is particularly true for LGBTQ youth. Abstinence-based education places LGBTQ youth in the margins by promoting marriage, ignoring the existence of queer sexualities, and failing to address the health needs of LGBTQ young people. This model does not allow for the possibility of differently configured relationships, such as polyamorous or open partnerships, and does not provide information regarding safer-sex practices for queer youth. Abstinence-only education denies queer youth legitimacy and seems to suggest that they do not deserve sexuality instruction.
In addition to marginalizing queer sexuality, most sexuality education fails to address the intersections of race, class and gender with sexuality. Even though sexuality is often racialized and considered differently in relation to gender and class, sexuality education does not include instruction on the ways in which social, economic, and political power shape sexual identities and behaviors. Additionally, most sexuality positions adolescent women as objects of desire that must ward off sexual advances, but does not explicitly address the subordinated status of girls and women.
I believe that principles of social justice education should be applied to sexuality education in schools. This kind of critical education could have positive outcomes for youth related to attitudes and behaviors toward sexual and gender minority students. Additionally, social justice-focused sexuality education has the potential to deepen youth understanding of the relationship between race, class, gender, ability and sexuality, and to increase feelings of sexual agency. Educators need to address the diversity of experiences of youth, be affirming of youth identities, and acknowledge the inequities that exist in society.
There are many challenges to the implementation of anti-oppressive, inclusive sexuality education. A great deal of funding and political effort has been invested in abstinence-based programs in the United States, despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence to support its efficacy. Additionally, social justice-focused education presents a threat to current power structures, and demands that people examine their own privilege.
Despite the obstacles, groups are challenging Bush-era sexual health programs in a number of states. The Illinois Senate recently passed the PREP Act, and if it is passed by the House, schools offering sexual health education will be required to provide information that is medically accurate, age appropriate and evidence-based.
The introduction of comprehensive sexuality education in more schools is an important step forward, but curricula still needs to go further, and should be radically inclusive and focused on social justice.
Cassandra Avenatti is a radical social worker, grassroots activist, performance artist and sex worker. Her primary areas of professional interest are LGBTQ rights, reproductive justice, anti-oppressive sexuality education, sex worker rights and fair housing. Cassandra earned her Master of Social Work from Jane Addams College with a specialization in LGBTQ Public Health & Urban Development, and she has since worked in HIV-prevention education and housing for queer youth. She possesses an affinity for adventure and cultural discovery, and has lived in five countries in the past seven years. Cassandra is an Executive Board member for the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and is a profoundly kinky Pro Domme. Cassandra also hosts a queer feminist book club in her home, and is a member of Chicago’s radically queer quoir, Stratosqueer. Cassandra has recently founded a non-profit organization, Project Fierce Chicago, and is working on obtaining a space on the South side of the city in which to establish an affirming collective-living community for chronically homeless LGBTQ youth.