Knowing as I did that this article was published in 1988, I found reading it distressing, because not much that Fine finds problematic about the state of sex education in American public schools has changed. In broad strokes: our schools still don’t provide adequate information that empowers young people to enjoy their sex lives without the consequences of pregnancy and STIs; young women are still taught to be fearful of their sexuality and portrayed as victims of male sexuality with little agency; desire and pleasure are mysteriously absent from the sex-ed curriculum; and classrooms are still not safe places for gay and lesbian young people.
I understand the ick factor in talking to teenagers about orgasms. Most sane people think 14-year-olds are not ready for sex. Most sane people also think teenagers make terrible drivers. But we mitigate the risks of putting kids behind the wheel by enrolling them in driver’s ed courses and teaching them what they need to know to stay safe–not by forbidding them to even try driving (while the keys dangle temptingly in the ignition). Our policymakers and politicians seem to have allowed the ick factor to take over our sex ed curricula, over the last 15 years.
I got these stats from the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that promotes “sexual and reproductive health worldwide through research, policy analysis and public education”:
• In 2006–2008, most teens aged 15–19 had received formal instruction about STIs (93%), HIV (89%) or abstinence (84%). However, about one-third of teens had not received any formal instruction about contraception; fewer males received this instruction than females (62% vs. 70%).
• Many sexually experienced teens (46% of males and 33% of females) do not receive formal instruction about contraception before they first have sex.
• About one in four adolescents aged 15-19 (23% of females and 28% of males) received abstinence education without receiving any instruction about birth control in 2006–2008, compared with 8–9% in 1995.
• Among teens aged 18–19, 41% report that they know little or nothing about condoms and 75% say they know little or nothing about the contraceptive pill.
• In 2006, 87% of U.S. public and private high schools taught abstinence as the most effective method to avoid pregnancy, HIV and other STDs in a required health education course.
• Sixty-five percent of high schools taught about condom efficacy and 39% taught students how to correctly use a condom in a required health education course.
• Seventy-six percent of high schools taught about the risks associated with teen pregnancy as part of required instruction, and 81% taught about the risks associated with having multiple sexual partners.
In her 25-year old article, Michelle Fine cited studies that prove that abstinence-centered sex ed only makes teenagers less likely to use protection when they inevitably have sex. Apparently that wasn’t enough science, because 12 years later, the Bush administration directed that federal funding for sex ed should go to abstinence education. Now, the CDC is releasing new data that prove the same point, after we allowed a whole generation of kids to be lied to about their own bodies. How frustrating for people who actually care about the sexual health of teenagers!
While Fine occasionally comes across as an aloof anthropologist studying an exotic breed of teenager, and her selection of quotes from students are laughably dated in their attempts at being hip and/or revelatory, I really appreciate her point that sex ed for girls needs to go beyond mechanics and dire warnings about diseases and babies, to teach them that they are actors in their own sexual lives, not passive vessels for male desire. I also admire that she is willing to brave the ick factor by making the obvious point that sex is pleasurable, and that we should incorporate desire and pleasure into discussions of sexuality. As a teenager in the 90’s, I was privileged to undergo years of very comprehensive and often mortifying sex ed, and although I could list every symptom of gonorrhea and the pros and cons of every birth control device for sale at CVS, no one ever discussed why girls might want to have sex, except to warn us that boys would try to pressure us.
I’m just fine these days but girls with less access to information than I had, who are taught that sex is dangerous, that there’s no safe or socially acceptable way for them to take ownership of their bodies and their desires, will feel shame. And shame leads to disempowerment and bad decisions and yet another generation of women–and men–who think that standing up after sex won’t make you pregnant, or that no doesn’t really mean no. The Obama administration has redirected federal sex ed funding away from abstinence education; perhaps there is hope.
Because this article is tangential to my final project topic of teaching literature and sexuality at the community college level, I wanted to address it for the blog. I apologize for getting ranty! I’d love your opinions about Fine’s assertion below:
“…it is important to understand that by providing education, counseling, contraception, and abortion referrals, as well as meaningful educational and vocational opportunities, schools could play an essential role in the construction of the female subject–social and sexual. …Public schools constitute a sphere in which young women could be offered access to a language and experience of empowerment.”
Are public schools an appropriate venue for the kind of sex-ed Fine is referring to? Is this all stuff that kids can google and be done with it?
In an urban setting, do you think is it more difficult to communicate information about sexuality across cultures and religions that may discourage sexual expression?
Do you think that “access to a language and experience of empowerment” can be provided not only through sex ed but through teaching literature? Or should discussions of sexuality be reserved for health teachers?
If you think that reading literature on sexuality could help empower your students, which works would you teach?
Do you feel comfortable addressing issues of sexuality in your classrooms? For example, what do you do about the prostitute scene in The Catcher in the Rye? (And what about the middle school teachers?)
Thank you so much for reading! I look forward to our discussion.