Sex education -- a missed opportunity
November 3, 2008 -- San Francisco State University sociologist Jessica Fields believes that classrooms hold the potential for social change, that school is a place where young people can imagine who they want to be in life. In her new book, "Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality," Fields offers an ambitious view of what sex education could accomplish in the future. She considers not only what sex education might prevent, but what it can promote.
Fields argues that the current debate between abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex education masks what is lacking in both approaches. "Whether schools teach abstinence until marriage or teach lessons about contraception and safer sex, too often both approaches reduce sex education to pregnancy and disease prevention," said Fields, associate professor of sociology and research associate at the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality. "A more holistic sexuality education would be about who you are as a person and would address your questions about sexuality."
After spending two years observing sex education classes in North Carolina middle schools, Fields was struck by the missed opportunity that sex education represents. "It is a profound opportunity when young people come together with their peers and teachers to talk about sexuality. It is a chance to practice talking about sexuality in an open way. Sex education should prepare young people for a lifetime of conversations about sex and sexuality with their friends and future partners," Fields said.
Drawing on in-depth interviews with pupils and teachers in two public schools and one private Quaker school, Fields shows how classroom lessons shape the way young people think about gender, race and class inequalities. These social inequalities also determine the way sex education is taught. In poorer neighborhoods, for example, the aim is to solve perceived social ills, whereas pupils in private schools are more likely to hear from their teachers that sexuality is a territory of personal fulfillment and expression.
While Fields calls on policymakers and researchers to put youth at the center of their analysis, she also notes that teachers can make meaningful changes in the way they teach sex education. Fields suggests everyday steps that teachers can take such as being aware of the hidden curriculum -- the informal messages their lessons communicate -- or interrupting a pupil who makes a homophobic joke in class. Fields shared insights from "Risky Lessons" with health educators and teachers in the San Francisco Unified School District in October.
Following is an excerpt from the book:
Sometimes sex education's lessons are more than awkward; sometimes they are themselves risky. Students hear that adults are often uncomfortable talking about sex, that female sexuality is about reproduction, that women's sexuality is supposed to be wonderfully mysterious but is often frustratingly confusing, that men are inevitably and excusably sexual aggressors, that women are responsible for managing that aggression, and that official sources rarely provide the insight they need to navigate their sexual lives. They hear that gay, lesbian and bisexual desires and identities are most often jokes.
-- Jessica Fields, "Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality" (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher.
-- Elaine Bible
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