Research Findings: Learning About Sex In The Classroom is Heteronormative, Awkward, Kind of Weird

Throughout the research period, I will post research findings in an academic format to show off my fancy knowledge. This Research Findings report details the totally incredible differences between learning about sex online and in a classroom.

It is possible that the reliance on Internet and new media for queer sex education begins with the void left by most sex education programs when dealing with same-sex relationships, attraction, and sex. And by possible, I mean “one hundred percent likely.”

Most people can easily see the heteronormativity in standardized sex education, even if programs are “comprehensive” as opposed to based in moral standards or an abstinence-only approach. Hoyden About Town, a blog involved in queer and feminist issues, wrote in 2009 about “Que(e)rying Sex Ed.” The writer used their experiences as a teacher to guide the reader through an example of traditional sex education:

“Q: What did you learn about when they said you were learning about sex?

A: About sex!

Q: What kind of sex?

A: (pause) Well, heterosexual, i guess.

Q: What kind of heterosexual?

A: (starting to get it, and remember this is a queer theory course…) Well, penis-in-vagina missionary position. (Sometimes, depending on how far through the course we are, followed up with:) Reproductive! In a marriage! Between two goodlooking, able-bodied white people! A man who is masculine and dominant, and a woman who is feminine and subordinate.

Q: Anything else? Any other kinds of sex?

A: No! But one student asked once about oral sex. The teacher blushed/refused to answer/gave a definition but didn’t really describe it” (Wildly Parenthetical).

The author uses the hypothetical conversation to illustrate that sex education is the number one resource “for clarifying how wide, deep, and broad heteronormativity” is in schools and our culture (Wildly Parenthetical). The example went on to illustrate hegemonic masculinity, lesbian and queer invisibility, and sex-negativity and shaming as part of sex education curriculums (Wildly Parenthetical). The author’s goal is to push educators to include more information about pleasure, consent and negotiation, women’s empowerment, and queer rights (Wildly Parenthetical).

Similarly, the blog Philosotroll featured a post called “Heteronormativity and Sex Education” that spotlighted the absence of homosexual sex and gender identity from sex education curriculums as two of their largest faults, and called on advocates of “comprehensive” sex education to look deeper into what that term should mean.

Aubry D. Threlkeld of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education defines heteronormativity as the assumption of heterosexuality and the “squelching of non-heterosexual discourse.” In the paper “Virtual Disruptions: Traditional and New Media’s Challenges to Heteronormativity in Education,” the author goes on to assert that schools push heteronormativity by refusing to educate students about their own sexualities or the sexualities of their peers, and also points out that it leaves students with no resources outside of the media to learn about the topics purposefully excluded from sex education – which is not a positive outcome:

“Protecting children from discussing sex will hurt them … and protecting students from discussions of sexuality will as well” (Threlkeld).

Scarleteen, a sex education website that I will explore in-depth later on, points to the lack of real comprehensive sex education anywhere on the planet in their mission statement and about section:

“An increasing number of states and schools have now rejected abstinence-only programs — programs that are misleading, inaccurate and ineffective — and some federal funding streams are now reopening for comprehensive sex ed, but as of 2009, around half of all 50 states in the US still provided abstinence-only sex education. […] Trans gender and other gendervariant youth,lesbian, gay, bisexual queer and/or questioning youth — around 5 – 10% of all young people — are rarely included or addressed in sexuality education, even in comprehensive in-school programs. Even with the best in-school programs young people can and do attend and access, the school environment itself creates limitations in sexuality education for students, teachers and administrators.

“[…] Unfortunately, many teens go without discussion of sexuality at home at all, and many who do have talks are often not given accurate information as many parents have not had good or recent sexuality education themselves.

“Young adults clearly cannot rely on school alone for comprehensive, accurate sex education, nor can they rely on families alone.”

The dangers of heteronormativity in sex education are both obvious and subtle: the institutionalization of heteronormativity furthers discrimination against queer people and creates silence and shame around their identity, but it also denies them of something heterosexual people get, even in weird, awkward, gym-teacher-taught doses: information about what to expect in their sex life, how to stay safe, and how to be responsible. Myths about gay sex are pervasive in curriculums where they are included, and often make queer students feel isolated and even ashamed of themselves (Fisher 71). For some people, being rendered invisible by a curriculum leads to self-doubt, questioning, and emotional turmoil (Fisher 71).

Heteronormativity in sex education can also leave queer people with questions about the “appropriate” ways they can act sexually in their own lives. Abstinence-only or abstinence-until-marriage programs, for example, often leave queer kids in states where they cannot marry wondering exactly when they will ever have sex (Fisher 61). Abstinence programs also consistently degenerate and exclude people of queer identities based on moral philosophies, and sometimes encourage the peers of queer students to disrespect their identities (Fisher 62).

What is most problematic about heteronormativity in the classroom is that it predispositions youth not to explore their sexualities and figure out where they lie on the spectrum of same-sex attraction. According to the McCabe, Brewster, and Tillman, “many youth reassess their sexual identity during adolescence and young adulthood.” (147) More specifically, women are likely to develop same-sex attraction or act on previously realized same-sex attraction as they move into young adulthood, and thereby a silence in the classroom about queer people who happen to like doing it with other women makes their journey to self-discovery more complicated (148).

Sex education programs have one very large flaw: they purposefully disregard the fact that young people are out having sex. (And sometimes out and having sex.) When “comprehensive” sex education is ignoring an entire group of people within the curriculum, it is clear that something needs to give and teachers need to step up to the plate to give it. But in the meantime, students have the Internet.

Images without credits are always found innocently via Tumblr. Please let me know if any are yours!

Works Cited

About Scarleteen.”

Fisher, Christopher Michael. “Queer Youth Experiences With Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Sexuality Education: ‘I Can’t Get Married So Where Does That Leave Me?'” Journal of LGBT Youth. 6:61-79. 2009.

McCabe, Janice, Karin L. Brewster, and Kathryn Harker Tillman. “Patterns and Correlates of Same-Sex Sexual Activity Among U.S. Teenagers and Young Adults.” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. 43-3. September 2011.

Philosotroll. “Heteronormativity and Sex Education.” 26 March, 2012.

Wildly Parenthetical. “Que(e)rying Sex Ed.” Hoyden About Town. 3 October, 2009.

2 thoughts on “Research Findings: Learning About Sex In The Classroom is Heteronormative, Awkward, Kind of Weird

  1. Pingback: This Is The End of This Project But Definitely Not of Lesbian Sex « carmen rios learning something

  2. Pingback: Rape: Heteronormativity and Ethnocentrism | Second Council House of Virgo

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