Saturday, June 28, 2008

Rowe Jr. High Camp: Week One

In March of this year I attended a three-day training at Boston's Planned Parenthood to become a certified sex educator. I had two reasons for doing this: one, I do a sex education workshop for all campers every year at camp, and two, I needed the research (the main character of my novel works in a youth clinic and does sex education outreach).

Yesterday the workshop ran for nearly three hours. This is simply too long to ask 12-15 year old Americans to attend to anything, although they did rather well considering the heat. We structured the talk using the Good Vibrations Teen Sexual Bill of Rights, which is as follows:

1. You have the right to appreciate your own and each others' bodies.

2. You have the right to know how things work.

3. You have the right to pleasure.

4. You have the right to know that sex is more than intercourse.

5. You have the right to realistic expectations.

6. You have the right to make responsible choices.

7. You have the right to sexual equality.

8. You have the right to sexual diversity.

9. You have the right to consent.

10. You have the right to resources.

Some of these seem obvious, but I love that we emphasize the importance of communication and consent. We talk about getting a "yes," as opposed to the absence of a "no," and while there's not much I can do to protect them from the inevitable fumblings, I feel passionately that talking to them about the possibility that they might do something they don't want to, at some point, is one of the more important pieces of sexual education. No one ever talked to me about that.

No one ever described a process for discovering "readiness" when I was younger. I think adults forget what it is like to not know their own desires and preferences. Adults lie to themselves--they might spend years telling a story to themselves about their preferences that turns out to be based on faulty or irrational perceptions. But young people often don't come up with answers. If they ask themselves "am I ready for this?" they often feel like they just don't know, and many of the questions that ended up in our Q&A box reflect this. "What is a good age to have sex?" "How do I know when I'm ready?"

How do you answer that question? I remember a teacher once who said, "You'll just know." How unhelpful. At 14, I just knew that I was more sexual than my immediate culture of family, christianity, and friends, seemed to be able to accommodate. I had no idea what that meant concretely, since the excitement of trying new behaviors mixed up a bit with the fear of those behaviors in the moment.

In the Sex Talk I do at Rowe, I do my best to set communication standards for the kids that are realistic and helpful. I talk with them about relationships that have unhealthy elements of control. I teach them about the differences between biological sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation, in hopes that they will quit calling boys in skinny pants "fag." We go over the basics of STI symptoms that should send them to a doctor, how to put on a condom, the importance of lubrication to a pleasurable experience for everyone, and we normalize masturbation. These are all fundamentals. They are desperately important. Also, I grieve the fact that I am operating from within a culture that is so repressive and conflicted about sex that it is a tiny revolution for the kids to see me comfortably using the word "vagina" in front of them.

The study of human sexuality is much like the study of psychology: everyone thinks that because they have a brain, they know something about psych, and everyone thinks that because they've got genitals, they know something about sex. In fact there's vast and minutely faceted aesthetic, political, sociological, and philosophical history to the way we conceptualize sex and sexuality. What little of it I know inspires much of my academic work and threads its way through my creative work constantly.

I truly believe that the history of a culture's sexual education, be it formal, ritualistic, or through some other method, and the history of a culture's aesthetic eroticism are intertwined in incredibly complex and fascinating ways. I don't think it's as simple as some researchers I've read hypothosize: that a repressive cultre has kinky porn, and an open culture has less explicit erotica. It's much more nuanced and idiosyncratic (per community) and messy than that, AND, even those categories are informed by certain cultural assumptions about what is more "normal" behavior vs. what is paraphilic. The media culture my campers share offers them such complicated notions of sexuality it's shocking to me that any of them are able to discuss their expectations with any clarity. I get impatient with the schools, parents, and teachers around them who haven't gotten over their own embarassment, because it's hurting the young ones who are ready to KNOW. One in four teenage girls has an STI--and there are parents, still, who won't vaccinate their daughters against HPV because they're afraid it will "encourage" the girls to have unprotected sex. What "encourages" girls to have unprotected sex is the deeply painful insecurity they have that they will not ever be loved unless they do what their equally insecure boy lovers initiate. Which is very much something parents could combat from early childhood if they were conscious enough.

So I'll keep putting condoms on cucumbers in a way that amuses and educates the kids I work with, but I'm angry, really angry, about how unsupported they will be in their efforts to become whole, sexual people once they've left Rowe. I want them to graduate from Sex 101 to more advanced and interesting levels, because I think their curiosity should be considered a creative force.


  1. unfortunately you're up against a power force here. up against a long tradition of suppression and embarrassment. but i know that what you teach these kids, and the way you will teach these kids, will have a great impact on their budding sexual lives and self awareness. they are more than lucky to have you there.

    i love you so so much. can't wait to hear about week two!

    tell kels i say hello!

  2. huh- well, good luck. i mean that both sarcastically, because what you are up against is so huge... but i also mean it in all seriousness. way to educate! ;)

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  4. For this reason, my principle is: say the truth at all times, no matter who it offends or how much it offends them. 30 years from now the dust will settle and you'll either be a revolutionary source of consciousness or just a boor who most people ignored. Both would be better than turning out to have affected nobody.
    Incidentally, this is why "The Dark Knight" fails. Its theme is: bad guys tell the truth, good guys lie.