I work with high schoolers everyday. Other adults, snort and chuckle, pat me on the back and say:
“Ooh, that’s rough.” “How’s that going?” “Good luck.”
When I once failed to properly lock the staff restroom, a teacher who followed me in demanded I learn to lock the door properly. “Believe me,” she said, “you don’t want one of them getting in.”
Them. As if high school students are dangerous animals and that just because we see them everyday doesn’t make them human beings. We herd them from class to class on a bell schedule to manage them. We place security officers in the hallways and the cafeteria to control them. We expect criminal behavior.
And because our school system does not trust young people to walk from class to class without, of course we do not trust them with their own sexuality. Yes, teenagers make mistakes. And yes, those mistakes are especially harmful when they involve sex and sexuality, because what is a healthy sexual decision and what is rape might not be clear.
So, let’s talk about it!
I grew up in liberal blue-Democratic Connecticut, and our sex-ed program only focused on STDs. While I don’t remember it being an abstinence-only education, in health class there was still no discussion of healthy sexuality. Furthermore, sexuality was heterosexuality (and allosexuality–not being ace) only. There was no way to be a teenager and also make smart choices.
Teenage Sex = WRONG.
This is especially challenging for queer students (promiscuous stereotypes, anyone?) and students like myself who are ace and might not even have the language to say so.
But what happens if we change that narrative?
Chicago schools have begun to institute sex ed as early as kindergarten in order to promote a healthy shame-free understanding of sexuality from an early age. As thinkprogress.org said in 2013, not teaching accurate sex educationfrom
has led to disastrous consequences: damaging women and LGBT Americans’ sense of sexual self-worth, fueling the STD epidemic, and creating a moral environment where rape culture has flourished.
I am privileged to work one-on-one with students where I have fewer restrictions than teachers. I can question the sex ed curriculum and American sexual mores. One of the most liberating ways to do this is to not shy away from sex language. If it’s not a big deal for me to say “queer” “sex” “vagina” “penis” “trans” “cis” these words become a little more normalized. Young people then have space to consider what healthy sexuality means to them and how they can develop healthy and smart relationships. My expectation is not perfection, but it certainly isn’t failure.
I refuse to be embarrassed by high schoolers singing and dancing to songs about sex during a school dance. As long as there is no coerced sexuality or romantic conduct, I would not step in. If high school students are shouting and singing about sex acts, this might be the only place where talking about sex is a free act. And if we, as adults, are embarrassed or demonize this freedom, then shame on us.
We have clearly not created inclusive spaces in schools and youth programs where people of all sexualities and genders can discover what healthy sexuality means for them. It’s time to create those spaces.