by Patricia Seidel
As headline breaking news last month, Obama claims that he plans to abolish the Abstinence-based education system that runs rampant across the US. As conservatives fight to keep the fear-based program alive, it opens the door for a proper discussion on what our sexual education should be.
While my high-school didn’t follow the “Abstinence Only” curriculum and I was raised in a household that held a healthy dialogue about sex, I certainly remember hearing opinions from several religious teachers that advocated for this program, including saying: “Smart women wait to have sex until their married.” “Good girls don’t have sex.” “Abstinence is the only way to stay pure.” And worst of all, “Don’t distract (or encourage) the boys with those thoughts.” Many young women have memories of the doing the “tape exercise” – a trick to shame young women into thinking they are dirty if they give their “piece of tape” to many partners.
The largest problem with abstinence based sexual education is that it highly promotes shame–particularly for young women–surrounding sex and other natural, normal desires. Teaching adolescents not to trust their natural hormonal progression, let alone dissuading them from knowing their own bodies FIRST, can easily make for abusive relationships with their self-esteem, with other sexual partners and in the end, promotes self-hate and guilt. Additionally, the prejudices that follow this practice prevent the necessary information from being taught: anatomy, disease prevention, consent and contraception often fall to the back burner. Even more so, when the blame falls to young women for “exciting” young men, it highly promotes rape culture and perpetuates (the already present) shame women feel for having any sexual desire.
Through speaking with numerous young women and men about their educational experiences in adolescence, many have expressed their discontent with the system; much of this turning into disappointment at the lack of education they were given. Growing up, many of us learned the anatomy of the human body and how STI’s are transmitted but the lessons surrounding consent, pleasure, masturbation, sexual identity, fertility, menstruation and even the actual act of sex were never covered. Shockingly, many young people don’t know the difference between rape and sex. (Let me be clear on one thing – there is no idea of ‘consensual sex.’ There is rape, and sex. Nothing in between.) Many received no education at all.
After living in France for nearly a year and learning about their sexual education system, it is nothing short of the truth to say that it is to be admired. Through piqued curiosity I discovered that talking about sex is not something you gossip about in-between close friends, but on the contrary, something that is freely discussed among people with intense sincerity.
In Europe, sexual education is based on the idea of sexual enlightenment. The French, who are leading the way in this field, encourage curiosity and self-discovery. Here, sexuality isn’t seen as an undesired, negative side effect of adolescence, menstruation isn’t veiled in disgust and mystery and body positivity is inspired in not just young women, but young men.
While the students learn not only how to counter against STI’s and properly use contraceptives, they also focus on subjects like sexual identity & diversity, rape prevention, masturbation, personal sexuality, and the ultimate American taboo: pleasure.
The ultimate way to empower women is to give them autonomy over their own body, choices, rights, relationships and education. Sadly, there are many parts of the world where this is not always possible, where girls are forced to marry at 11 years old, girls who can’t go to school because of their periods and girls who suffer from genital mutilation to eliminate their desire. It is ignorant to think we are not currently fighting the same battle in our modern first-world country: we shame women for having sex. We shame them for menstruating. We shame them for saying “No” and meaning it.
All of this can be changed in the classroom.
By giving our girls an honest sexual education, we arm them with the tools they need for life. By telling them not only how to counter against AIDS, but also teaching them about consent, sexual identity, their own anatomy and yes, pleasure, it allows them to govern their own bodies, their own identity, their own minds. Once they understand the reality — not what the media, religious conservatives or their parents are telling them — and are supported by a secure education around them, other people cannot shame them into thinking otherwise. Promoting self-love will save them in a world that will challenge them for life.
Open the door for an honest discussion. Ask the hard questions. Be curious. Tell your girls that when she says “NO,” it means something. Let’s educate them, show them the light and the dark, and watch how they shine.
Originally from the United States, Patricia Seidel is a recent university graduate who came to France to work as an Au Pair, but soon discovered her passion for Women’s Rights. With two undergraduate degrees and soon starting her masters in International Relations at the Sorbonne, she is excited to work with W4.org to further her education in the humanitarian world. Patricia has spoken at several research conferences on the subject of women’s rights mainly pertaining to maternity, women in literature and the history of women’s rights. As well as working with W4, Patricia is also teaching courses in Business English, English/American literature, résumé writing, and also offering free language exchanges to refugees. Patricia hopes to pursue her insatiable wanderlust by traveling through northern Africa and the Middle East after finishing her master’s degree while continuing to work in the world of women’s rights.