Young People and Comprehensive Sex Education: Moving Beyond Scare Tactics and Fear Mongering in 2012

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Commentary Sexual Health

Young People and Comprehensive Sex Education: Moving Beyond Scare Tactics and Fear Mongering in 2012

Andrew Jenkins

Growing up in the United States is like playing a foucauldian game of discipline and punish. Disciplined by a morally bankrupt narrative about sex and sexuality and then punished for daring to question it.

Knowledge is power.

I mean that in the most cliché way possible. Without knowledge, agency and self-determination become meaningless fragments of our imagination. Something that we desperately wish for but can’t quite grab onto.

This is especially true when it comes to young people.

Growing up in the United States is like playing a foucauldian game of discipline and punish. Disciplined by a morally bankrupt narrative about sex and sexuality and then punished for daring to question it.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised. When young people are subjugated and disenfranchised, systems of power thrive. When we’re alienated from our bodies and fearful of our sexuality, we lack the resources and agency necessary to become responsible agents of social and political change. Suffice it to say; those in power have a vested interest in dislocating the nation’s youth from real sex education.

For young people, sexuality is undoubtedly the most politicized site of social control. Parents fear it. Politicians debate over it. Scientists study it. Intellectuals theorize over it. Everyone is talking about it; yet, no one is talking to young people.

It doesn’t take a semester of reading Michel Foucault to understand that sexuality is an important site of power. Young people know very intimately the role that sex and sexuality play in our daily lives and we know the detrimental consequences that a sex-phobic culture has on our futures. We’re experiencing it first-hand.

Attacks on birth control. Abstinence-only programs. Sexist gender roles. Compulsive heterosexuality and homophobia. Misinformation about abortion. Age restrictions on emergency contraception. Sexual assault. Negative representations of teen motherhood. Public health initiatives that securitize youth sexuality.

We have experienced the damaging effects of a culture that stigmatizes sexuality and shames young people for exploring our own bodies.

And we’re sick of it.

The pseudo-scientific narrative about youth sexuality is plagued with fear mongering and sensationalism. Between the bogus sexting panic, and the fear-based rhetoric used to justify the recent HHS ruling on emergency contraception, it is very clear that the moral panic over teen sexuality is very much alive and kicking. Even organizations and politicians sensible enough to support comprehensive sex education are still situating the issue within a broader security paradigm. They want us to educate young people about the ramifications of sex because they don’t want us engaging in sexual relationships to begin with.

They’ve been duped by the myth of the teen pregnancy epidemic.

Don’t get me wrong. Unintended pregnancy rates in the United States are high. Sexually transmitted infections are rampant. But this isn’t only affecting young people and it certainly isn’t because we’re irresponsible and incapable of making good choices. It’s because no one believes in our ability to be good decision-makers. Whether they’re shoving abstinence-only programs down our throat, or they’re giving us access to sex education rooted in fear tactics, the message is still the same: that sex among young people is a serious threat to the morality and security of the nation.

That’s the interesting thing about sex education. It’s about much more than just the birds and the bees. It’s about power. Power derived from knowledge.

The power to shape our own destiny.

Many of the people advocating for comprehensive sex education at the local, state and federal level treat youth sexuality as a crisis to be averted. They’re so caught up with trying to rally support for the cause with alarming statistics and fear-based rhetoric that they lose site of the real problem. Young people don’t just need to know about the potential ramifications of sex. We need to know what the benefits of a healthy, consensual, and autonomous sex life look like. We need the decision-making power necessary to navigate this difficult terrain and we need to know that after given the facts about sex and sexuality, we’re going to be trusted to make our own choices.

The radical shift from an abstinence-only framework to a comprehensive one loses its transformative potential if our previous generation is still setting the rules. This is why we desperately need a youth-centered and youth-led struggle for comprehensive sex education. Young people have to lead the way in shaping sex education policy. Otherwise, we’re destined to replicate the same morally bankrupt narrative that youth sexuality is an epidemic of global proportions.

We have to change the very way we think about sex and sexuality. Instead of treating it as a social parasite, we should embrace it. We need to teach young folks that when treated with maturity, reciprocity and awareness, sex can be an exciting, fulfilling, and even empowering aspect of our lives. Learning to love our bodies is one of the most radical things we can do in a culture sustained by oppressive power structures. However, as long as we’re taught to feel shameful about our bodies, and denied the right to sex-positive comprehensive sex education, we’re doomed to replicate the very systems of domination that thrive on our ignorance and complacency.

Not a single person, political figure, or institution knows what young people need more than young people themselves. We understand the unique differences in the way our generation feels about sex and sexuality and as a result, we need to be the ones shaping a new discourse. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Young people are telling their stories and demanding that Congress replace failed abstinence-only programs with comprehensive sex education. We’re asking our Senators and Representatives to support the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, an effort that prioritizes young people. Not to mention the first piece of legislation to ever identify comprehensive sex education as a fundamental right.

Thanks to the courage and creativity of young people, we’ve seen the federal government fund comprehensive sex education for the first time in history. We’ve secured no-cost birth control for millions of women through the Affordable Care Act and we played a crucial role in protecting abortion and family planning from the onslaught of radical anti-choice zealots in Congress. We’ve developed innovative ways to educate our peers through services like Clearly, we have a great deal of legislative and cultural advances to be proud of.

But the momentum can’t stop here.

If we play our cards right, we can make the 2012 election a referendum on sexual health and rights. The power of the youth vote is boundless, and young people are much more likely to register and vote if we know that the issues that matter to our well-being hang in the balance. We have to do the hard work and draw the connections between sex education and other issues relevant to young people, like higher education, health care, and climate change. If we prioritize comprehensive sex education in the 2012 election, we can register and mobilize a record number of young people to put the pressure on and demand accountability from our local, state, and federal representatives. We can make the message clear that if our elected officials aren’t willing to stand up for us – and defend our basic right to honest and accurate information about sex and sexuality – we’re not going to show up for them.

It’s as simple as that.

We need politicians who are more than just apathetic on the issue of sex education. We need pro-active advocates that are unwavering in their commitment to our health and well-being. Proponents that are willing to stand up for young people when push comes to shove and our livelihood is on the chopping block.

It may be difficult to articulate a new vision for change without couching it in the same flawed security logic and fear rhetoric that undermines young people in the first place. But we have no other choice.

We have to draw a line in the sand and make it clear that if our elected officials aren’t willing to stand up for our health, they’ll have to answer to the most powerful electoral force in the country: young people.