Sex ed: the awkward class that teaches students all over America primarily the dangers of having sex.
Sex ed is known for being an uncomfortable class where students put condoms on bananas and learn about sexually transmitted infections and diseases. The conversation around sex ed really focuses on abstinence-only education that fails to serve students’ sexual health needs. But there’s another problem with sex ed in the U.S.: it isn’t serving students of marginalized identities. Sex ed in this country rarely covers queer sex ed, non-white sex ed, consent or cultural expectations around sex. Sex ed is failing students from marginalized backgrounds and we need to fix that.
The problem starts with people of color having disproportionately less access to sexual education and an overall below average education. When it comes to sex ed, sexual health experts and medical researchers focus on white, heteronormative sex. This makes sense because there are a lot of white, straight folks in America and more funding for research that can reach a lot of people. Due to the overwhelming whiteness of the sexual health field, there just isn’t the research or curriculum to teach sex ed with more diversity and inclusion.
Oftentimes, just having sex ed that isn’t abstinence-only is a huge success. Comprehensive sex-ed isn’t taught simply because the budget doesn’t exist. And what is taught, generally doesn’t include resources for LGBTQIA students and educators feel uncomfortable approaching the cultural aspects to sex-ed that are relevant to students of color. Thus, students of color and LGBTQIA students don’t get access to sex ed that will help them lead healthy, sex lives.
So where do people from marginalized backgrounds learn about sex, sexuality and sexual health? By and large mainstream media. The RAND corporation conducted a study on teenage exposure to sexual content on television and found that teens who watch a lot of television with sexual content are more likely to initiate sexual intercourse in the following year and they have a significantly greater likelihood of teen pregnancy. On the upside, television seems to portray the risks of sex and helps to inform teenage viewers about the potential consequences of sex.
But we also have a long history of fetishizing POC and WOC people in the media. There is an ugly trend that sexualizes “exotic” women of color in the media. From a young age, girls of color are valued less in society for their gender and sex. Highly sexualized portrays of women of color often leads to women of color associating their worth to their sex appeal. And that is reinforced every time the media, America’s sexual health educator,shows them as exotic and highly sexualized.
While I was lucky to receive a better-than-average sex ed that included things like STIs, STDs and consent, no one ever talked to me about cultural expectations revolving around sex for Asian women.
In the media, Asian women are often portrayed as small, silent, and soft– their lack of power manifests in being sexless and bookish or hyper-sexualized. There are cultural expectations for Asian and Asian-American women around sex– like as comedian Amy Schumer put it, that Asian women have “the smallest vaginas in the game.” Remarks like these and countless media representations only enhance the fetishization of Asian women. It was not until my Asian Affinity group in high school did I have the opportunity to explore the complicated history of the sexualization of Asian women.
Black, Native and Latinx populations have disproportionately higher rates of teen pregnancy, sexual assault, and STIs. The lack of informative, useful sexual education is failing marginalized groups. And the lack of diversity in sex ed reinforces white, heteronormative sex.
This is not a small problem. And there are only so many things that we can do immediately to better serve marginalized communities and their sexual health needs.
First, you can support organizations like The Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN) which create opportunities for inclusion in the field of sexuality, sexual science, and sexology. Or, you can turn to your local Planned Parenthood, which is trying to include things like social and cultural expectations around sex in their curriculum.
Second, you can engage in meaningful dialogue with your friends and the larger community – a lot of people don’t even know that this is a problem.
And last, educating yourself on diversity in sexual education can make you a resource for others. Just because schools aren’t teaching students doesn’t mean that young people can’t learn. Being a role model and talking to the young people you know about how to practice safe sex and all the other pieces of sex like consent, body-positivity, and cultural expectations can be a great place to start.