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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Prepare Students Through Knowledge—Not Criminalization—of Sex Education

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By now, much has already been written about Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth’s letter threatening legal action against teachers that abide by the new Healthy Youth Act, which requires schools who offer sexuality education to provide medically accurate information about contraception and condom use. Express Milwaukee’s Lisa Kaiser wrote about it. Hell, our humble state even made it into Dan Savage’s blog, under the heading “The Stupid Never Stops.”  I first heard about the letter last week on a listserv for sexuality educators, where people were wondering whether this would impact teachers outside of public school settings (much of the sexuality education I do with adolescents is in churches or community organizations).

Like Lisa, part of me wanted to let this go by without comment, but I felt odd writing about anything else this week, since I am potentially in the pool of people who could be prosecuted by Southworth, should I ever dare to set foot in Juneau County with my contraceptive education kit in hand. This is not the first time that I’ve been in this kind of situation; when I worked in Massachusetts a decade ago, there was a movement to require teachers who became aware of consensual sexual activity between minors to report those minors to the Department of Social Services (DSS), under the argument that this constituted child sexual abuse and therefore fell under mandated reporting laws. While I suspect that most DSS workers were far too busy with actual cases of child abuse to follow up on such reports, this push had the effect of shutting down open communication between teachers and students about the legitimate questions that students might have about relationships, safer sex and contraception.

The thing that irks me the most about both our current situation and the one in Massachusetts is the fact that they equate providing information about sexual health with sexual violence. In addition to my work as a sexuality educator, I am also a sexual assault survivor and a former rape crisis counselor, and I’ve worked for the past 10 years at three different colleges to improve campus sexual violence services. I think I know the difference between healthy, consensual sexual activity and sexual assault. Therefore, when Southworth says that “provid[ing] instruction on how to utilize contraception” “promotes the sexual assault of children,” it makes me want to run screaming. This both belittles the actual, nonconsensual acts of violence that are inflicted upon young people every day and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what comprehensive sexuality education is designed to do.

I like to think that the goal of our educational system is to prepare students to become happy, successful adults. In order to do this, we gradually build their knowledge and skills, giving them concepts and abilities that they might not use right away, but which will benefit them in the future. Sexuality education should be no different. The sex ed curriculum with which I work most closely has lessons that start in kindergarten and go all the way up to adulthood, giving people age-appropriate information about healthy sexuality throughout their lives. The most content-heavy part of that curriculum, which includes information about how to use contraception, is geared toward middle-school students—not because I think 12-year-olds should be sexually active, but because I want them to have that information long, long before they should ever need it. Prevention and preparing our students for the future—what a radical concept.


Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to
laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.

 

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