Sexual health education: inclusivity, accessibility and representation within the classroom

Sexual health education is crucial to the empowerment and wellbeing of young people. Particularly due to the rampant misinformation and easy-access porn culture of the Internet, sexual health education plays a vital role in educating youth about their bodies, specifically, and human reproduction, in general. The way that sexual health education is currently taught in most North American schools “does not adequately reflect the ever changing nature…of sexual and gender identities and expressions” (Elia and Eliason 30). Because of its traditional focus on the abstinence-until-marriage model, sexual health education has become stagnant in its curriculum and largely unrepresentative of students’ needs. Through an examination of both the US and Canadian school context, I will argue that sexual health education needs to be urgently re-imagined to extend its relevancy and inclusivity towards students of all backgrounds and lived experiences. In order for this to occur, sexual health education in Canada must begin to incorporate an intersectional and anti-racist perspective as its primary teaching motivation. Despite the importance in teaching young people to make informed and healthy decisions about their bodies and sexual activity as they mature into adults, sexual health education continues to exclude and stigmatize racialized and LGBTQI+ students. In fact, according to Kris L. Gowen and Nichole Winges-Yanez, many youth that self-identify as LGBTQI+ have stated that the sexual education they receive in school is completely exclusive of their concerns and lived experiences (799). Therefore, the type of comprehensive sexual health education I am proposing is a solution to the “[l]ack of sexual self-efficacy [that] has been linked to the adoption of high-risk behaviours” (Illes 620) among young people. Most of the academic literature available describes the sexual health curriculum as it pertains the US educational system. Within the Canadian context, I have narrowed my supporting literature to those that are representative of Ontario, due to the academic knowledge gap around this subject for the other provinces. Following a brief analysis of my supporting texts, I will offer specific opportunities for sexual health education to be revolutionized within the classroom, through recognition of the ways in which identity politics can and should inform instructional approaches to inclusive learning.

Sexual health education needs to be restructured so that more students pay attention and feel included in classroom discussions and representation×314.jpg

Renée Monchalin et al. conducted survey research with Indigenous youth during powwows and found that “more work needs to be done to reduce stigma around STIs and increase comfort levels” (172) during sexual health conversations. In her article, Heather Shipley discusses that the government’s reluctance to adopt any proposed changes to the Ontario sexual health curriculum is evidence of systemic “denials of difference” (197). According to Judit Illes, “[i]n North America, and particularly in the USA, the problem-oriented model has been at the foundation of most sex education programmes” (618). The sexual health curriculum is inadequate for the majority of students because of the abstinence-only reiteration. In Gowen and Winges-Yanez’s research, LGBTQI+ youth were interviewed and asked to reflect on what they deemed important and unimportant in what they were taught about sexual health in their schools. The authors discovered that these young students “are tuning out to the information being offered in the classroom, not perceiving the material as relevant, and in some cases experiencing overt silencing of requests to access information that directly pertains to them” (Gowen and Winges-Yanez 799). John P. Elia and Mickey Eliason point out that “[s]chool-based sexuality education in the United States…reflect[s] heteronormative attitudes” (30) and propose that an expanded and more diverse sexual health curriculum is the way to challenge systemic heterosexist privilege. Unfortunately, heterosexuality is not the only thing institutionalized within American and Canadian schools that affects marginalized students. Gloria Ladson-Billings argues that applying critical race theory to the education system will lead to the “unmasking and exposing [of] racism in its various permutations” (11). Shifting power-dynamics within the space of the classroom is a practical application of critical race theory and its applicability to learning, as Tara J. Yosso posits in her article on the ways in which educators can utilize the “cultural wealth” (70) their students possess. In combination with cultural wealth recognition, Elia and Eliason propose “anti-oppressive, inclusive sexuality education” (40) as the way to address inadequacies in representation within the current sexual health model that is used in most North American schools.

If students are not able to relate to what they are learning in sexual health education, they are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour

In Canadian schools, there is much needed room for improvement in the ways that sexual health education is taught to and discussed with students. Of all the literature mentioned, Elia and Eliason’s anti-oppressive, comprehensive model is most aligned with what I envision for the future of sexual health education, in that their version “acknowledg[es] that human sexual desires, fantasies, thoughts and behaviors are not always consistent or easily labeled, and that change and fluidity characterize much of human gendered and sexual behavior” (40). Sexual health education does not have to be one-dimensional in scope, which is what the abstinence-only perspective accomplishes. Rather, it can encompass a diverse array of information so that all students are able to relate to the information being presented to them to some extent. The way that sexual health is currently taught is causing students to entirely disregard the human sexuality unit in their health classes, to the detriment of their immediate and future wellbeing. One way to re-engage students in the learning process is to consider them as active collaborators within the educational setting. Young people must be regarded as individual sources of cultural wealth, which will ultimately encourage better learning from them. When students are treated this way in school, “[t]his form of cultural wealth engages a commitment to community well being” (Yosso 79). Allowing student feedback and participation in all stages of sexual health education—including the development of curriculum and classroom discussions on human reproduction and sexuality—is a radical way to change the way these things are taught and explored. This sense of give-and-take between students and educators will create a more inclusive, accessible, supportive and representational classroom environment. The role of schools in educating young people about sexual expression cannot be understated here: “[s]chools provide the space for the normalization of identity through both teaching and performance” (Shipley 205). Moreover, “schools have a major role in maintaining class stratification, gender stereotypes, and heterosexuality” (Elia and Eliason 43). Anti-racist, intersectional, comprehensive sexual health education will, over time, lead to a more accepting school environment for marginalized youth overall.

Many youth feel that what is taught in sexual health classes is not relevant to their identities or experiences and so they do not pay attention

Relying on students and the culture wealth and knowledge they already carry with them “entails accepting the presumption that children and adolescents can and should take ownership of their sexual desires” (Illes 620). In order for sexual health education to be inclusive, this is what educators must do. We must give young people more agency over their bodies than the curriculum currently recognizes: “[i]ndeed, the main goals of identifying and documenting cultural wealth are to transform education and empower People of Color to utilize assets already abundant in their communities” (Yosso 82). I fully believe that this will only have positive results within both the education system and individual students’ lives. However, Ladson-Billings provides a message of caution: “[s]chool systems throughout the USA were adopting cooperative learning without any thought to improving the performance of children of color” (22). Sexual health educators must be wary of reproducing inequality within the classroom. The way that a potential anti-racist, intersectional education method is taken up needs to remain critical and reflexive and careful not to rely on ‘lip service’ as the way to address racial difference in lived experiences. Immigrant youth of colour have different experiences and cultural understandings of sexuality than many of their counterparts who have grown up or spent most of their lives in North America. Encouraging all students to share their knowledge is a way to enact critical race theory in the space of the classroom. The application of this to the sexual health curriculum will ultimately challenge the “White supremacist master script” (Ladson-Billings 18) that structures the education system in both Canada and the US. If sexual health education is to be re-imaged to be as inclusive as possible especially within the ‘multicultural’ Canadian context, it would need to be informed by critical race theory in order to include and promote the voices of young people of colour.

High School Students Taking Part In Group Discussion
Conducting class in a circle can help shift power-dynamics in knowledge production

Critical race theory is pivotal to an inclusive sexual health education program because it “suggest[s] how, in a racialized society where whiteness is positioned as normative, everyone is ranked and categorized in relation to these points of opposition” (Ladson-Billings 9). Most North American schools’ sexual health curriculum is centered on White, Westernized understandings of sex, including the way that sex should happen, in what contexts and between what individuals. The type of “anti-oppressive, comprehensive” (40) sexuality education that Elia and Eliason advocate for in their article is a direct attempt to reconcile with this structural form of racism. It should not be assumed that one type of sexual health education will work for or represent the needs of all students. During their study, Monchalin et al. discovered that, for Indigenous youth, education around these subjects “must not take a pan-Indigenous approach, and instead must be catered to unique and local community contexts” (172). This illustrates the appropriateness of critical race theory and its potential contribution to sexual health discussions with youth of colour. Yosso eloquently argues for this shift in teaching as well, stating that “CRT [critical race theory] in education refutes dominant ideology and White privilege while validating and centering the experiences of People of Color” (74). Sexual health education that is intersectional, intercultural and mindful of difference will subsequently empower students rather than exclude them.

Learning and exploring together helps strengthen connections between students in the classroom×510.jpg

In much the same way that the education system would benefit from listening to the voices and experiences of racialized youth, space needs to be created for students who identify as LGBTQI+ to be included in the learning process. Because of the way that sexual health education has hitherto centered itself solely on reproductive sex within the context of heterosexual marriage (Elia and Eliason 33), many LGBTQI+ students do not see these lessons as applicable to their experiences. This exclusion has dangerous effects on marginalized students because it reinforces institutional forms of sexism, racism, trans- and homophobia that circulate within North American schools. Shipley discusses the challenges many LGBTQI+ youth face in schools as they “becom[e] a sexual citizen within an institution that is hyperregulated and also clearly expects conformity” and how this “results in some immediate tragedies among youth who are bullied” (205). This affects youth who identify as gender nonconforming or gender non-binary, trans, intersex, or queer, as they are systematically positioned as the ‘other’ against the cis- and heteronormativity institutionally reinforced within their schools. Without proper sexuality education, many students carry around harmful assumptions about their peers that are reproduced throughout their experiences in the school system. Sexual health education would provide accurate and important information regarding LGBTQI+ rights, issues and representation. Classroom discussions that teach about straight, queer, asexual and trans expressions of sexuality will encourage students to see beyond their own immediate situations and this understanding will help them to empathize more readily with others. Without this component to the sexual health model, “this exclusion can have various negative impacts, such as…pathologizing of LGBTQ persons, and creating unsafe school environments” (Gowen and Winges-Yanez 799). It is an act of institutional violence that “LGBTQ people are systematically erased” (Elia and Eliason 36) from what limited conversations are currently taking place in classroom settings. An anti-racist, intersectional sexual health curriculum would minimize these risks to marginalized youth and create safer schools in general. It is in this way that the heterosexual “binary classification is too simplistic” (Elia and Eliason 39) and continues to oppress many young people in educational environments.

Youth who are actively engaged in the learning process take ownership of the material being discussed×365.jpg

Through teaching methods that honour differences in sex, sexuality, gender identity, gender expression and race, “comprehensive sex education is an antidote to social stigma, as well as the risky practices that flow from it” (Illes 621). Not only this, but through educators’ willingness to recognize and teach students about the needs of trans youth, “[b]roadening the discussion of anatomy…is especially important given the possible biological changes young persons may go through if they decide to undergo hormonal treatment” (Gowen and Winges-Yanez 796). Students need to be educated on anything and everything that falls under the sexual and reproductive health umbrella, including, but not limited to reproductive technologies and politics (yes, this requires addressing abortion rights, laws and accessibility in each province or state); STIs and risk-prevention strategies; the variety and proper use of contraceptives; anatomy and biological functioning of the human body; the spectrum of sexual orientations; topics of pleasure and desire; rape culture; and what it means to engage in both sexual and romantic relationships. My vision for this type of education echoes Monchalin et al.’s findings, that “[b]ased on comments provided by the youth participants, there is a need to provide further information on topics such as sex addiction, healthy relationships…midwifery, LGBTQ communities, and symptoms of substance use” (172). Canadian sexual health education needs to be informed by the aforementioned theories and broadened in the breadth of its content in order to be fully inclusive of the needs of all students. Providing young people with thorough information about the diversity that naturally occurs among human bodies helps them to grow into fully actualized, self-caring adults. Using feminist frameworks, such as anti-racist, intersectional and critical race theories will achieve this goal, when applied to and coupled with sexual health education. This will lead to a more inclusive instructional practice within the classroom.

Teacher recognition of cultural wealth among students will inspire interactive learning and collaboration

There is so much unexplored potential within the current sexual health model in North American schools. Sexual health education needs to be seen as way to inspire young people to learn to care for themselves from an informed standpoint that recognizes their agency as sexual or asexual beings (either way, sexual preference is part of the equation). The model of learning that I am proposing will effectively provide “adolescents [with] information on which to base their own decisions about sexuality” (Elia and Eliason 34). The reification of heteronormative binaries from a Western, White perspective within current sexual health curriculum is harmful to many queer and racialized youth. Opportunities to revamp all sexual health curriculum should be sought out because “sex education can positively affect and even change these social scripts, which will ultimately benefit the sexual health of Canadians” (Illes 622). Culturally, “we need to learn to view sex and sexuality as embedded, infused in and part of our everyday discussions” (Elia and Eliason 44) in an effort to teach young folks how to successfully make healthy, self-affirming choices into adulthood. In order to make sexual health education more inclusive, engaging, intersectional and anti-racist in practice, a complete overhaul and restructuring of the learning material is necessary. By adopting feminist frameworks such as critical race theory and intersectional analysis, sexual health education can be revolutionized to be inclusive of all student needs and voices. Because “schools most often oppress and marginalize while they maintain the potential to emancipate and empower” (Yosso 74), critical race theory would provide an opportunity for students to share their cultural wealth with one another in a supportive classroom setting. Furthermore, Shipley reminds us that “what we are willing to teach and what we expect students to learn regarding sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity plays an important role in public policy decision making” (198). By teaching sexual health through a social justice lens, an inclusive, anti-racist learning environment can be achieved in the space of the classroom.

Educators can use discussions about sexual health as an avenue to inspire active participation from students

Works Cited

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[Digital image]. Web. 29 November 2016.

Elia, John P. and Mickey Eliason. “Discourses of Exclusion: Sexuality Education’s Silencing of Sexual Others.” Journal of LGBT Youth, vol. 7, no.1, 2010, pp 29-48. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/19361650903507791. Accessed 16 Oct. 2016.

Gowen, Kris L. and Nichole Winges-Yanez. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youths’ Perspectives of Inclusive School-Based Sexuality Education.” The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 51, no. 7, 2014, pp. 788-800. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/00224499.2013.806648. Accessed 16 Oct. 2016.

Illes, Judit. “Young sexual citizens: reimagining sex education as an essential form of civic engagement.” Sexuality, Society and Learning, vol. 12, no. 5, 2012, pp. 613-625. Taylor and Francis Online, 10.1080/14681811.2011.634152. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Just what is critical race theory and what’s it
doing in a nice field like education?” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 11, no. 1, 1998, pp. 7-24. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/095183998236863. Accessed 22 Oct. 2016.

Monchalin, Renée, et al. “Sexy Health Carnival on the Powwow Trail: HIV Prevention by and for Indigenous Youth.” International Journal of Indigenous Health, vol. 11, no. 1, 2016, pp. 159-176. ProQuest, doi: 10.18357/ijih111201616011. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.

Shipley, Heather. “Queering Institutions?: Sexual Identity in Public Education in a Canadian Context.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 23, no. 3, 2013, pp. 196-210. JSTOR, doi: 10.5406/femteacher.23.3.0196. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.

Yosso, Tara J. “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory
discussion of community cultural wealth.” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 8, no. 1, 2005, pp. 69-91. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/1361332052000341006. Accessed 22 Oct. 2016.

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