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Comprehensive Sex Education Can Be Transformational
Why am I passionate about sexuality education? As a young feminist working on sexual and reproductive rights, I am often asked this question. There are so many issues facing women and girls, so many devastating consequences of gender inequality—violence against women, forced and early marriage and unsafe abortion to name a few—but too often, we don’t invest in programs that can prevent the discrimination that women and girls face and empower them to make informed decisions about their own lives.
I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. Leaving childhood is a scary experience—especially for girls. But, as many Venezuelan women would attest, my sexuality education did not teach me the things I needed to know when my body began changing and I started to experience new feelings. Instead, I heard things like: “You are a lady, so you have to take care.” And: “You are too young to be interested in boys.”
When I was a teenager, I made a lot of awkward decisions. I didn’t have the information I needed and I was too scared to ask. I didn’t imagine at the time that someone could help me accept my body, or that someone could help me better understand what sex and love was like. Nor did I imagine that I, as a young woman, had the right to a pleasurable and consensual sex life—a fact that I know now after a long, and sometimes painful, journey.
Today, I am a volunteer sex educator with the Asociación Civil de Planificación Familiar (PLAFAM), which is the member association of the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region in Venezuela. Unfortunately, in my work, I’ve found that many young people have many of the same sex education experiences I had.
I also see that many teachers and parents are unequipped, ashamed or opposed to providing young people with the information they want and need. And although accessing reliable information is difficult in school, it’s even more challenging for young people who are not enrolled. Recently, I had the experience of working with young people who were part of a vocational training program on the outskirts of Caracas. They had not finished high school, but had the same questions as kids who are in school. A lot of young women asked how much sex would hurt. And—because the male experience dominated all conversations around masturbation—many asked if it was okay for girls to masturbate, too. Almost all of these young women had internalized the false message that a respectable woman is someone who staves off all sexual pleasure until marriage.
I’ve also noticed a gender gap in my work. Often, boys have been outnumbered by the girls in attendance at my seminars by as much as three to one. This has to change—not only to fulfill the rights of all young people, but to engage boys in discussions around violent expressions of masculinity, consent and unequal power relations. Once, we worked with a junior boys’ soccer team, which was an amazing opportunity. They were excited to have—for the first time—someone who could tell them how to use a condom instead of judging them for not using one.
But comprehensive sexuality education is not just about sex. Once, at a rural school 45 minutes from Caracas, an 11-year-old girl asked me what you do when you have a broken heart. The teacher said that the class should take the session more seriously, but I disagreed. “No,” I said, “this is a great question. You should know that everyone has or will have a broken heart at some point, and that it’s serious, whether you are 11 or 52.”
We need comprehensive sexuality education. We all do. We need it to navigate relationships, to understand ourselves, to make heathy choices and to have pleasurable sex lives. Accepting your body, accepting yourself the way you are and learning what’s right for you is one of the best things that can happen to you as a young person and is something that can stay with you throughout your life. Sexuality education empowers girls to claim their rights and be superheroes. It teaches men how to be feminists. In short, it helps young people imagine—and actualize—a different kind of world free of the violence and gender inequalities we inherited.
That’s why I’m so passionate about it. (Thanks for asking.)
This article was previously published on Ms. Magazine's blog on May 19, 2016.
Photo courtesy of Victor Björkund on Flickr and licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.