It was 2016, and I was in Grade 10. We had been notified earlier that week that our character education session that day will be the first of our annual sex-ed series and that the topic will be “consent.”
Context is essential for any discussion of education, especially one as contested and situationally complex as sex education. So, full disclosure: I attended a secular private school in suburban Vancouver, Canada, where, despite hurdles, sex education is far more progressive than the vast majority of the world.
That day at school, we were introduced to the famous Tea Video: a line-drawing animation produced by Thames Valley Police, which compares sex to offering a cup of tea in order to illustrate the basics of sexual consent. The simplistic art style, delightfully British narration, and adaptability of the analogy gained the video viral status soon after its release in 2015, with some media outlets calling the video “all you need to know about consent”. And indeed, the video was a success at my school. Though drinking tea in class took on some crass connotations, it achieved the goal: in less than 3 minutes, everyone gained a working understanding of consent and observed basic scenarios when consent may be violated.
As more and more school boards adopt inclusive sex education curricula, where do we go beyond the permission to teach? How do we check off every item on that contentious list, from identities and behaviors to consent and pleasure, in a way that gives young people the tools to navigate adult relationships confidently? In an age of new media, critical thinking should rightfully infuse every aspect of schooling, and sex education isn’t exempt. It makes sense that multimedia resources for sex education are on the rise. Instead of delivering curriculum keywords through a checklist, they offer diverse ways of engaging with content that adapt to students’ individual needs and interests and become especially relevant in the age of COVID-19. What are their potential benefits and hidden flaws, and where is sex education going?
Breaking down prescriptive language
In the normative setting of a school, where memorization is expected and learning is bound by curriculum design, it is natural that sex education is organized by the same system. This leads to a highly prescriptive perspective enforced upon a topic as amorphous and subjective as human sexuality; even if the curriculum is scientific and designed to be empowering, rigid handling and delivery may cause more harm than good.
Take, for example, the teaching of human sexual and gender identities. Full inclusion of non-normative experiences is a critical first step, but many curricula and teachers (especially cisgender and heterosexual ones) tend to rely on labels to facilitate discussion. This reduces sexualities and gender identities to a set of prescriptive grammar rules, which moves farther and farther away from reflecting the actual lives of LGBTQIA+ people. For example, with regards to the gender spectrum, most LGBTQIA-inclusive curricula do explain that people may have genders outside the binary. However, they fail to actually explore the vast range of identities under the ‘non-binary’ umbrella term or even mention concepts of gender expression, performance, and fluidity.
Label-driven oversimplification can also cause students to equate gender with pronouns, not realizing that usage of a certain set of pronouns does not mandate gender identities. Going from “there are two genders” to “there are three genders” isn’t progress; in fact, it defeats the purpose of inclusive education altogether. Furthermore, separating gender and sexuality through popular visualizations such as the Genderbread Person is helpful for younger students, but it would be thoroughly misleading to imply that these two concepts are distinct and that labels such as ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ and ‘bisexual’ are absolute and permanent for every individual, rather than imperfect linguistic descriptions for complicated sexual practices, experiences, and identities.
Sex-ed in the digital age
Was the tea video perfect? Absolutely not. “Forcing hot tea down an unconscious person’s throat” works as a generalization for non-consensual sex, but a beverage doesn’t exactly capture all the nuances of sexual behaviors. For one, sex usually involves more than one action, and individuals can consent to some but not all actions proposed. The two stick figures’ genderless, ageless, and de-racialized appearances are effective as a tool for inclusive representation. Still, real-life sex has power dynamics informed by systematic inequalities, and consent is deeply entwined with those.
How do we harness the power of digital resources to further improve sex education? As a start, we must understand existing sources of sex education already present on the interwebs. A 2010 study finds that 19% of heterosexual youth, 40% of questioning youth, 65% of bisexual youth, and 78% of lesbian/gay/queer youth aged 13–18 have looked up information about sexual health online in the past year.
These rates likely seem quite alarming to those who are suspicious of the internet’s reliability, and there is undeniable potential for vast misinformation on the internet. However, with demand comes supply, and there are already many excellent initiatives online that provide information to anyone with a connection. From well-known sites such as Go Ask Alice and KidsHealth to apps, webcomics, and YouTube channels, health professionals and tech experts are finding fascinating ways of engaging the audience whilst providing critical information and fostering important discussions.
Here it might be tempting to declare the classroom useless: why have your PE teacher awkwardly inform a group of teenagers about condoms when their phones can show the exact same information, if not better? However, this line of thinking falls into the same conundrum as a checklist-style traditional curriculum. The classroom as a space allows for health information and scientific facts to be digested communally and understood in its specific cultural setting, and teachers are role models and sources of trust rather than simply deliverers of recommendations and statistics.
After watching the tea video, we had a lively discussion about the portrayal of consent in media and explored the topic through case studies taken from our local region. Sex is as much culturally and socially informed as it is a biological act. When classrooms and multimedia resources are synthesized effectively, sex education becomes nuanced and appropriate for the 21st century.
For example, the use of digital media offers particular potential for deconstructing the prescriptivism of traditional sex-education discussed earlier. Through interdisciplinary activities such as viewing films, researching art and literature, and exploring historical practices and figures, students will be able to understand identities and experiences as socially situated and complex rather than rely on fixed categorization, and LGBTQIA+ students will be given genuine curricular affirmation. For older students, digitally-oriented research can also be an opportunity for independent learning, particularly on topics such as the biology of chromosomes and the functions of organs.
Where do we go?
It’s unclear if the future looks bright for sex education: in the United States there is a significant decline in the number of students who have received unbiased instruction about sexual health over the last two decades, but innovative work is also being done across every continent to help young people learn about sex. No matter what direction it takes, digital media and internet resources will play a much-amplified role, and it is time that we learn to harness its powers, understand its transformative impact on the classroom, and use them as an integral part of any sex education curriculum.