It was recently announced that the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University has released a new, progressive sexuality education resource for secondary school students.
Commendable indeed; through innovative animation videos that balances between being both cool and daggy (like your favourite youth worker), along with a handy set of guidelines and class activities, this new resource seeks to progress sexuality education beyond its current stale format by addressing topics such as sexual experimentation, consent, gender identity, sexual rights, sexual health and pornography.
We’ve moved past abstinence-only sexuality education and now we’re moving past comprehensive sexuality education with its focus on STD prevention and promoting safe sex. After all, it was comprehensive sexuality education that kindly introduced to us the ‘condom on banana’ stereotype – though in my year 9 sex-ed class it was condoms on Impulse deodorant bottles…
However, sexuality education curriculum has this tendency to treat young people as a mass of hormone-fuelled underage-drinking pleasure-seeking peer-pressured teenagers. Research tells us that a quarter of all young people say they have had ‘unwanted sex’, due to feeling pressured or frightened, or being drunk. While this is an undoubtedly relevant statistic, I want to find out: which young people were interviewed?
After all, young people do not escape the structural racism and heteronormativity that positions the the white, cisgendered straight male or female as the default unspoken norm in Australia. It is grounded within the economic position of the suburban white middle to upper class Australian experience; one where sexuality stereotypically emerges with the imbibing of vodka cruisers at house parties and skate parks where the biggest dangers are getting too drunk and over-zealous boys. It adopts colour-blindness and, despite the statistics, still assumes an inherent equal playing ground among young people (which is only upended through the influence of alcohol and hormones), as though the matrix of domination hasn’t yet reached them.
We know people cannot be reduced to one characteristic. Yet when it comes to ‘the youth’, we continue to construct them through their singular characteristic of being young. We need to deconstruct this idea of ‘young people’. Young people embody complex identities and human experiences that cannot just be understood through their present experience as a ‘young person’.
In my own personal experience, this is where sexuality education failed to speak to me as a young person. What I wanted to know was how I, as a mixed-race young Muslim woman, could learn to navigate my sexuality, relationships, gender identity, sexual rights and sexual health, along with issues around porn, consent and experimentation. I had my own set of cultural and religious norms that weren’t reflected in the curriculum or culture around me. I feared judgement and my concerns being misconstrued. I saw a culture that had discussions on teenage pregnancies, contraception and sex, yet ignored Muslim women who chose to marry young and have children and only focused on the women who’d been forced. I saw friends grapple with the conflict between cultures, faith, identity and sexuality with neither side providing them adequate tools to understand the oppressions they faced, nor the empowerment to face them. Plumbing these intersections brings to light sets of protective and risk factors in a young person’s life – factors that contain their vulnerabilities and concomitant sites of resistance and resilience.
To be a ‘young person’ is a socially constructed category that requires interrogating in itself. Young people inhabit a multiplicity of social categories and locations that are fluid, flexible and socially constructed. This includes, but is not limited to, socioeconomic status, gender, culture, faith/religion, migration status, citizenship, sexuality and the family unit (whether it is single-parent, nuclear, extended, same-sex etc). So when we interrogate what it means to be a ‘young person’, we unearth the complex, intersectional experience that informs their understanding of who they are.
When it comes to sexuality education, this is particularly powerful. Young people aren’t navigating their sexuality outside of these social structures, but within them. These structures inform not only how they are learning to perceive themselves (by answering the all-important question of ‘who am I?’); they also influence the development and experience of their sexuality.
In navigating sexuality and relationships, it is important for young people to see that their intersecting social categories have embedded within them their own set of diverse knowledges, perspectives and truths. This is how we can empower a range of young people through sexuality education: by recognising the existing sets of strengths within a young person’s intersecting identities, rather than submitting them to the discursive erasure of a homogenising categorisation of ‘young people’ that rests upon Western normative constructions of (white) youth.
Thus, while progressive sexuality education includes all the right topics, for it to be truly progressive it needs to be underpinned by intersectionality. Canadian researchers recently developed the Intersectionality Policy-Based (IPBA) Framework, which provides a workable operationalisation of the theory of intersectionality. Utilising their guiding principles and twelve IPBA questions, sexuality education curriculum and policy can integrate an intersectional framework. This includes a commitment to social justice and equalising outcomes, a disaggregation of data and research across social categories, facilitating ongoing dialogue with a range of young people, recognising various perspectives and diverse knowledges, and privileging typically excluded voices from consultative and expert roles.
Sexuality education may not be able to include multiple curricula that speak to every intersectional experience of a young person, but it can include intersectionality as a theory and methodology. The presence of intersectionality within a progressive sexuality education curriculum recognises disparity in power relations across social categories and structures that influence relationships, impact on abilities to exercise consent, and affect how young people understand themselves and their sexuality. It can open discussion on how issues such as ableism, homophobia, sexism, racism, colonialism, class and exoticising the other all affect and play out across our bodies and sexuality, and within our relationships. It can address recognising misogyny. It can unravel the complexities of violence against women, sexual assault and rape across social categories. It can talk about beauty standards, self-esteem and body image and the outcomes this can have on our sense of self as sexual beings, and its effect in relationships.
Sexuality education is slowly being removed from its silo, yet it needs to stretch across an intersectional plane in which we recognise that sexuality is not able to taught in way that divorces it from our social categories, structures and identities. A projected goal of an intersectional approach would be an inclusive curriculum where sexuality educators are equipped with an understanding of intersectionality, how to avoid the erasure and dismissal of young people’s identities and experience, and how to create space for a multitude of truths and knowledges. Additionally, intersectionality-based sexuality education policy would support and equip individuals within particular communities be trained to run autonomous sexuality education sessions that draw from their wells of experiences, truths, perspectives and knowledges.
Sure, it is a lot. But it is possible – and necessary. Truly progressive sexuality education needs to be intersectional. Young people know they are not a homogenous mass; it’s time they were treated and recognised as the self-aware, complex, intersectional young adults that they are.
Lamisse Hamouda is a youth worker and graduate of the University of Sydney. She currently resides in Brisbane, Australia and is a Global Voices Scholar. As part of her scholarship, Lamisse produced a research paper on intersectionality as a pedagogical tool in sexuality education and will be attending the 60th Commission on the Status of Women at the UN Headquarters in New York in March.
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