by Vianca Masucci
Recently, it was announced that Obama proposed cutting all abstinence-only sex education funding from the 2017 federal budget. This proposal would increase funding for programs that focus on educating youngins on contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), teen pregnancy and intimate partner violence.
Finally, comprehensive sex education for our youth! **hands up emoji**
Contrary to what some hopeful sex educators are suggesting, Obama’s proposal is not the light at the end of a birth canal. His proposal only addresses symptoms of much larger systemic issues. People of color in the United States have disproportionately less access to sex education and overwhelmingly incomprehensive core content.
Obama’s budget proposal does not address the fact that only 22 states mandate sex education and only 13 states require that information about sex be medically accurate, or that children who don’t receive any formal sex education are more likely to be black, low-income, and/or from single-parent households.
Don’t get me wrong, Obama’s proposal is a necessary step towards more effective sex education. Abstinence education is ineffective and degrading. As it stands, Black children are more likely to receive abstinence only education. Further, Black, Native, and, Latinx populations suffer disproportionately from STIs, teen pregnancy, and sexual assault. It would be an understatement to say people of color have the most to gain from these budgetary revisions.
But, let’s not front: a budget change is not enough. What we need is a strategic evaluation of the gaps in sex education. We need Obama to address the infrastructural issues of sex education.
Sexual Health Has a History of White Supremacy
The currently accepted models of sex education were not designed for the needs of PoC. Most of sexual health theory in the 20th century was developed as a social hygiene agenda that was heavily influenced by larger white concerns with moral purity and fears of immigration. As a result, the field of sexuality has historically played a large role in the eugenics movement and sterilization of certain populations.
Traditionally, PoC have been severely underrepresented in health research and Black folks have even been abused by health research. Because most medical professionals base their recommendations on research, this has real effects on our sex education. When research is done by predominantly white researchers, the topics they deem important for sex education are based on the needs of white subjects.
Because of this white bias, sex education models in America exclude topics important to PoC and only focus on public health issues identified in PoC communities through polarizing statistics (as in the case of teen pregnancy) instead of meaningful, culturally-appropriate research. As a result, PoC rarely have access to culturally competent, medically accurate, and comprehensive sex education.
Sex Education is Not Culturally Relevant
Sex education that is grounded in a white cultural context does not make sense for PoC. I remember struggling with precisely these issues with my white sex ed instructors. Because I went to a bougie boarding school, I got what is considered a top-notch, ‘comprehensive’ sex education. This meant I was given information based on what was relevant to privileged, straight, white folks.
The issues I struggled with as a queer girl of color were never covered, so the classes did not help me. I was never taught about consent, trauma, cultural expectations, body acceptance, or the social realities of sex, issues important for children of color to confront when learning about sex.
When I approached my instructors (who were medical doctors, by the way) to ask about issues I cared about, they were ill-equipped. Sex ed didn’t answer my questions. Sex ed made the issues that I faced with sex seem irrelevant. Instead of answers, I got smile-and-nodded to death.
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This is a wide-scale problem. Doctors (or ‘uncare’ professionals) who are authorities on sexual health are, and have always been, predominantly white. And white sex educators still dominate the sexual health field. This results in a dearth of sex experts that understand the cultural context of PoC’s issues with sex.
The Media Is Still The Most Persuasive Sex Educator
After feeling shut down by sex ed, I learned about sex and sexuality from the media I consumed (The L Word, mostly.). This is not unusual. Overwhelmingly sexual, mainstream media is the most influential sex educator in America.
Black people, Latinx folks and Asian women are highly sexualized and exotified in mainstream media (sometimes at a young age) but not highly valued by society. Therefore the messages that children of color receive can lead them to believe that their value is tied into their sex appeal or sexual prowess. This idea is reinforced every time they visit a website, watch TV, listen to music, and so on. *Sigh*
OK, So Now What?
How can we take steps to address these disparities ourselves? Some badass sex educators of color have already taken the initiative to push back against the overwhelming whiteness of American sex ed. The Woman of Color Sexual Health Network (WoCSHN), Bianca Laureano’s Latinx Sexuality Tumblr, and N’jaila Rhee’s Blasian Bytch blog are just some examples of PoC claiming space in the sexuality field.
The most important thing we can do as parents, guardians, and mentors to combat the problems in sex education is talk to the youngins about sex. By neglecting this responsibility, we leave our kids to learn about sex and sexuality from American Apparel ads and racist state-sanctioned lesson plans.
If you have a child, ask their school for their sex ed curriculum so you can complement it with your own lessons. Follow the schedule and plan to talk with your kids after each lesson. There may be a lot of gaps to fill in. But don’t fret! There are manuals designed to help you! My favorite is Filling The Gaps because it has been designed for this purpose and it’s free.
Challenge sex negativity, body fascism, and racism in the media that the children in your life consume. Talk about healthy counterparts and provide encouragement whenever you can. Most importantly, help the children in your life build pride in their identities. This will nurture the confidence they need to understand their worth and advocate for themselves in sexual situations and otherwise.
At the end of the day, people of color need more from sex education programs than what Obama is proposing. But sadly, chances are good that the conservative Congress will strike down even his modest proposal to defund abstinence education entirely. American sex ed has a long way to go. Don’t wait for politicians to get it right. Let’s talk about sex (right now), baby!
Hailing from Newark, New Jersey, Vianca Masucci is a health advocate working to eliminate health disparities in underserved populations. Her voice is influenced by her experiences navigating this world as a queer, Afro-Latina with a thousand-year-old soul and a bleeding heart. Her Meyers-Briggs personality type is IDGAF.
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