DIY sex education
I’m Sarah Mundy, and I run a website called All About My Vagina. The address is myvag.net, or you can Google for “vagina.” My site is mostly about do-it-yourself sexuality education or DIY sex education, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.
When I say do-it-yourself sexuality education, I don’t mean this is sex ed you have to do alone, by yourself. I mean you can do it your own way, at home, with your friends, as amateurs, for cheap or free.
This kind of independent, amateur education is not just a useful part of sex ed, but is, I think, the best kind of sex ed, and maybe even the only way it can work.
Even if every school had positive, comprehensive, realistic sex education programs, which is, ahem, not the current situation, we would still need to supplement that with DIY education.
People are diverse, and sexuality can be very personal— something one person needs to know might not matter at all to their friends— so sex ed needs to be customized and supplemented differently for each of us.
Even if we could have huge, personalized, multiple-choice sex ed programs in schools, basic facts about healthy sexuality and sex safety get updated all the time, so we need to keep ourselves up to date during our whole lives. It doesn’t work to “get” a sex education once, check it off the to-do list, and forget about it. It won’t stay accurate.
I was lucky enough to have one of those positive, comprehensive, realistic sex education programs at my high school. It’s actually where I learned about masturbation and orgasms— the vice principle put up a picture of a vulva, pointed out the clitoris, and said, “This is what women stimulate to have orgasms.” That’s about as good as it gets!
And even with this great program, all kinds of information has changed since I finished my last sex education class. When I was in school, spermicidally-lubricated condoms with Nonoxynol-9 were considered A+, for extra protection against pregnancy and infection. Now we know that N-9 actually irritates mucus membranes and can make you more likely to get some infections, so it isn’t recommended anymore. After I finished school, the Depo Provera birth control shot became popular, and then it turned out that it contributes to bone density loss, so now it isn’t recommended much. Sexuality information changes all the time.
In addition to those kinds of updates, our own needs for sex information change over time. The common example is birth control— a teenager who is avoiding pregnancy has different priorities from an older parent who doesn’t want to have any more kids. Or you’ll see this when people come out of long-term relationships and need to think about sex safety outside of monogamy, and the best guidelines have advanced since the last time they checked.
So it becomes obvious that sex education is a process of ongoing learning, that it is something we all do, not something we can get once and be done with. The name of this conference is great in this regard— Exploring Healthy Sexualities is a useful way to think about sex education, as a process of ongoing exploration rather than a one-time certification.
Looking at this lifelong process of “doing” sex education for ourselves, I think it becomes clear that the most important part of sex education is not any set of facts or information, because we all need a slightly different set and it will all change anyway. The most important part of sex education is empowering people to keep doing sex education, and to figure it out on their own.
...Which is a huge educational cliche! Teachers love to say things like, “we’re not teaching you physics, we’re teaching you how to learn!” I bet there is a pamphlet somewhere at this university that says, “At UVic our real goal is to teach you how to think.”
And that is basically what I’m saying about sex ed, except I don’t think people need to be taught that; I think humans are learning machines and we just need resources and support to carry on.
I think there’s a very important part of empowerment and learning that gets less attention when we say things like “sex education is about being empowered to keep doing sex education,” and that is being empowered to teach.
Teaching is a big part of every DIY philosophy— it isn’t just “learn it yourself” it is “do it yourself”. In sex education, a lot of what we learn is self-taught from books, movies, talking to our friends and so on. When we do that, we’re teaching ourselves about sexuality. We’re being sex educators.
We also teach other people all the time. We teach our partners about what we like and what we want to do. Lots of people teach their partners very practical things like how to use condoms or how to choose lube. Anybody who has kids of course is in a position to teach about sex. Lots of us teach our friends things, and learn from each other. Even in the community or at work it can come up. One time I ended up teaching my boss that men could use vibrators. He switched his phone to vibrate, and couldn’t get it to stop, so it was just steadily buzzing whether he had a call or not. He was making a fuss, “My phone is a vibrator! Help! This is a woman’s phone!” So even at a straight-laced office, we can end up teaching each other about sexuality.
I’m not talking about being a teacher, this is just something humans do because we’re social and we learn from each other.
More than other topics, I think sex ed is clear about the importance of empowering people to do it ourselves. Or at least, progressive sex education is. When I say progressive sex education, I’m talking about the stuff that gets called sex-positive, feminist, comprehensive, reality-based, and so on— I think these kinds of sex education are distinguished by being progressive.
Progressive sex education defines healthy sexuality in terms of empathy (wanting you to be happy, supporting you when you make mistakes) and responsibility (taking care of yourself and taking care of other people).
The more negative, conservative version of ideal sexuality is based on discipline (following rules, competing for success according to rules, being punished for your mistakes).
Besides suiting my personal values, progressive sex education just works better! It is sustainable— the more you help people be responsible, the more they take responsibility for helping each other. By contrast, the conservative version tends to make itself unstable, because it is frustrating to follow other people’s rules all the time. People end up breaking the rules, and then they aren’t safe because the rules were the only thing keeping them safe, and it’s a big mess.
So it’s the progressive sexuality resources that are clear about empowering people. This is not surprising, since most progressive sexuality information comes directly out of self-help and pro-equality movements like feminism and human rights.
Feminism contributed huge amounts to sex education, about techniques for female pleasure, barriers to reproductive health and how to get around them, barriers to sexual healthcare and how to get around them, lots of things.
Queer rights, gay/lesbian/bi/trans activism brings up lots of ideas about self-determined sexual identity and gender identity, and lots of sex safety skills. Queer activists were the first people promoting condoms to prevent AIDS!
Disability rights have been huge for sex education, even. Lots of great insights into communicating your own needs, and lots of discussions about reproductive rights (both in terms of the right to reproduce, and discussions about eugenic abortion).
Lots! I could talk about seniors’ activism, sex workers’ rights, anything! Whenever anybody gets more equal, everybody gains insight into healthy sexuality. Whenever anybody gets more equal, we all get new sexuality resources.
Some of the big barriers to effective sex education right now are tied up equality, specifically in youth rights.
One of the big problems preventing us from providing comprehensive sex education in schools is the idea that young people should not be allowed to explore sexuality, and shouldn’t be allowed to have sex. This is basically a question of whether young people have the same rights as everybody else to be sexual and explore their sexuality in a way that is safe and positive for them.
I don’t think you can really provide youth sex education programs without answering “yes,” youth have equal rights to be sexual.
I’m interested to see what comes out of that, because it would have to involve some good, broad definitions of what it means to be sexual and have a sexuality. If we’re including kids and teenagers who aren’t sexually active, then sexuality has to include things like feeling good about your body and understanding sexuality on your own, without partners. You have to start asking what it means for an eight year old to be sexual, and whether some of those things would be interesting for me as an adult. Everybody gets new insights, when somebody gets more equal.
Besides being relevant to sexuality, youth rights also have a lot of implications for educational methods, ideas about learning and teaching that I think are very relevant to sex education.
If you go looking for information about youth rights, a lot of it is in the field of education reform, in ideas from people like Maria Montessori, who created the Montessori method and Montessori schools, and John Dewey, who wrote Democracy and Education and other stuff. If you read books by education reformers, they talk about schools, but then you’ll run into a chapter suggesting that everyone should have the right to vote from birth, and all kinds of youth rights ideas.
They wrote about obvious ways that schools could be oppressive to young people, like kids being beaten and not having a say in what they had to learn. But they also talked about fundamental power and authority in human relationships, about teachers as authority figures, and how to empower students.
That’s the piece I think it interesting for sex education, if we all need to be empowered to “do” our own ongoing sex education.
My favourite, most straightforward explanation of the ways that education can promote authority instead of empowerment comes from John Holt, who wrote in the 1970s and inspired the homeschooling and unschooling movements. He said that when we learn from experts, we’re learning that education is something you get from an expert and that it is different from what we learn in daily life. He said that no matter what the expert is trying to teach us, the fact that they think they need to educate us also implies that we can’t be trusted to learn on our own.
Now, sex education has experts, and authories in the field. These are the people you think of if someone asks who “does” sex education: parents, teachers and doctors, and wider kinds of authorities like Ph.Ds, professional educators, authors and celebrities.
Because sex education comes from self-help movements and is very clear about the need for empowerment, sex educators and experts do a lot to counter-act this aura of authority. Sexuality books usually have a pep talk in the introduction about taking control, not listening to authorities, and doing it yourself. Our Bodies, Ourselves and many books that came after it include anecdotes and quotes from everyday people, instead of just authoritative advice.
But people still often get intimidated by sex experts, and get the idea that sex education requires professional advice. I get a lot of email from people looking for an expert’s confirmation of things they already know. They don’t want to trust their own bodies and observations, they want an expert to say “yes, that’s an orgasm” or “no, that doesn’t mean you’re gay.”
I don’t have any special training and people sometimes call me an expert. Jennifer and Heidi, I bet you get called sex experts sometimes? (Jen: yes, hate it!) So even though “sex experts” work to encourage DIY learning and personal empowerment, people can still be intimidated and still get the idea that sex education requires expert advice.
I think one way to break out of this is talk about DIY sex education not just in terms of learning for yourself, but in terms of teaching. Teaching is the powerful role, and it needs to be included if sex education is about “doing” instead of “getting”.
There are a few things that I think can encourage this.
One is talking about DIY sex education and sex education as something we do for ourselves. Or talking about “exploring sexuality” instead, if you can get away with it.
Another is to have conversations in sex ed programs, instead of only teacher-student situations. I love seeing teachers talk to guests like doctors or authors or educators— it’s like spying on the grown-ups, you get to see people talking about sex as equals. Panel discussions can work this way, too.
I think it can also be useful to look at other DIY work, like crafting or technology hacking. For example with knitting, knitters talk to each other and show each other their skill levels and the areas they are investigating. You see knitters getting together in public, so it’s very easy to see a range of skills and knowledge, and to see that plenty of knitters make neat stuff even if they don’t have their own book out, or even a website.
Older DIY political movements (like from the ’90s, ha ha), did a good job of getting out in public like this, in different ways. I used to have stickers from a group called Bloodsisters out of Montreal, who focussed on alternative menstrual products. They had stickers that said “ask me about radical menstruation” that were good conversation starters.
Lately I’ve been making similar buttons, that say things like “Ask me about birth control” or “Ask me about sex safety.” These are good for talking to strangers, if you like to do that— and I’m guessing that since you’re all here at a healthy sexuality conference you’re already like sex tech support for a few people! But the best thing about the buttons, I think, is that when you talk to somebody about your button, you can give them a matching button so that they can be a DIY sex educator too.
People tend to think this is scary, having amateur sex educators running around. What if they give out bad answers? I think it’s always good to talk about sexuality. We all teach each other already, and the more we talk the more we have a chance to get different ideas and learn to tell good information from bad.
Even if all somebody can say in response to a question about sexuality is, “I don’t know, but you could check with the Island Sexual Health Society,” that’s doing sex education. Even if they can’t even offer that, if all they’ve got is, “I don’t know, but that’s interesting. How did you come up with that question?” that is doing sex education, that’s asking questions and investigating sexuality.
So this is what I think we can all do to supplement formal sex education programs— we can remember that doing sex education is about taking responsibility for learning what we want to know, and also about teaching each other and ourselves, and we can keep talking.
I have buttons up here— help yourselves!
I condensed this for the Feminisms conference in Vancouver, May 24-26, 2007.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.
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