By Cynthia Boiter
When teaching the sections on sexuality in my sociology and women’s studies classes, as I did when my husband and I counseled our daughters on the same subject when they were younger, I often hearken back to the days of my own sexual education.
But I don’t stay there long.
My most enduring memories of learning the facts of life involve awkward silence, euphemisms, and shame. A product of her own repressive generation, my mother, (forget my Dad, who never entertained the subject other than to emphasize the importance of being a “good girl”), did her best with what she had been given herself, but the conversation left me only slightly less confused and with a significantly greater sense of guilt than I had ever known in my young life. I might have gone to my older brothers for information, but I had already learned from them that the mention of anything involving the parts of one’s body which were not visible when fully clothed provoked giggles, if not outright laughter.
And here we are today.
Given the various cultural revolutions involving information, communication and, yes, sex, that my generation has known over the course of our years, I’d like to think that, these days, our children leave their lessons on sexuality unencumbered by wearisome sensations such as confusion, guilt, shame and the giggles.
I’d like to think so, but evidence in my classroom sometimes suggests I’m wrong.
As soon as issues of sex or sexuality arise, a wave of snickering, silly grins and blushed or flushed faces sweeps over the room. In order to reach then teach the young adults sitting before me about the fundamentals of sexuality, sexual identity and sexual politics, I first have to dig through the layers of naughtiness with which anything having to do with the term “sex” has been cloaked. If the notion that sex and all its connotations is dirty isn’t pervasive enough, then the idea that sex is funny, a staple message of the American entertainment industry, certainly is.
The reality that sex and sexuality continue to be painted with the broad brushes of guilt, shame and silliness is evident nowhere more than in campaigns for abstinence only education. Champions of abstinence only education seek to withhold information regarding the intimate workings of the human experience from young people under the auspices of sheltering them; a gross misuse of a term which implies protection from harm. In fact, denying this vital information is in itself a harmful act, the results of which can be seen in the self-conscious snickers, guilt-ridden faces and downcast eyes of yet another generation of youth who enter adulthood ill-schooled in the most fundamental aspect of human existence.
Only when our children are allowed to own the knowledge of the intricacies of this most pure and elemental part of the self will they be able to approach their sexuality, sexual identities and sex lives from a place of health and happiness. Withholding any information which might enable them to do so damages not only our children, but our culture. In the absence of truth, mythology prevails – guilt, shame and silliness persists.
Boiter is shown here with her daughters Annie Boiter-Jolley (top) and Bonnie Boiter-Jolley (right).