Dear Internet, can you save us from high school Sex Ed?
I learnt some incredible things in high school Sex Ed.
One was that a woman’s hymen is structured like the seal on a Ricoffy tin: that once she has sex, her body is open for business and will never be the same again. (I remember the sneaking suspicion that once I “broke my seal”, my ovaries would somehow begin to grow stale).
I also remember a day-long “rape workshop”, in which we learnt all about the trauma inflicted by rape, and how not to get raped (“Girls, don’t get a guy going at 120km an hour if you’re going to suddenly slam on the brakes!”) – and nothing about the definition of consent: how not to rape someone.
“One of the biggest problems is that learners don’t have a means of talking about sex and gender with someone who has both legitimacy and some kind of access to their world”, remarks Abigail Branford: a 3rd-year Rhodes University BA student who runs fortnightly Gender Studies workshops with Grade 10s at Kingswood College, Grahamstown.
On top of being dated, sexist, and heteronormative, sex and gender education is hampered by the yawning age and authority gap between teachers and learners.
As a result, Branford says, students are more likely to talk about sex and gender with their more-approachable classmates than with their better-informed teachers, and teachers often fail to bring sex and gender issues home to students in a way that actually resonates with them.
Surfing for Solutions
Branford combats this issue by using Youtube videos in her workshops, “so they’re more like an evening in the boarding house where you watch Youtube videos with your mates”: videos that are interesting, relatable and current enough to provoke thought and conversation rather than boredom and disengagement.
Branford talks about platforms like Upworthy and Buzzfeed as ways in which teenagers’ social spheres are being permeated with progressive ideas about sex and gender... at least, more progressive than many of them will find in their classrooms. “They can bring ideas that used to be confined to an academic space into something that’s much more vibrant and easy to access”, she adds.
And this is to say nothing of the multitude of websites devoted entirely to relevant and constructive sex education. These sites are far more extensive and well-resourced than anything the average schoolteacher could single-handedly put together, and they have the advantage of allowing individual learners to pursue their own questions at their own leisure.
Another merit of these sites is that any teenager with an internet connection (granted: many South African teenagers don’t have internet connections) can access this content without enduring the social ridicule that often accompanies asking questions or debating the teacher in a Sex Ed class.
But this isn’t to say that the internet itself is a safe haven for sexually-confused teenagers. The objectification of women (and men), slut-shaming and homophobia that permeates our culture runs at full throttle online as well.
The internet has the potential to raise a generation of teenagers who are extensively informed about making healthy sexual decisions and responding to gender issues in an all-inclusive and respectful way – but in their classrooms, they need guidance towards the right resources, and an introduction to critical thinking.