Is your sex education relevant?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

by Mina Itabashi
Mina Itabashi

Is your sex education class relevant and accessible to every single student, including students with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer students; English language learner (ELL) students; and gender nonconforming and transgender students? Do you feel included?

These are just some of the questions that the Forward Together youth program participants (FT Youth) are asking their peers in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). As part of their Sex Ed the City: More Than Just Protection campaign, FT Youth developed their own Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) project. They collected over 500 surveys among students in the OUSD, across gender identities and race/ethnicity. Their resulting report is hella sexy: “Let’s Get It On: Oakland Youth’s New Vision for Sex Ed.” Some of the important findings include that 63% of students aren’t learning about sexual health for LGBTQ students; 54% aren’t receiving education about sex orientation, gender identity, and gender roles; and 64% of students want to spend more school time on sex education than they currently are.

Based on these findings and many personal stories from students, the FT Youth are now calling on the OUSD decision makers and Oakland community members to make sure that students have access to comprehensive sex ed, reproductive health care services, and a safe school culture in which they can be who they want to be at all times.

FT Youth are demanding that their sex education provides all the information that students need to make empowered decisions about their bodies. The report outlines a concrete list of what comprehensive sex education should really include—everything from information on all available contraception options, to conversations about how to effectively talk to parents/guardians about sex, sexuality, gender, and relationships. They’re demanding that age-appropriate sex education and health be taught by qualified teachers, starting in kindergarten and continuing to 12th grade. They’re also demanding that the changes go beyond just the classrooms, and into a reevaluation of school culture, which needs to be more culturally competent, relevant, and inclusive for every student.

And to think that all this work is being done by youth aged 14–20 is incredible. The FT Youth are composed of Asian teens from Oakland who discuss issues relevant to their everyday lives, including expectations of family and society, healthy relationships, sex and sexuality, body image, and gender expectations. Forward Together offers an especially unique space for young Asian men, who are too often excluded from conversations about sex and sexuality. At Forward Together, they find an opportunity to learn that reproductive justice is not just for women, and that nonoppressive forms of masculinity exist.

Having these safe, stigma-free spaces at youth organizations is great. But ideally schools would also be this kind of place, so that all students can have access to safe space. As a Japanese American girl raised in a family that never mentioned anything related to sex or sexuality, I depended solely on my high school to give me the information that I needed (because unfortunately, I didn’t have access to any cool youth organizations). My high school failed me miserably; it was a safe space only for those who embraced heterosexism and gender stereotypes. And my sex education class consisted of putting a condom on a banana and reading some photocopied worksheets about peer pressure and STIs. Yeah, major fail.

Mina and friends
If I hadn’t been lucky enough to find amazing friends, I’m pretty sure that in the following years, I would have made many more misinformed choices that would have hurt me and others. I mean, the sex ed in my school hadn’t taught me the first thing about how to effectively communicate about sex, consent, and respect. One of my most empowering moments was to have my friends tell me that I can decide for myself what I do or don’t want to do, and when I want to do it, whether it be in a long-term relationship or a one-night stand. And that if my sexual choices lead others to judge me as a prude or a slut, well, I don’t have to give two sh*ts. If it hadn’t been for these friends, I would still be lost in this maze of mainstream media’s misleading, unrealistic, heteronormative, and patriarchal portrayals of sex. (Seriously, I would have been reading Cosmo instead of Jezebel. Life would have been so different.)

In our current society where Asian men are often asexualized and Asian womyn are hypersexualized (at the same time as being portrayed as subservient, passive, and docile...ugh), it’s refreshing and empowering to see Asian youth publicly declaring that they are individuals making their own choices about their bodies, genders, and sexualities, demanding access to all the information that they need and have a right to receive. These youth are the next generation of fierce and powerful souls making a difference, y’all. Not just in Oakland, but across the whole nation. I’m so excited to see what we can accomplish together.

Mina is a senior a Swathmore College and a former Forward Together intern.