Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Language used in sexuality education should meet teens where they are…

Successful sexuality education curriculums reflect the common language of the young students, according to this report by Associate Research Scientist, Chi-Chi Undie, Research Officer, Joanna Crichton, and Deputy Director/Director of Research, Eliya Zulu, all of the African Population and Health Research Center. The report focuses on a 2006 study of Malawi youth. The Malawi data was culled from an international project that held focus groups and interviewed 12 to 19 year olds and adults involved in the lives of youth. The research revealed that “youth-only language” was an important aspect of teenager’s interpersonal communication about sexuality and was used as a way to keep “their sexual knowledge hidden from parents, other adults, and younger children.” The youth had specific terminology for many aspects of sexuality, including sexual acts, genitalia, and partnership arrangements.

Specific findings about their language use revealed three main ideas that many youth share about sex: “sex is utilitarian,” “sex is pleasurable,” and “sex is passionate.” Emotional connection was not focused on by the youth in their conversations. The researchers found that youth open up about sexuality more as part of a focus group than as an interview subject and thus recommended small group discussion settings for sexuality education.

Undie, Crichton, and Zulu recommend including the use of metaphors related to sexuality as part of lesson plans to effectively teach good decision making, equality of the sexes, and improve the “sexual agency” of female youth. They also recommend that pleasure, passion and utility are included in the lessons in order to keep sexuality education relevant to the students. They point out that the subjects that youth leave out of their day to day discussions of sex must also be broached during the classes in order to challenge the students and broaden their knowledge of things like rape and condom use.

While this study brings to mind some embarrassing memories of my first sex-ed class in the late 80’s, more urgently, it causes me even more concern about the current state of sex-ed in the U.S. than I was already experiencing. My three little sons will soon begin learning about sexuality, in fact, my seven year old already has. We are teaching him about appropriate and inappropriate touch and boundaries. He has discovered on his own that a person can derive pleasure from genital stimulation. All three of them are also learning the social skills that will (hopefully) lead them to respect eventual sex partners.

The current rise of abstinence only education is frightening and unrealistic on so many levels that have been discussed in depth here, here, and many many other places. This study reveals yet another way that the trend is doomed to fail at preventing sex, pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, rape, or abortion. I suspect that abstinence only education doesn’t draw the language used by youth to discuss sexuality into its curriculum. In fact, I bet the proponents of abstinence only are often oblivious to the coded sexual metaphors youth use and have the wool pulled way over their eyes.

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