[Welcome Jessica Fields, and Host, Heather Corinna, Artist, Author and Activist, her website is Scarleteen. As a reminder, please take off-topic discussions to a different thread. bevw]
Since its dawn in America around 100 years ago, sex education has been and remains a controversial and provocative topic with often greatly polarized opinions about and approaches to it. In the last 12 years, since the advent of federally-funded abstinence-only sex education, the battles over sex ed by parents, advocacy, religious and health organizations and the government have amplified. Yet, caught in the middle are the students and teachers whose everyday experiences of sex education are seldom as clear-cut as either side of the debate suggests. With teen STI [sexually transmitted illness], pregnancy and birth rates in the U.S. still the highest of any developed nation, and with teens living in a world of increasingly mixed sexual messages, these issues are crucial.
Yet, whether we’re talking about abstinence-only or comprehensive sex education, the issue doesn’t stop at who is getting what kind of sex education. As someone who works to fill in sex education gaps for teens, no matter what type of sex ed they have or have not had, I can attest to the importance of looking not just at the battles around sex education and assuring young people get the information they need, but of issues in and around sex education which are often overlooked or diminished.
Any type of sex ed, particularly when administered through the schools, still exists in the macrocosms and microcosms of both the social and school environment and the greater context of the world we, and teens, live in. While most sex ed focuses on risk management, sexuality is far larger than something as simple as either having sex or not, or either suffering or avoiding negative health consequences. Issues of social inequities, the precarious balance of power within sexual and other interpersonal relationships and the politics of pleasure all play a part — even when left unaddressed by curricula — in what any kind of sex ed teaches, in how it is taught and learned and in what a student walks away from sex education with… and without.
Our guest for today’s discussion is Jessica Fields, author of "Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality." Risky Lessons brings readers inside three North Carolina middle schools to show how students and teachers support and subvert the official curriculum through their questions, choices, viewpoints, and reactions. The book highlights how sex education’s formal and informal lessons reflect and reinforce gender, race, and class inequalities.
Ultimately critical of both conservative and liberal approaches, Fields argues for curricula that promote social and sexual justice. Sex education’s aim need not be limited to reducing the risks of adolescent pregnancies, disease, and sexual activity. Rather, its lessons should help young people to recognize and contend with sexual desires, power, and inequalities.
Jessica Fields is an Associate Professor of Sociology at San Francisco State University, where she is also the Interim Director of the Public Research Institute and a Research Associate at the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality. In 2008, Professor Fields published Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality (Rutgers UP). In her most recent work, Professor Fields leads a participatory action research study of HIV education and imprisoned women of color in San Francisco County Jail 8 (CJ8). Professor Fields is also board president of Health Initiatives for Youth, a San Francisco-based community organization whose mission is to improve the health and well-being of young people by empowering them through education, advocacy and leadership opportunities.