Future of Feminism: Sex Education As a Human Right

In these days when conservative legislators try to foist abstinence-only sex education on young people (kudos to Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah, who vetoed one such bill), it’s a good time to reiterate that conversations about healthy sexuality need not be confined to a “less is more,” procreation-focused dialogue. Rather, let’s push forward discussions of sexuality in terms of self-reliance, autonomy, exploration, consent and, yes, pleasure.

A feminist approach to sex education shifts the focus from insisting on abstinence to making a safe and informed decision. Heather Corinna, founder and editor of Scarleteen, an online sexual health resource for teens and young adults, characterizes sexuality and sexual health as key issues for the feminist movement. She urges sex education to strive for inclusivity, in order to “inform people about the sexualities, bodies, identities and lives of others different than their own.”

Corinna also wrote S.E.X: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College, an in-depth crash course on sex-positive feminist sex education. The guide includes such topics as gender and sexual orientation, misogyny and the anatomy of the clitoris. Underlying the information is the notion of comprehensive sex education as a basic human right. Corinna says,

It’s [hard] for people to understand how very important their rights–their sexual rights, their reproductive rights, their human rights–are when they haven’t had access to information and education to understand how their bodies work, how their sexual lives can be and the impact … restricted rights can have on our whole lives, including our sexual lives.

Sex education is also being transformed on an international level. The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWCH) recently developed a project that teaches sexual health with an emphasis on holistic sexuality. The IWCH’s two-volume It’s All One Curriculum intertwines gender equality and sex education, offering study guides on such topics as gender and bodily autonomy, sexual well-being and advocacy and “learning about one’s body: a global movement.” Contributors to the project include the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, the Population Council and the Girls Power Initiative. The two volumes are now a popular resource for adapting local contemporary sex education curricula into an international, rights-based approach.

The need for a new rhetoric on sex-ed has led women to speak out individually and collectively on social, political and professional platforms. Whether it is teaching youth about respecting their bodies, re-claiming the word “slut” in Slutwalks across the globe, or blogging in support of Sandra Fluke, a sex-positive language is being developed through activism. Feminists sex educators are using this language to advocate knowledge about sexuality as a tool of empowerment, and to help envision a society where women are agents of their own sexual freedom.

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