The Edge of Sex
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The Edge of Sex

Navigating a Sexually Confusing Culture from the Margins

Lisa Speidel, Micah Jones, Lisa Speidel, Micah Jones

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eBook - ePub

The Edge of Sex

Navigating a Sexually Confusing Culture from the Margins

Lisa Speidel, Micah Jones, Lisa Speidel, Micah Jones

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About This Book

The Edge of Sex is an anthology of voices from the margins, bringing together 37 writers to discuss their experiences of sex and sex education in America.

The anthology explores often overlooked and excluded identities, with pieces on sexuality and disabilities, survivors of assault, sex work as women of color, kink and BDSM, being Muslim and queer, reproductive rights, and the challenges of culture and identity when grappling with gender fluidity and gendered expectations. As they trace the negative effects of a restrictive, fear-based sex education – particularly on marginalized individuals – these stories unearth larger themes: tensions with race and religion, expectations from heteronormative society, and pressures of femininity and masculinity. Importantly, they also highlight the resilience and empowerment of marginalized individuals within a culture designed to ostracize them.

The rich, diverse, and intersectional stories of The Edge of Sex paint a contextualized picture of sex education and make an urgent case for better representation and more inclusive, consistent, and comprehensive content. By reading this anthology, casual readers may learn more about their sexual selves, clinicians can apply the material to their practices with clients, and educators and students can expand their knowledge of feminist theory, intersectional theory, queer theory, and sex education.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2019
ISBN
9781000736991
Edition
1

1
Introduction

Lisa Speidel and Micah Jones
Hester Prynne, for a vast number of American teenagers, stands at the intersection between literature and sex education. The adulterous protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s often-anthologized The Scarlet Letter embodies certain tensions within the education system. In many areas of the United States, sex education might not be taught, and if it is, the available approaches are limited and often less than helpful. Federal, common, and statutory law often determine what content is allowed in sex education, all pending parental authority. In many cases, students will receive no formal sex education; meanwhile, Hester Prynne is forced into English curricula. Yet The Scarlet Letter remains unchallenged, with little acknowledgment or scrutiny of the sexual content of the text. Novels and poetry taught in high school often euphemistically describe sex and sexuality in such dichotomous, confusing, and negative terms. Take Addie’s use of sex as a weapon via childbirth in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Jay Gatsby’s hedonism in The Great Gatsby. These common, all-white examples from literature of nuanced, complex subjects are hardly a stand-in for how sex should function in a healthy relationship. Yet, for many American teenagers, the color-free stories of Addie’s vindictive sex life and Hester’s definitive adultery are the only few glimpses of sexuality they are taught during high school.
Although we are not taught about sex exclusively in school, the tensions and controversy surrounding sex education mirror everyday life. American culture discourages an open dialogue on human sexuality—the way we experience and express ourselves as sexual beings biologically, erotically, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Today, there are several conflicting approaches that concern sexuality via education: from parents demanding that they alone should be responsible for teaching their children, to select schools giving comprehensive sex education, to abstinence-only sex education programs. In the United States, each state has the power to decide what is appropriate for its constituents, which means there is no consistency in the curricula across the country. The decision to pick and choose sex education at the state level (which often trickles down to the local level) exacerbates the tensions already present. This is especially troublesome since courses can be fraught with misinformation, medically inaccurate content, and stereotypes that perpetuate biases against gender, sexual, and racial identities. According to the Guttmacher Institute Analysis published in July 2018,1 only 13 states are required to provide medically accurate sex education, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, and 36 states allow parents to remove their children from sex education courses. Children and young adults receive inconsistent or no sex education, which greatly influences their interactions with sex and American culture at large.
Popular media in the United States is filled with sexual clichés, distortions of fact, patriarchal gender norms, and vague innuendoes. Some viable information is available; but each individual must seek it out rather than having it readily accessible in “pop culture.” Mainstream pornography, pop music, TV sitcoms, advertisements, and so on—almost every single aspect that makes up the elusive and morally righteous nuclear household is teeming with confusing imagery and gender roles for predominantly sexually submissive, cisgender, white women and sexually dominant, cisgender, white men. Children are consuming this barrage of images, ideals, advertisements, and pornography by an increasingly earlier and earlier age.2
Yet when we start to ask simple questions about this ever-pervasive sexuality in our culture, the conversation ends abruptly. Because comprehensive sex education is not taught uniformly, abstinence-only education is commonly taught, and conflicting messages come from different religious leaders, varying cultural backgrounds, parents, government, and the popular media. This can leave young adults bewildered, believing in warped ideas of power and sex and that sex is something to be ashamed of and afraid of, and a topic that parents are often unable and unprepared to talk to their children about. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and filled with contradictions.
These curricula are also filled with misconstrued concepts of virginity, antiquated superstitions, and medically unsound information. According to Jessica Valenti in her book The Purity Myth, the current American idea of virginity is a “sham being perpetrated against women.”3 She states, “It’s this inextricable relationship between sexual purity and women—how we’re either virgins or not virgins—that makes the very concept of virginity so dangerous and so necessary to do away with.”4 Cisgender men and women are expected to embrace their sexuality in hypocritical and severely patriarchal ways: women are shamed for being sexual (sluts) and men are expected to want to have sex constantly (studs). Significant issues like power dynamics, the impact of gender socialization, violence, trauma, pleasure, respect, communication, and consent are not represented in mainstream American culture.
Eventually, when sex is actually discussed, the focus is often on pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and contraception. The curriculum is typically designed for the aforementioned “average person.” Dominant-culture sexual representation caters to heterosexual, cisgender, white couples, and those who do not conform to this standard—whether in their presentation, sexual orientation, sexual practices, gender identity, race, age, religion, ability, and so on—often have no representation.
The expectations become evident: marriage, monogamy, multiply (procreate). Americans buy into this trope so readily that it influences the way we interact with children, create and view literature and television, and quantify our romances. For someone who does not fit the mold of the “average person,” no such narrative or expectation is present within dominant culture norms.

The History of Sex Education in America From the 20th Century to Present

Historically, those in control of sex education ostracized and excluded individuals and implemented practices in an attempt to control sexual behaviors. These practices included the proselytization of the “evils” of masturbation, the promotion of personal hygiene, the advancement of racist ideologies and white “moral purity,” the control of immigration, the initiation of the eugenics movement and forced sterilization, the call for the abolition of homosexuality, the perpetuation of traditional gender roles, and the education and teaching surrounding prevention of pregnancy and premarital sex. In the mid-20th century, varying factions developed concerning the approach to sex education. The year 1964 marked a pivotal time when progressive efforts attempting to address sex education in America evolved. During this time, the medical director of Planned Parenthood, Dr. Mary Calderone, founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) in order to address her concerns that sexuality education was extremely problematic, as it promoted “inaccurate information about sex, sexuality, and sexual health.”5
These efforts were soon labeled “comprehensive” sex education, but according to Irvine, the creation of this kind of sex education did not deter other factions from working on abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs. More conservative groups continue to perceive this “openness as misguided and irresponsible,”6 and believe that sex should be confined to marriage and that “if we talk to young people about sexuality, it should be restricted so as not to lead to destructive and immoral thoughts and behaviors.”7
As the battle over sex education continued, it became politicized. In 1981, during Reagan’s administration, the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) was signed into law. Religiously inspired and staunchly advocating abstinence, chastity, and “family values,” AFLA initiated federally funded programs that attempted to solve the “problem” of teenage pregnancy. The solutions appeared twofold: 1. abstain from sex and 2. if pregnant, choose adoption over abortion.8 The concerns in AFLA targeted “adolescents” who were pregnant, thinly disguised language that meant unmarried, teenage girls, and often had racial overtones towards girls of color.9 AFLA sponsored programs teaching the importance of an abstinence-only approach to sex. Because of the fear surrounding the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s, AOUM programs became more popular. By 1999, 40% of sex education instructors felt that abstinence was the best option to stop the spread of the disease.10
Faith-based organizations were able to access the funds for AOUM education, as long as the programming did not focus on indoctrination into a certain religion. However, certain religious concepts were promoted through AOUM programming, such as virginity pledges. In 1993, the Southern Baptist Convention’s operation LifeWay Christian Resources started “True Love Waits,” a program that to this day makes teenagers sign a pledge to promise to abstain from sex until marriage. Many programs evolved after this, some that were also secular, including “Pure Love Alliance, No Apologies, Sex Respect,” and “Worth the Wait.” An example of a pledge from “Sex Respect” reads:
I_________________, promise to abstain from sex until my wedding night. I want to reserve my sexual powers to give life and love for my future spouse and marriage. I will respect my gift of sexuality by keeping my mind and thoughts pure as I prepare for my true love. I commit to grow in character to learn to live ...

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