18 November 2010

You Will Get Pregnant, And Die- sex education opinion piece written by Selena Torrado

    Sex education is an experience that brings one of two memories to my mind- the first of walking, red faced and weak kneed, to the desk in front of the class room, on which a monstrous, purple, shiny, plastic penis stands erect next to a trojan condom. I am expected to slip the condom onto the penis, but my hands are to sweaty to open the wrapper. The class breaks down into hysterical laughter, the kind of hyena like shrieks that only a room full of 12 year old girls can produce. I repeat “this too shall pass, this too shall pass” over and over to myself while trying to figure out how to possibly stretch such a small condom over such a large phallus.
    The second takes place 4 years later in high school. My petite, blonde health teacher is lecturing us on the dangers of premarital sex- emotional distress, pregnancy out of wedlock, STDs-while sitting in front of a large projected image of a vagina covered in red lesions. I feel nauseated and somewhat annoyed as she repeats, for the umpteenth time, that “Abstinence is the only 100% guaranteed protection against STDs and pregnancy.” No. Shit.
    The Abstinence vs Comprehensive Sex Education debate has been covered extensively in the news and watched closely by parents and teachers. Teenage girls themselves are rarely asked their opinion on the matter, even though we are the people who this effects the most. If anyone stopped to ask me, I would tell them that both of these programs have hugely failed me. My real sex education, like the “sex ed” of most teens I know, came from personal trial and error, experiences that felt like stabs in the dark- and this is a shame.
    The downfall of both of the sex education classes I was subjected to were that the teachers treated us like empty buckets that they could fill and mold with information and moral commentary. In order to be successful, Sex Ed programs need to treat their students as intelligent, critically thinking human beings capable of forming their own opinions and acting on their own decisions, while at the same time being conscious of the fact that they are extremely vulnerable to mis information and pressure from their peers, family, teachers, and media.
    Abstinence-only or -primarily based programs do not meet either of these criteria. The idea that we need a whole course in order to understand the obvious- that abstinence is the only 100% effective protection against STDs and pregnancy- is an insult to our intelligence. Abstinence can be completely effective on an individual level, when a person decides for him or herself that they want to refrain from sex. Institutional abstinence, however, fails. This comprises abstinence only sex ed, purity pledges, rings, balls, or any other scenario where the decision to remain abstinence is made by people other than the teen expected to be abstinent. In order for any program to be successful, it needs to engage its students in a discussion, where both parties- the teacher and student- exchange thoughts and ideas.
    Comprehensive Sex education does take this approach to some extent. Providing purely factual information about contraceptives, pregnancy, intercourse, body parts, and STDs honors our intelligence and right to information in a way that repeating the abstinence based slogan does not. The progressiveness, in most cases, ends there. Providing us with scientific facts and the tools to take control of our sexuality is wonderful and necessary. However, we need more information in order to be able to make a completely informed decision about whether or not to have sex. We need to know how to communicate what we want and don’t want from sex with another person, what exactly sex does and does not entail, and all of the external factors (history of sexuality in this country, current societal expectations, family expectations, the media, religion) that contribute to an individual’s sex life. Telling us the ways to have safe sex without explaining the multi faceted and complex nature of sex and sexuality is somewhat irresponsible and by no means comprehensive.
    The success of a sexual education program cannot be measured by the percentage of teens who abstained or delayed having sex, because this does not necessarily mean that their first times engaging in sexual intercourse (married or unmarried) were any less traumatic. In order to reduce the trauma of many girls first times engaging in a sexual act, they need to know exactly what that act consists of. I want to have been taught about the pain and the pleasure, bodily fluids, and noises involved in order to combat the sterilized version of sex that I have been confronted with from an early age, which simply involves kissing, nudity, moaning, dim lighting, and romantic background music. I want to have been taught how to communicate that it hurts when he fingers me, but would feel a lot better if he would rub my clitoris instead. I want to have been taught that, despite what he says happens in porn videos, I am not required to swallow his ejaculate, and need to advocate for myself when I feel uncomfortable.
    The most important thing for a sex education program to do is not idealize sex (marital or premarital), not idealize marriage, not idealize “love”, not idealize a non marital romantic relationship, and not idealize or fetishize virginity or the loss of virginity. Sex ed should be honest and inclusive, and should provide me with an understanding of  the multiple theories about sexuality (feminist, religious, etc.). Sex ed should, above all, enable girls to communicate and advocate for what they do and don’t want their sexuality to consist of. This is what I, as an american teenage girl, want from my school. Ya know, in case anyone cares.

14 November 2010

Femtastic! interviewed by Danielle Burch of "Experimentations of a Teenage Feminist"

A few weeks ago,  I contacted Danielle Burch, author of blog Experimentations of a Teenage Feminist (featured on our blog roll) and founder of Real Beauty Revolution, a feminist club at her school. Here is the link to our interview on her blog. Stay tuned for her interview on ours! http://teenage-feminist.blogspot.com/
Danielle: What is your club called, and when/why did you decide to start it?

Selena: My club is called Femtastic. I decided to start it after becoming interested in feminism and exploring it on my own for a couple years. When I started high school I started reading books such as Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti, Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy, and Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin. The ideas that these authors presented about gender identity and societal influence made extremely clear sense to me, especially after all of the confusion and mixed messages about gender roles in middle school. Reading these books was really empowering, in that they provided me with a context to view my evolving sexuality and status as a woman. As I found out about feminist blogs and forums such as Feministing and Bitch Magazine, it dawned on me that there is a whole feminist community out there that I really wanted to be involved in. The most accessible way for me to become involved was to create a feminist community in my school, where I spend the most time anyway. I started talking to my friend Zoloo, who is also interested in feminism and gender issues, and the club grew from there.

D: What has your club accomplished so far, and what do you have planned for the future?

S: So far, my club has started our Portrayal of Men and Women in the Media unit. We have discussed messages about gender roles that music videos, tv shows, and advertisements portray. We identified the impact these messages have on our personal lives, and reached the conclusion that the youth needs to be more directly involved in media development, so that the diversity of our thoughts, feelings and experiences are accurately portrayed. We are working on figuring out a concrete way that youth involvement can be implemented by entertainment firms such as MTV, VH1 and Disney Channel.

For the future, we plan to cover many more topics such as, but not limited to, Global Feminism, Teen Sexuality, Reproductive Rights, Prevalence of Pornography in Teen Culture, and the Importance of Comprehensive Sex Education. Our next unit will probably be Global Feminism. Our primary activity during this unit will be to team up with the Girl Up Campaign, a UN organization that works to mobilize American teens to raise money for programs that help combat issues such as Child Prostitution, Early Marraige, and Lack of Education, all of which are issues that girls in developing nations face. We plan to put on a fair which would inform people about the campaign and the issues it tackles. We hope to bring in Cornell professors to speak about some of these issues. All proceeds from this event will go to the Girl Up campaign.

In addition to this, we also plan on developing some kind of middle school outreach. We have all agreed as a club that middle school is the time when many girls question and are bombarded with opinions about how they should act and what they should believe as women. We hope to talk to and support middle school aged girls and boys during this period of huge change and confusion.

D: What is the key to attracting (and retaining) members?

S: I think that the key to attracting members is to advertise throughout your school. I created a bulletin board in a major hallway, passed out fliers, and made announcements on our school TV. Make sure that the student body is aware of the clubs existence. Also, it is important to be prepared to describe exactly what your club is about, what you hope to achieve, and what some of the activities will be, because there is a lot of confusion regarding the word “feminism” that you will need to clear up.

As for retaining members, that is something I am still learning, as my club is relatively new. I try to really involve the club members in discussions and make them feel like their opinion matters. Beyond that, I will learn as I go along.

D: What advice do you have for other high school students who'd like to start a feminism/women's rights club, but don't know where to start?

S: My advice to students who want to start a feminist club is to reach out to your community. I have gotten so much support from my local university (Cornell), Planned Parenthood, and school. I was actually shocked by how supportive, helpful, and excited most people were about the club. The majority of opportunities have come from groups and individuals in the community. For example, our local Planned Parenthood invited us to their yearly celebration, where we got to hear Michelle Goldberg, journalist and author of The Means Of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, speak. The Cornell Women’s Resource Center has been really helpful and offered us access to their speakers and events, as well as a way to apply for co-sponsorship for our own events. Basically, seek out people and organizations in your community who you think would support you, and don’t be afraid to ask for favors and advice.

D: Why do you think girls are sometimes reluctant to call themselves feminists? Is there anything we, as teens, can do about this?

S: I think that girls are reluctant to call themselves feminists because there are so many negative connotations surrounding that word. I think that for most people the word “feminist” evokes an angry, man bashing, bitter female who complains about the “patriarchy” but does not have much to back up her complaints. One way to combat this is through education. This image of a feminist is an ignorant one, and the way to combat ignorance is with information. If you identify as a feminist and have knowledge of specific feminist beliefs, ideals, and progress, don’t be afraid to share it with others. Feminist theory and ideology applies to almost every moral, scientific, economic, global, and interpersonal topic there is, so there are plenty of chances to bring up feminist ideas both in class and in personal discussions.