The Birth of this Project
Even though I grew up and lived in Atlanta, I did not attend an urban public school. I had the privilege of attending a private international school in the heart of Buckhead — a wealthier neighborhood of Atlanta — that had an entire curriculum entitled “Making Good Decisions”, which would require my whole grade of 86 unamused teenagers to attend an assembly, listen to a speaker, or do some type of activity regarding sexual health, bullying, drugs and alcohol, or safe driving. While in the moment none of us particularly enjoyed these events (other than them allowing us to miss classes), I realize now after this project how fortunate I was that my school provided me with complete and accurate information before I even knew I needed or wanted it.
My mother works at the CDC, specifically studying HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases, which means that in addition to the cute “Human papillomavirus conference 2003” tote bags that I used for slumber parties and school trips growing up, I had no shortage of “sex talks” — from my mother or supplementary sources. Already by 4th grade I was enrolled in a very comprehensive sex education program called Our Whole Lives that I attended weekly in the basement of my Unitarian Universalist congregation building, taught by a lesbian couple who walked us through the OWL curricula led by our handy “textbook” that had all the answers to questions I never even had.
It was only earlier this semester, at a Bowdoin Women’s Association meeting, that I began to reflect on these memories and my experience with sexual education. The topic of the meeting was sex ed, and we were freely sharing our experiences with it in our schooling. This was the first time that I heard stories of other forms of sexual education – forms where teachers began by giving the girls pieces of tape, instructing them to stick it to 5 boys shoulders, then pointing out how the tape has lost its stickiness and finishing the lesson by comparing girls who have premarital sex or sex with more than one partner to the unsticky, “useless” piece of tape, reinforcing the problematic view that a woman’s virginity determines their worth and appeal. Other Bowdoin students at the meeting chimed in with similar stories but versions that involved making the girls crush an apple, chew a piece of gum, or wrinkle a sheet of paper, all to emphasize the same message: you are unappealing, unloveable and no one will want you if you have sex with anyone other than your future husband. Many students also recalled being guilted and shamed into signing an abstinence pledge in front of the whole class.
Appalled at these stories, I began asking around. I spoke to many friends back home and at Bowdoin about their experiences with sexual education and quickly realized that my experience was very unique. Angered but inspired, I decided to focus my website on the disparity and inadequacies of sex education in schools. And what better place to look at than Atlanta?
The Class & My Project
Before this course, I had never heard of “organizing” other than in the context of having an organized room or being an “organized student”. I was not even aware of the existence of careers in community organizing, let alone the incredible empowerment and accomplishments that can come from successful community organizing. Through the paper I wrote on the principles of education and organizing in particular, I learned not only of the complex challenges and barriers (often structurally) that organizers face, but more importantly of the essential — and often underappreciated — role that community organizers play in affecting change and progress in all aspects of communities.
During the course of this project, I was first disheartened and frustrated by the many peer-reviewed and practitioner articles that I read which outlined the drastic negative effects of poor sex education on individuals, families and communities. I could not understand why abstinence-only programs still exist in schools even though they have been proven to be ineffective, or why some states don’t even require sex education after all the research that has shown it to be so beneficial in developing young adults who can make healthy decisions for themselves and generally be respectful citizens. However, toward the end of my research, I was inspired by the work that many community members, parents, and teachers are doing through various grassroots organizations to ensure that students have access to the information they deserve.
I hope that even if I don’t personally teach full time, I can at least be involved in advocating for scientifically-accurate, inclusive and comprehensive sex education in my community schools. Who knows – perhaps I can even become an OWL teacher like the ones I had growing up.
– Izzy :)