As a notorious Vagina-American On The Internet™, I have solemnly undertaken the duty to report on vagina-related news, if and when I feel like it. Like today, for instance.
The impetus for this post started about two weeks ago, when the Palace received an alarming missive from the New York Civil Liberties Union:
You won’t believe what passes for sex ed in classrooms across New York:
- A school district in the North Country defined the vagina as a “sperm deposit.”
- A district in western New York used a handout portraying women as “hazardous material.”
- A district in the Capital Region mentioned same-sex attraction as a cause to seek “counseling.”
These are just a few of many startling findings in Birds, Bees and Bias: How Absent Sex Ed Standards Fail New York’s Students — a report the NYCLU released yesterday that examines sex-ed instruction in 82 New York public school districts. We found that school districts statewide have used sex-ed materials that are inaccurate, incomplete or biased.
The report makes clear how the lack of binding statewide sex-ed standards is jeopardizing the health and well being of New York’s youth.
Nearly 45 percent of New York’s male high school students and about 40 percent of female students are sexually active — but 1-in-3 boys reported that they don’t use condoms and 4-in-5 girls say they don’t take birth control pills. New York’s teen pregnancy rate is the 11th highest amongst the 50 states. And about 1-in-3 of new sexually transmitted infections diagnosed in New York each year occur among residents 19 and younger.
Understandably, the information contained in this important missive seriously pissed me off. I downloaded the NYCLU’s report. As I began slogging through it, I found my jaw perpetually agape: those bullet points in the email? They weren’t the half of it. (You can download a pdf of the report here; a longer summary and press release on NYCLU’s site is here.) And in the interim, Martha Kempner at RH Reality Check did a bang up job of evaluating the NYCLU report, employing generous proportions of mockery to season the “highlights.”
I could have just linked to that piece and left it at that, but I’m not. And that is because neither the report nor Ms. Kempner’s piece point the proverbial finger at the culprits responsible for this sorry stats of affairs. As I see it, the major roots of the problem are two. First, with the exception of the five boroughs of New York City (yay NYC!), general sex education is not required in New York State public schools. In 2005, the State published sexuality and sexual health instruction guidelines, but they are not binding on school districts. The 2012 national sex education standards are non-binding as well. As a result, educators are supplementing or supplanting inaccurate or outdated information in abstinence-only textbooks with their own materials, many of which also contain inaccurate and outdated information, as well as sexist, shame-based, intolerant, heterosexist messaging likely to exacerbate the very problems sex education purports to address. The practical effect of all of this is entirely predictable: “vast gaps in skills, awareness and knowledge that risk great potential harm.” Fortunately, the solution is as straightforward and simple as it is obvious: make sex education instructions standard, comprehensive, value-neutral and binding. Unfortunately, the political will to do so appears shaky at best — and that is because of the intractability of the second major root of the problem: Conservative Personality Disorder.
Let me state at the outset what should be obvious, but just in case: the health and wellbeing of the nation’s vaginas directly and significantly impacts the entirely of our society, including men (straight or gay or otherwise). For example, teen pregnancy is correlated with profound and long-term effects on poverty, education, health care, and the cost and scale of social programs — to say nothing of the direct effects of unwanted pregnancies on teens themselves, male and female. Sexually Transmitted Infection (“STI”) rates, particularly for asymptomatic diseases such as early HIV infections, are an entirely preventable problem that, due to the nature of human sexuality and our culture’s problematic views about it, flow back and forth between sexes and sexual orientations. Further, misinformation (or a lack of any information whatsoever) about female sexuality appears to track closely with misinformation (or non-information) about male sexuality and LGBTQi sexuality as well. And of course no matter who you are, you can still have a mother, daughter, sister, niece, wife or female friend whom you love and whose health and wellbeing you value tremendously: provided you’re not an @$$hole and/or a conservative, you would insist that the women and girls in your life have access to all of the information and resources they need to make informed decisions about their sexual relationships and reproductive health throughout their lives. (Just as I want men and boys to be so empowered.)
When I recently wrote about the evil FAIL that is gender essentialism in public schools, I described it this way:
in the essentialist view, a person’s gender can fall only into one of two separate and distinct categories—”male” and “female”—and any variation within each gender is only a secondary consideration—at best incidental, at worst a “problem” requiring a “solution.”
Ironically, for all their focus on math abilities gender essentialists only appear to be able to count to two. Rather than acknowledging that any real sex-specific cognitive abilities fall on overlapping bell curves … the essentialists insist that their silly male/female binary is, or more accurately should be, representative of reality. Incidentally, those (such as yours truly) who take issue with the gender essentialists do not posit that there are no innate biological differences between male and female brains. My own view is that to the extent any such differences actually exist, (a) they fall on those aforementioned widely overlapping bell curves … and (b) the differences are largely if not entirely inconsequential with respect to nearly any endeavor in the real world.
I also noted:
I am hardly the first to recognize that political conservatism correlates with gender essentialist thinking: it goes a long way toward explaining the right’s misogyny and anti-feminism, homophobia and anti-gay bullying, hostility to women’s reproductive rights, militarism, and a whole host of conservative attitudes.
As it turns out, when I wrote that I was woefully uninformed. The problem is not just sex-segregated classrooms and the harm to girls (and boys) caused by basing their education on scientifically disproven stereotypes, although that is certainly
blogworthy bad enough. But in the Year of Our Lard 2012, New York State public schools are actively teaching kids harmful and disproven stereotypes. As much as conservatives love to screech about the “indoctrination” of our nation’s schoolchildren with the dreaded Godless Liberal Values and that infernal Gay Agenda, take a look at these illustrations from a classroom worksheet, and consider just who is doing the indoctrinating:
From this helpful exhibit, we learn the critically important information that males have not one but two ginourmous areas of their brains devoted strictly to “SEX,” each of which overwhelms every other mental function. In descending order of gray matter magnitude — after “SEX” and “SEX” of course — the male brain is devoted to: “ability to drive manual transmissions,” “dangerous pursuits,” “T.V. and remote control addiction centre,” the “lame excuses gland,” the “crotch-scanning area,” “ball sports,” the “avoid personal questions at all costs” area, and the tiny (but non-negligible!) “attention span.” Brain areas too small for the scale and resolution of this useful graphic are “domestic skills,”"toilet aiming area” and “ironing.” In case you missed the meta-message here, the graphic also points out that the “Listening to children cry in the middle of the night” gland is not shown due to its small size and “underdeveloped nature.” Hahaha… hilarious!
Meanwhile, behold the “female brain”:
You see, in the female brain the largest lobe (followed closely by the “chocolate centre”) is the “need for commitment hemisphere.” Then comes “telephone skills,” the “indecision nucleus,” the” jealously” area, “listening,” and “shopping” — followed by the related and all-important “shoe/handbag coordination” lobe. The smallest portion of note is the tiny “SEX” cell, accompanied by this footnote: “Note how closely the small sex cell is the the listening gland.”
Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me.
Or how about this helpful handout about women, cleverly titled Hazardous Materials Data Sheet?
From this informative graphic, girls (and boys!) can learn a lot of important “facts” about women:
- women are a “hazardous material,” discovered by “Adam.” Very, very interesting. (I know an excellent bartender named Adam. I will totally have to ask him what he knows about this. )
- women are “accepted” at 55kg (121 lbs). BUT! Abnormal specimens unfortunately abound, varying from 45kg (100lbs) to 225kg (500 lbs). Good to know.
- women are “specimens” to be “possessed.” I feel so much more empowerfulled already.
- My body surface is “normally” covered with a “film of powder or paint.”
- “Boils at absolutely nothing—freezes for no apparent reason.” Right. Because men who think of women in these terms are never, EVER huge @$$holes.
- I can be “found in various grades ranging from virgin material to common ore.” [Get it? "Common ore." Hahaha.]
- I react well to “gold, platinum and all precious stones.” (You should really ask My Amazing Lover™ about that.)
- I explode spontaneously without reason or warning. (Just wondering: does exploding at sexist or conservative stupidity technically count as “without reason or warning?”)
- I am the “most powerful money-reducing agent known to man.” OMFG I AM FREAKING AWESOME. Also: I have never earned any money myself! Ever! I only have the power to reduce the (rightfully) earned money of “man.” (I am going to have to learn to develop this money-sucking ray gun ability so I can aim it at the Koch Brothers, Wall Street executives and conservative PACs.)
- MY COMMON USE. (Wait – I am to be used? By whom? Gee, I wonder…I had better read on!)
- I am “highly ornamental, especially in sports cars.”
- I am also a great aid in “relaxation.” I’m not 100% sure, but presumably I am an aid in the relaxation of those all-important default humans, a.k.a. Penis-Americans.
- And — this is such an exciting fact, about which I had no idea! — I can be a very effective cleaning agent! Trust me: I am beaming with pride! (Again, you should probably ask My Amazing Lover™ about this…)
- I turn green when placed alongside a “superior specimen.” I’m not exactly sure how “superior” is defined here, but from what I can discern from the ubiquitous messages I get from the culture in which I dwell, I would hazard a guess that the definition of “superior” encompasses “younger,” “thinner,” “more feminine” and/or “more compliant and submissive.” Not relative to me in particular, mind you, but in relation to the current “specimen” one is “using.”
- I can be one among multiple possessions— so long as I never look upon the other specimens. Otherwise, we might unionize. And then where would America be, people?
There are other explicit messages in sex education materials meant to enforce retrograde views of women (and men). Some that overtly perpetuate gender stereotypes include:
- Handouts explaining that men “want to conquer & dominate” whereas women try “to manipulate and control;” men see “women as a trophy” whereas women see men as “security and protector[s]”
- A textbook lesson on unhealthy relationships, where boys are cast as the “Controller” and the “Distancer,” and girls are cast as the “Enabler” and the “Clinger.”
- A “gender roles” activity that divides a class by sex and tasks each group to describe the “ideal male/female,” including “how they should carry themselves, act, talk, walk, sit, etc.
- In a small number of districts, entire lessons about boy-girl differences are based entirely on unfounded stereotypes. For example, one district’s materials included: A “math” problem in which the ”solution” is “Woman=problem;” a “men are from mars, women are from Venus” exercise that exploits gender stereotypes; and a visual portrayal of “romance mathematics” that states what happens when different types of men and women, smart and dumb, get together. For example, dumb man + smart woman = marriage.
Some messages are much more subtle and insidious. For example, in the context of basic reproductive anatomy lessons, crude drawings depict the internal and external genitals of men, but only the internal genitals of women. I will spare you the illustration from page 23 of the report. Titled “after birth,” it depicts a baby still attached to the umbilical cord lying next a woman, shown from the waist down, with a giant gaping uterus — and no external genitals. As the report describes it:
This image of a woman who has given birth indicates only her abdomen, vaginal canal and one leg, reducing the woman’s identity to that of a vessel for gestation and de-emphasizing her active role in giving birth. These values were common to many curricula.
In a conservative coup de grace, a large number of the school districts surveyed use medically inaccurate terms to describe pregnancy and fetal development, for example referring to pregnant women as “mothers,” and a fetus as a “baby.”
Sexual arousal, sexual pleasure and orgasm are rarely if ever discussed (and when they are a disproportionate emphasis is placed on — surprise! — males). A vagina is “the organ that receives sperm during reproduction.” Alternatively, a vagina is where the “penis fits” and “the organ into which the penis is inserted,” a “sperm deposit” and “where the male’s penis is inserted during intercourse.” When they are not birthin’ baybeez, vaginas exist only as repositories of penises and sperm. Please make a note of it: you want to be as up to date on the cutting edge of human sexuality as New York school kids, don’t you?
A third of school districts surveyed taught students that “not practicing abstinence was an immoral choice” or one “that would cause students to become social outcasts, suffer emotional or psychological harm, or fail in other aspects of their lives.”
For example, one instructor-created presentation stated: “compared to teens who are not sexually active, teenage boys and girls who are sexually active are significantly less likely to be happy and more likely to feel depressed.” One textbook (a version of which was in use in 10 districts) counsels students that:
- “Waiting until marriage to have sex preserves traditional marriage … Actions that preserve traditional marriage preserve the family. Actions that weaken traditional marriage lead to the breakdown of family life and much unhappiness.”
- “being sexually active interferes with your values and family guidelines.”
- “Having sex outside of a loving, committed marriage increases your risk of feeling rejected, being compared to someone else, and feeling used by a partner.”
- “When you practice abstinence, you will not be guilty of having sex with an unwilling partner. You will not be accused of date rape.”
- “Character is a person’s use of self-control to act on responsible values. When you have good character, you uphold family values and practice abstinence from sex.”
Considering that 95% of Americans have had premarital sex, that sure is an awful lot of unhappy, rejected, citizens with bad character who feel used.
By this point, it should surprise no one that the critical topics of rape, sexual assault and sexual violence are not exactly well-handled:
many districts teach students about sexual violence in a gender-bound context, insinuating [incorrectly -Ed.] that only girls can be victimized and that only boys are perpetrators or abusers, or that dating abuse affects only opposite-sex couples. For example:
- Sexual-assault lessons taught only to girl students.
- rape and sexual assault defined as coerced “vaginal penetration,” excluding boys as potential victims. [This definition also excludes from "rape" and "sexual assault" other nonconsensual criminal acts which do not involve a penis and/or a vagina, many of which can be perpetrated upon persons of any gender. -Ed.]
- materials used in many districts that always use female gender pronouns when referencing victims and male gender pronouns when referencing aggressors.
- materials that reinforce the idea that boys often can’t control themselves and that girls who wear skimpy clothes are sending a “message.”
- materials that explain only to girls how to avoid rape and explain only to boys how to prevent their behavior from becoming rape.
- An overwhelming majority of districts (61, or 75 percent) did not provide information about local resources to help students deal with rape, sexual assault and dating/intimate partner violence.
Much like the clitoris and the female orgasm, LGBTQi individuals are virtually nonexistent in sex education curricula in New York State—except when they are portrayed negatively in connection with (outdated and inaccurate) HIV information. Given how women are routinely treated in New York State sex-ed curricula, perhaps our young LGBTQi friends should count their blessings?
A NOTE ABOUT PRIVILEGE: None of the foregoing should be construed as My Opinion Of The Most Important Vagina-Related Issues In The World Ever. In no particular order, female circumcision and clitoridectomy, sex trafficking, denial of education, domestic violence and workplace discrimination are all exponentially more serious vagina-related issues than, say, drawings that depict women with no external genitalia in high school health classes. It may occur to the astute reader, however, that all of these vagina-related phenomena fall on a continuum: the inherent view of women underlying all of them is identical. Eliminating a woman’s genitals with a blade, or by deliberate omission in sketches that are ostensibly intended to educate students about human anatomy and sexuality, is a difference of degree, not of kind.
A NOTE ABOUT THE TITLE: The title of this post is a play on a play, The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler. If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth checking out. There are often free productions (or low-cost benefit performances) on college campuses, particularly around V-Day.
2008 Vagina Monologues Poster by Nicky Fernandes, Hiroshima (JAPAN)