I was in 5th grade when all of the boys were sent to one classroom and all of the girls were sent to another. It wasn’t time for the sex talk yet, but it was my first lesson in sexual health. The lesson was on reproductive body parts, how they worked, what they emitted, and how to keep them clean. Basically it was the period and boner talk.
The girls were fed bullshit about entering womanhood with the beginning of menstruation. And the boys learned about erections, masturbation, and ejaculation. Separating us based on gender was meant to make us more comfortable during these discussions but all it did was add to the stigma and secrecy surrounding our changing bodies. The contrast between the boys’ joyful smugness and the girls horrified embarrassment also sent the message that their body parts were fun and ours were not.
Gender-segregated sex ed classes are still prevalent and still just as damaging as they were 30 years ago. Bottom line: we need to stop separating students based on gender.
This is true for all the topics, lessons, and discussions that happen from preschool to high school. But before we can even discuss the benefits of mixed-gender sexual education lessons (and the resulting harm of segregating genders), we must first be on the same page about gender. Science has taught us that gender and biological sex are not binary. Gender can’t simply be defined as male or female; also, gender can’t be based on sexual anatomy alone. The lived experiences of nonbinary, intersex, and transgender folks who generously share their stories help us understand this too. Gender is fluid and some students do not identify as one of those labels—whether they are public about it or not.
Yet when we separate based on a binary system, a nonbinary or gender fluid student won’t feel comfortable being forced into a specific gendered situation. It is incorrect to say that all girls have a vagina and all boys have a penis. Nonbinary, transgender and intersex students will not fit this equation and will suffer if the sexual education they receive is based on their gender identity, or assumed identity.
Transgender boys are students who were assigned female at birth based on their body parts; their gender identity is male and they may get a period. He would lose out on the benefits of learning about menstruation if forced to leave the conversation about it. He could also experience dysphoria by being asked to leave the room to learn about the workings of a penis he does not have. The same applies to transgender females. Not all girls bleed, some boys do, and all people need to understand and respect the workings of the uterus and menstruation cycle—especially the cisgender males who can’t bring themselves to buy tampons for the bleeders in their lives because they think it’s gross and shameful.
Perhaps if we included all genders into the period conversation, there would be more understanding and compassion around something that half of the population deals with and which all of the population depended on for creation.
For the most part, however, schools still operate under the heteronormative assumption that students are cisgender and heterosexual and teach along those binary lines. Yet, if the world really was this simple, wouldn’t we want the penis and vagina sex-having people to understand each other’s body parts and how they work together? If the idea is that male and female students will be too uncomfortable talking about sex while in the same room, then that doesn’t leave a lot of room for comfort when the male and female students find themselves in actual sexual situations.
If we are to function in a society where all genders are equal and respected, we need to understand each other’s perspectives and practice appropriate interactions with the people we live and work beside. It is really hard to hear from each other when we are pulled apart during important topics like sexual health, reproduction, and intimate relationships. We aren’t helping the #metoo movement or reducing the power of rape culture by having independent conversations about a dependent and what needs to be a consensual relationship.
Sexual education in the United States leaves a lot to be desired. LGBTQIA+ inclusive sex ed is only taught in 4 states plus D.C. Consent is only taught in 8 states. 37 states include abstinence as part of sex ed, but 26 states require it to be stressed as the best sexual practice. And only 18 states (and D.C.) must include the discussion of contraception during health class.
When safe, consensual sex is taught in schools with an emphasis on healthy relationships, no matter what parts an individual has, our students are more knowledgeable, respectful, and safe when it comes to sex.
Sexual education should not leave kids feeling ashamed of their bodies, ashamed of who they love, or ashamed that they know nothing about the variety of bodies and what their parts do. According to a study done by Eve Appeal, 50% of men and 44% of women could not find the vagina on a diagram. That is awful for so many health and sexual reasons. Also, get familiar with the clitoris because that is real important too. But we can’t understand what we don’t talk about.
When we stop separating students based on gender, we reduce or eliminate gender bias teaching, shame, and a sense of mystery about our own body and the bodies of others. Students have the chance to practice asking for consent and then practice how to respond appropriately when told no. They can also have important discussion about different scenarios. What if a yes is given then the word no is used? How are boundaries established? What conversations need to happen before any touching?
All genders, sexualities, and bodies are fluid, valid, and worthy of respect. This message can only be heard when all genders are learning sex ed together.