Asexual education is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. It was the goal of my graduate degree and the motivation for this blog. Sex education reform was also an issue my provincial government recently tackled. Thinking about public education in particular, this month’s prompt included the question, “How should asexuality be taught to children?” My answer: It shouldn’t. Not as such, anyway.
Teaching asexuality as an orientation has at least two drawbacks. One is that it perpetuates the concept of sexual orientation categories as discrete, constant, and salient features of personal identity. The other is that the very act of identifying asexuality inherently compartmentalises it, making it easy to dismiss as something some people experience while ignoring its broader implications. Yes, for people immersed in heteronormativity words like “homosexual”, “bisexual”, and “asexual” are useful tools of activism and visibility. But for the younger generation my hope is that they’ll move beyond these labels.
That’s not to say that sexual education couldn’t be made more ace-friendly, though. In fact, I think ace-positive sex ed would benefit everyone.
Being a childless adult, I’m not that familiar with the current state of sexual education, but I gather it hasn’t changed much from when I was in school. Back then, it seemed to rest on the assumption that we all wanted sex and would all have sex. This assumption was shared by the popular media I encountered. Together, they instilled the idea that sex was a vital and inevitable part of a healthy adult’s life. As a person with little interest in sex and no intention of having it any time soon, I found this very alienating.
Looking back, I realise there was something else about the way sex was discussed that made me uncomfortable. School gave us the clinical side of sex, its physiological processes and the precautions we should take to do it safely. We were encouraged to think of sex as an individual goal we would have to make individual choices about. But sexual decision-making isn’t an individual process. Sex is, by definition, a communal activity. It’s something that happens in a relationship. And relationships weren’t taught at all.
My ideas about sexual relationships therefore came largely from the popular media. Here, sex was portrayed as something desirable in and of itself, with characters marked as happy or unhappy, empowered or disempowered, depending on how much of it they were having. Relationships were highly valued if they included the promise of sex. But romantic relationships without sex were unusual, and platonic relationships were rarely taken as seriously as their sexual counterparts.
Relationships, and the skills needed to have healthy relationships, matter. One of the major issues educators are currently grappling with is bullying, which can have a deeply damaging effect on both children and adults. Another concern is building consent culture in order to combat sexual assault. These aren’t unrelated problems. Both bullying and sexual assault result when one person puts their needs above another’s, using violence against someone else to achieve validation.
The most visible response to the consent problem is the “No means no” slogan. While the truth of this sentence is obvious, I’m troubled by the suggestion that sex is the natural product of all interactions unless one party makes an explicit verbal refusal. As a solution to a social problem, it’s also very symptomatic, addressing only the surface issue without considering the deeper causes. The problem isn’t that some people don’t know what “no” means; the problem is that teaching sex without relationship skills creates a culture of sexual entitlement, where people feel they have the “right” to have sex without considering the needs or desires of others. (For a great article on how boys, in particular, learn this lesson, go here.)
To create consent culture, what’s needed is not lessons in English. It’s a different understanding of sex. If you position sex as the ultimate goal in life, then of course people will resort to despicable tactics in pursuit of that goal. But what if, instead of just teaching healthy sex, we taught healthy relationships. What if, instead of positioning relationships as the means to achieve sex, we positioned sex as only one of the many many things one could do in a relationship? And what if sex was understood as something one could choose to do or choose not to do without making a relationship any less valuable? To do that, we would have to teach not only sex but communication, coöperation, kindness, empathy, respect, and compassion. Those are the skills needed to be a good sexual partner. They are also the skills needed to combat bullying. In fact, they’re skills that are important to everyone, in all kinds of relationships, sexual, romantic, and otherwise.
To be fair, schools are already beginning to do this. But the curriculum is still popularly thought of and referred to as “Sex Ed”, and sexual health is still seen as the major focus. The problem with this is that it privileges sexuality as something worth talking about and educating our children in while dismissing relationship skills as… what? Too “mushy”? Not scientific enough? Or just of secondary importance? There’s nothing “secondary” about them. Teaching people how to interact and coöperate, how to show kindness and respect, is every bit as important as teaching them how to have sex. Arguably more so.
Who would benefit from replacing “Sexual Education” with “Relationship Education”? Asexuals, obviously. Relationship Ed (“Ship Ed”?) would allow people of all sexual orientations to participate equally, learning the skills they need for their sexual and non-sexual relationships. Yes, sometimes they’d have to learn about sex, but they’d also learn about all the other love languages.
Demisexuals would also benefit. More widespread respect for the non-sexual side of relationships would make it easier for demisexuals to form the non-sexual intimacy they need before developing sexual desire.
It would benefit victims of bullying. Lessons in empathy would combat bullying behaviour, and teach potential bullies better ways of expressing their emotions. This would benefit the potential bullies, too.
It would benefit those vulnerable to sexual harassment. If people were trained to think of sex as only one possible choice, instead of a life requirement, they might not feel the need to try and force it on others. And if they were trained to think of sex as something one did coöperatively with a friend, rather than a personal goal to be achieved, then discourses around “consent culture” and “no means no” would become redundant.
Finally, it would benefit everyone! Because everyone, even the most anti-social person, is in relationships, and all of us could make those relationships better if we had the right tools.
I’m not saying we should stop teaching sex. Sex is a very complicated subject that young people need to understand. Most people are going to have sex at one point or another, and they’ll need to know how to do it safely and responsibly. But they’ll also need to know how to do it in a way that shows respect for the other person, that doesn’t put unreasonable expectations on them, and that validates their “yes” and their “no”. Relationship Ed would help with this. And a whole lot more.