Relationship Education: A Different Approach to Sex Ed

This post was written for the June Carnival of Aces.  This month’s carnival is about “Asexual Education” and is hosted by Writing Ace.


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.

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4 thoughts on “Relationship Education: A Different Approach to Sex Ed

  1. AceAdmiral says:

    I don’t really have a lot to add to this discussion because I 100% agree with you (and was lucky enough to have relationship education as an explicit part of my education) because what I was really struck by is that I’ve never met someone else who puts the diaeresis over the second o in coöperation and I’m kind of overcome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blue Ice-Tea says:

      Thanks! Um, I think? Yeah, I know it’s not a common spelling, but “co-operation” looks awkward to me, and “cooperation” looks like it should have something to do with chicken hutches! I first came across “coöperation” in a novel a couple of years ago, and was like, that’s brilliant! Diaereses, man: orthography’s great untapped resource!

      Like

  2. luvtheheaven says:

    I really love this suggestion. 😉 Especially in light of what I wrote about here: https://luvtheheaven.wordpress.com/2015/05/14/figuring-out-my-mother-was-an-abuser-part-1-of-3/
    about “my public school’s curriculum included brief units on (the most severe forms of) abuse and neglect.” and my link to what that curriculum is, and then Elizabeth’s comment here:
    https://luvtheheaven.wordpress.com/2015/05/14/figuring-out-my-mother-was-an-abuser-part-3-of-3/#comment-394
    Where she wrote:
    “I think it’s such a shame that the way that abuse (of any kind) is portrayed, only the very worst cases apparently “count” according to school education programs and such. My schools had a lot less information about abuse than yours it sounds like—up until high school there was hardly anything about any kind of non-sexual abuse, and then only in a very veiled way. When they finally talked about emotional abuse, it was only in the context of “don’t date controlling people” so it didn’t seem to apply to me. The focus on possessiveness to the exclusion of other factors is really frustrating to me, because that’s not the only way that a person can be emotionally abusive. The focus on injuries when it comes to education about physical abuse is just as narrow.”

    I replied:
    “I have absolutely no recollection of my (high) school touching on abuse in romantic/dating relationships, on the other hand, even if we did have relatively good units as early as 1st grade on sexual and extreme physical abuse, and also physical neglect. I think the only time my school system ever mentioned dating was the abstinence-plus sex-ed I had in 9th grade. And I mean, I think the last time abuse was mentioned was 5th grade, most likely. Overall, my school system was amazing though, considering it was a public school, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I had a better education on abuse than a lot of kids in the USA.”

    Bullying should be taught, explicitly, as a form of abuse. I only ever learned about sexual harassment at the beginning of school years as things against the school handbook rules that outlined what would get you potentially suspended/expelled, a handbook we were required to sign.

    But really there’s so much about this stuff that would be interesting and useful to kids if we just taught a little bit more about communication and considering other’s needs, especially teaching not just the basic “Golden Rule” but the more nuanced “Platinum Rule” (feel free to Google that, anyone still reading my long comment…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blue Ice-Tea says:

      Yeah, relationship education would help with all kinds of relationships. Glad you connected with it.

      I agree that bullying is a form of abuse, and that its victims suffer long-term consequences just like other abuse victims.

      I also like what you said about teaching the “platinum rule”. Part of why I think it’s important to teach love languages is that it’s too easy to assume that other people enjoy the same gestures of affection as you do. It’s important to remember that what’s good for you might not be good for the other person – a useful lesson in sexual as well as non-sexual relationships.

      Like

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