Overcoming Sex-Shaming Rhetoric at the CFLE Sex Ed Conference 2012

At the CFLE’s annual National Sex Ed Conference I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop titled Dare to be Shameless! Overcoming Sex-Shaming Rhetoric in Sexuality Education.  During this one-hour workshop we listed examples of sex-shaming rhetoric, identified ways that sex-shaming rhetoric can impact an educational environment, and described strategies for countering sex-shaming rhetoric.  Yep, we did all that in just one hour.  Phew!

It was a wonderful experience being able to engage other sexuality education professionals in a conversation about how our language can make someone feel ashamed about their sexuality, sometimes without that intention.  What even is sex-shaming rhetoric?  As far as I know (and please correct me if I’m wrong), it’s a new concept that needs descriptions and definitions.  During this workshop, I had the help of 75 participants in outlining how sex-shaming rhetoric may be characterized.  photoMy own working definition of sex-shaming rhetoric is:

Language used that makes an individual feel ashamed of a healthy sexual experience, feeling, or act.

This definition may be too straight-forward, or maybe its brevity allows essential room for interpretation.  In short, we as educators must be aware of how our rhetoric around sexuality, including our educational lesson plans, may make someone feel ashamed of their sexuality.

As part of the workshop, I asked participants to write down an example of something someone might say that could be considered sex-shaming, thinking especially of something a sexuality educator might say.  Here are some of the examples they came up with:

  • “If you get pregnant/get a girl pregnant, your life will be ruined.”
  • “There is a time and a place to talk about sex and sex topics, and this isn’t it.”
  • “Clean” = STI negative
  • “When you have a new partner, you must use protection.” (It’s fear-based rhetoric and shaming for people.)
  • A person with multiple partners is nasty.
  • “Sexting is a horrible thing and doing it can ruin your life.”
  • Heterosexual sex is ‘normal’ sex.
  • “You shouldn’t be thinking about sex, you should be thinking about college.”
  • “You’re not old enough to ask those questions!”
  • “If you can’t see something without a mirror, it probably means you shouldn’t be looking at it.”
  • “You’re stupid if you get pregnant.”
  • “You will regret it.”
  • “Boys don’t respect girls that have sex too soon.”
  • “Males tend to be more focused on sex than females.”
  • “…not something [that] good boys and girls do.”
  • “If you sleep with someone too soon, you might smear your reputation.”
  • “What would your parents say if they found out you were having sex?”
  • “You shouldn’t have sex unless you’re in love.”

These examples depict characteristics of sex-shaming rhetoric, and yet they are things that we have all probably heard at least once in our lives from someone of authority.  Being a sexuality educator is an honor, a privilege, and a responsibility.  It is up to us to help people feel comfortable asking questions about sexuality, and learn more about themselves, rather than making someone feel bad and ashamed.  Certainly, there are behaviors that need to be deemed as not OK, and that someone should feel ashamed about, such as engaging in any sexual behavior without consent.  However educators (not just sexuality educators, but anyone who is potentially educating others) need to be aware of how their language can be interpreted.  Our educational approaches can be affirming, rather than shame-inducing.

Thank you to all who attended this workshop, and I look forward to continuing this work on improving our sexuality education rhetoric.

Daring to be Shameless

Today I have been preparing for a workshop I’ll be leading this upcoming Friday at the CFLE’s National Sex Ed Conference in New Jersey.  My workshop will be part of a Topic Track on Addressing Shame in Sex Ed.  Here’s the description:

Dare to Be Shameless! Overcoming Sex-Shaming Rhetoric in Sexuality Education  Rush Limbaugh was criticized for calling Sandra Fluke a slut for supporting birth control, but how shameless are sexuality educators? Are you inadvertently using sex-shaming rhetoric? Workshop participants will examine what sex-shaming rhetoric entails, reflect on how sex-shaming can impact sexuality education, and identify alternative approaches that are sex-positive.

My 1-hour workshop will be followed by a session by Megan Andelloux and Aida Manduley discussing the role that shame, guilt, and embarrassment play in sexuality education.  It’s exciting to be a part of a conference workshop series that is exploring the drawbacks of shame in sexuality education.

My preparation for this workshop has me thinking a lot about how people have absorbed and developed a sense of shame about sexuality- both from an educators’ and a students’ standpoint.  There are several potential sources of this shame:

  • Family- parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, faux-family (like my ‘uncle’ lou)
  • Religion- faith communities, religious texts, religious leaders
  • Media- television, books, internet, billboards, music
  • School- teachers, support staff, textbooks, peers

We pick up our attitudes and reactions to sex and sexuality from all of these sources, whether we like it or not.  And a lot of the time, what we learn is less from what is explicitly verbalized and more about the ‘music’ in the background.  It’s the pursed lips at someone laughing when the teacher says ‘penis’. It’s the flared nostrils when someone asks their mom for the definition of a wet dream.  It’s the rolled eyes when someone doesn’t know what a sexually transmitted infection is.  It’s the unwillingness to answer a question about masturbation because it’s ‘off topic’.  All these reactions teach others that sexuality is something to be ashamed of, and that conversations about sexual experiences are inappropriate.

Being shameless is about using language that is open and accepting; it’s also about maintaining a physical posture of validation and support throughout any interaction with a participant, son, daughter, congregant, etc.  A teacher can tell their students that it’s ok for two people of the same gender to be in love through their words, but the way that they will actually hear it is through their body language, attitudes, and actions. My workshop on Friday will focus on how rhetoric can be sex-shaming. Let’s remember that sex-shaming rhetoric comes from a lot of shameful background ‘music’.

You’re Calling Me a Slut?!

This week Rush Limbaugh has been taken through the ringer for calling Sandra Fluke a slut because she was advocating for health care coverage of contraception.  And rightly so!  Here’s a recap of Limbaugh’s statements, courtesy of the NY Daily News:

“What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her?” he asked his listeners.

“It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute,” Limbaugh continued. “She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

When livid Democrats asked Limbaugh to apologize, he double-downed and went even further on Thursday, suggesting women who use insurance-covered birth control should post their sex tapes online.

“So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex. We want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

Seriously?  What frustrates me the most about Limbaugh’s statements is that he has shamed her for not just using birth control (which many women use for purposes besides contraception), but having sex (which he has assumed she is doing).  The best way to DISempower and exclude someone from a conversation is to make them feel ashamed about something that they do, think, and/or feel.  Way to go Limbaugh!  And props to Sandra, and all her supporters, for calling him out on it and articulating so clearly why his statements are extremely problematic.

This national outrage provides a great opportunity to explore the way that we frame individuals that engage in sexual activity, especially in an educational context.  ‘Risky sexual behaviors’ are often described as not only potentially harmful, but also with a word closely associated to being a ‘slut’- the word promiscuous, one of my absolute least favorite words.  Since it is perceived as less offensive, promiscuity finds its way into the vernacular of educators, parents, teachers, and policy makers more frequently than the word slut, despite its equally negative connotation.  Why do I dislike this word so much?  It makes me cringe because negative associations with sexual behavior are the opposite of my agenda as a sexuality educator.  I want individuals to feel comfortable discussing and learning about sexuality, rather than ashamed.  Any language used by educators that makes people feel bad about sex will only dissuade individuals from thinking critically about their sexual choices thus excluding them from the conversation.  The question for educators is, does your language make your participants feel empowered, or ashamed?

While challenging, it IS possible to talk about risk and potential negative outcomes without saying that sex is bad, and that people who engage in sexual activity are promiscuous (read ‘sluts’).  As Sandra Fluke said on MSNBC’s The Ed Show, “this is historically the kind of language that is used to silence women.”  Let’s not silence our participants by framing sexual activity as shameful.  Be mindful of your language (I’m talking to you, Rush!)!