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Young People and Sex Education: Moving Beyond Scare Tactics and Fearmongering in 2012

Young people know intimately the role that sex and sexuality play in our daily lives and we know the detrimental consequences that a sex-phobic culture has on our futures.

Knowledge is power.

I mean that in the most cliché way possible. Without knowledge, agency and self-determination become meaningless fragments of our imagination. Something that we desperately wish for but can’t quite grab onto.

This is especially true when it comes to young people.

Growing up in the United States is like playing a foucauldian game of discipline and punish. Disciplined by a morally bankrupt narrative about sex and sexuality and then punished for daring to question it.

I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised. When young people are subjugated and disenfranchised, systems of power thrive. When we’re alienated from our bodies and fearful of our sexuality, we lack the resources and agency necessary to become responsible agents of social and political change. Suffice it to say; those in power have a vested interest in dislocating the nation's youth from real sex education.

For young people, sexuality is undoubtedly the most politicized site of social control. Parents fear it. Politicians debate over it. Scientists study it. Intellectuals theorize over it. Everyone is talking about it; yet, no one is talking to young people.

It doesn’t take a semester of reading Michel Foucault to understand that sexuality is an important site of power. Young people know very intimately the role that sex and sexuality play in our daily lives and we know the detrimental consequences that a sex-phobic culture has on our futures. We’re experiencing it first-hand.

Attacks on birth control. Abstinence-only programs. Sexist gender roles. Compulsive heterosexuality and homophobia. Misinformation about abortion. Age restrictions on emergency contraception. Sexual assault. Negative representations of teen motherhood. Public health initiatives that securitize youth sexuality.

We have experienced the damaging effects of a culture that stigmatizes sexuality and shames young people for exploring our own bodies.

And we’re sick of it.

The pseudo-scientific narrative about youth sexuality is plagued with fear mongering and sensationalism. Between the bogus sexting panic, and the fear-based rhetoric used to justify the recent HHS ruling on emergency contraception, it is very clear that the moral panic over teen sexuality is very much alive and kicking. Even organizations and politicians sensible enough to support comprehensive sex education are still situating the issue within a broader security paradigm. They want us to educate young people about the ramifications of sex because they don’t want us engaging in sexual relationships to begin with.

They’ve been duped by the myth of the teen pregnancy epidemic.

Don’t get me wrong. Unintended pregnancy rates in the United States are high. Sexually transmitted infections are rampant. But this isn’t only affecting young people and it certainly isn’t because we’re irresponsible and incapable of making good choices. It’s because no one believes in our ability to be good decision-makers. Whether they’re shoving abstinence-only programs down our throat, or they’re giving us access to sex education rooted in fear tactics, the message is still the same: that sex among young people is a serious threat to the morality and security of the nation.

That’s the interesting thing about sex education. It’s about much more than just the birds and the bees. It’s about power. Power derived from knowledge.

The power to shape our own destiny.

Many of the people advocating for comprehensive sex education at the local, state and federal level treat youth sexuality as a crisis to be averted. They’re so caught up with trying to rally support for the cause with alarming statistics and fear-based rhetoric that they lose site of the real problem. Young people don’t just need to know about the potential ramifications of sex. We need to know what the benefits of a healthy, consensual, and autonomous sex life look like. We need the decision-making power necessary to navigate this difficult terrain and we need to know that after given the facts about sex and sexuality, we’re going to be trusted to make our own choices.

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