Justin Cascio talks to Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, about why boys are tuning out in sex ed classes, and what they want to know most (but aren’t telling us).
The Answer website offers some grim statistics on the state of sex ed in the schools today: “One in four teens has an STD. Yet sex ed by and large still focuses only on the needs of girls.”
The Boys and Sex Ed: Beyond Statistics and Stereotypes online workshop that the video above is from is produced by Answer, a national organization that is dedicated to providing and promoting comprehensive sexuality education to young people and the adults who teach them. I spoke with Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, to find out more about how “sexuality education”—which focuses on feelings and relationships rather than just biology or birth control—can help provide the answers our boys so desperately need.
Is sexuality education as it’s taught in schools today really biased toward the needs of girls?
ES: Yes, there is a bias. The challenge is, it’s unconscious. As a culture, we think ‘boys will be boys,’ so we concentrate on girls and make them the sexual gatekeepers in their relationships with boys. As a result, the methodology and language being used in sex ed classes today still focuses—sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly—on girls. For example, I blogged about a research article on “girls’ condom use.” I found this amusing when (most) girls don’t have penises. There’s nothing in the article about their male partners. This is unfair to girls, and does a disservice to boys. Rendering guys invisible in sex ed reinforces stereotypes about them and contributes to negative statistics.
Could sexuality education better serve both girls and boys?
ES: Absolutely. Educators say, “I’ll just make sure to mention guys from time to time.” This is not sufficient. Occasionally mentioning guys is comparable to some well-meaning educators who will use the term “partner” to offer a nod to non-heterosexual orientations—as if this fully addresses heterocentrism in sex ed . Similarly, a sex ed activity might present a guy and girl in a relationship who are thinking about having sex, but then the activity focuses in on what the female partner might feel, do or say in this situation—again setting girls up as the gatekeepers, without fully exploring what the male partner might be feeling and thinking.
What in particular are boys looking for and not getting from sex ed?
ES: There are two different questions: what are boys looking for, and what are they not getting because there are strict policies in many places about what can and cannot be taught. Although there’s a diversity in learning styles, boys tend to be visual, kinesthetic learners, and they’re looking for concrete information about sexuality. Educators who teach lessons on safer sex, but who can’t bring actual condoms in for the boys to see, touch and feel, will not be as effective with male learners. What you teach them becomes hypothetical until they have opened the package, felt the condom and know how to use them. They’ll say they get it, but they don’t.
Dr. William Pollack’s “boy code” speaks to this: we’ve seen for decades that boys are socialized to want to have sex and are consistently sent messages that they should want to and should have sex. Lessons that don’t acknowledge and address these messages won’t meet boys’ needs. Imagine a mixed-gender sex ed classroom activity that’s about abstinence or waiting to have sex. Since guys are hearing from the majority culture that they should want to have sex, conducting the lesson without acknowledging and discussing the gendered messages and how they are different for guys than they are for girls makes the lesson irrelevant to the male learners.
This is a major reason why guys look to porn for sex ed, which is problematic because what they see in porn is not designed for their age group. Porn is designed for adult fantasy, which is abstract. Teens are concrete learners. So when they watch porn, they are learning, “This is what sex is and what we should look like.” Whether it’s about race, gender, penis size, a lot of myths and stereotypes are being reinforced through porn. Now, the jury is still out on the extent to which porn can potentially harm young people; it’s pretty clear, however, that it misinforms them. But porn is easily accessible and far more explicit than anything they’d get in a classroom setting. So they go to porn, which is not the right place for them to learn.
ES: The location is less important than the content. One thing we really tend to leave out when we teach sex ed to guys is anything about the emotional aspects of being a human being. Far too many adults say boys don’t care about emotions, but they do. In mixed-gender classrooms, it can be much more challenging to get boys to talk about feelings. When I have worked with single-gender groups with guys, the work we did on emotions was phenomenal. There’s this stereotype that boys don’t have emotional capacity. We have to challenge that stereotype head on. They need to be taught that it’s not just acceptable, but important to have and express feelings, and that “real men” are not afraid to do this. We have to stop gendering the human experience so that young people don’t feel like they can’t behave a certain way just because of their gender.
What Dr. Pollack says about the boy code is that these proscriptive messages aren’t just passive messages. They’re part of a proactive campaign to keep boys (and girls) in a rigid gender box. It’s ironic that we, as a culture, seem to be more comfortable with hyper-violent men that we have to find ways of controlling than with men who are hypersensitive. Sensitive men are “feminine” men, and we’re still a homophobic society, although it’s been exciting to see that start to change a bit at the macro level.
What do boys want to know to prevent rape and domestic violence?
ES: First, they want people to know that it’s not just guys assaulting girls. I went to teach a rape and sexual assault prevention workshop in the Bronx to a group of all guys a number of years ago. Before I could say my name, one of the guys stood up and said, “We’re not going to stay to listen to you tell us not to beat on our girlfriends. We want to know what to do when they beat up on us.”
Second, they’re pushed to learn how to get girls to say “yes” to sex (regardless of their sexual orientation), and they’re still being socialized that when a girl says “no” it means “maybe.” We need to be clear and straightforward with guys instead of assuming they’ll “figure it out.” It’s tough to figure things out when you’re getting conflicting messages. We have to directly and clearly say, “It’s never okay to push someone else to do something sexual they don’t want to do. When someone says “no,” respect that no—the first time, and every time.”
Adult professionals walk into a room with assumptions and stereotypes: we need to check these at the door. I taught a group of professionals in an urban New Jersey workshop on working with boys and young men. They were all female, and many of them believed horrible things about boys, such as “They’re all potential rapists.” We need the right educators to deliver the right messages. If we dislike teen boys, we’re not the right ones to do the work. If we fear teen boys, we teach them that they are to be feared.
Speaking of assumptions, another big stereotype is that only male educators can be effective with boys and young men; I know from years of direct experience that that just isn’t true. It’s not true that only men can relate to boys. The most important thing to young men is respect; start from there, and your gender is far less relevant. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either!
Sex ed isn’t as simple as providing one hour and fifteen minute workshop and thinking you’ve counteracted all the stereotypical messages guys received about gender and sexuality. It’s a lifelong campaign that involves parents, educators, religious leaders and many other adults. It has to start earlier than high school. Adolescence is way too late to counteract the values and messages kids have been receiving since birth that are gender-based. Even Toys R Us tells you what aisle you can shop in based on the gender of the child!
What question can parents answer that our boys want to know but aren’t asking? How can we be proactive and anticipate their questions and needs regarding sexuality education?
ES: This depends on the age of the boy. For adolescent boys—and they’d never cop to this—the question a lot of them probably most want to know the answer to is, “Why did you stop hugging me?” When guys reach puberty, we start touching them less. Then they withdraw. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still need love and support and don’t want to get some guidance about how to get through what’s a really challenging time.
The question they probably would cop to wanting to know the answer to is, “Am I okay?” We hear that at Answer from teen guys all the time. Some guys ask, “I know all my friends are talking about sex and I’m not interested. Am I normal?” They are also really concerned about penis size—another culturally imposed bias that’s reinforced by what they see in porn.
The boy code says that boys want to differentiate themselves from their peers through one-upsmanship, humiliation, and leadership, but they also want to fit in and be like other boys. This extends into adulthood and becomes “the man code.” And while there are lots of different kinds of men, a very masculine man is as much of a man as a gentler, “feminine” man. When boys feel they don’t have any choice other than to be one certain type of man, then it’s problematic. Understanding boys’ socialization and working with it instead of railing against it is more effective.
For example, I really like the Strength campaign from Men Can Stop Rape. It’s boy code—both visually, and in terms of the tagline—“My strength is not for hurting.” That’s the kind of message that acknowledges the value of being strong without reinforcing the harmful stereotype that you cannot control your strength. The campaign emphasizes that boys have strength, rather than that boys are reckless.
My son is an early adolescent. The language that resonates with him and his friends is not negative language or admonishments of what they should not do. Developmentally, if you tell an adolescent not to do something, whatever it is, they will want to do it. I focus instead on what they should do. I say, “Be a leader. Be the one everyone looks up to. When someone’s being bullied, the leader gets a teacher to stop it.”
To find out more about how to provide better sexuality education for all of our kids, check out the Answer websites at answer.rutgers.edu and sexetc.org. You can follow them on Twitter at @sexedhonestly, @sexetc, and @drschroe.
Image credit: db Photography | Demi-Brooke/Flickr