Rachel Trusty is an artist, curator, and educator living in Arkansas. Her art and writing focus questioning gender norms, femininity, and the roles of contemporary women. Trusty loves statistics and studies and uses these as the basis for her research and work.
Let's Talk about Sex
When I taught Civics I had the school resource officer come into my class to talk with my students who were mostly 15 and 16 years old, about the laws regarding child pornography. This was part of a mandatory unit about the laws that pertain to our media. Did you know if a minor takes a nude picture of their body and then sends it to another minor, that they can be charged with making and propagating child pornography? After the officer explained the situation, one student yelled out: “That is why I don’t include my head in any of my pictures!” The other students seemed satisfied by this answer.
I have had countless conversations with my middle school, junior high, and high school students about sex. You would be amazed at the lack of basic information that teens have about sex and pregnancy, but the wealth of knowledge they have about pornography and other things they shouldn’t know about. As a teacher, I always answered their questions. If they had the courage to ask and the question was sincere – it was my belief that they needed to know.
“Is my girlfriend pregnant?” After a conversation with this 18 year old student I was able to say no - that is not how someone gets pregnant.
“If someone pees on me can I get AIDS?” A 14 year old asked me this in the middle of a lecture. I told them that AIDS is transferred through bodily fluids, but only exists in trace amounts in saliva and urine and cannot be transmitted.
“I think I’m menstruating.” This student was 15. I sent them to the nurse for feminine product intervention.
I know what you are thinking: How do they not know the answers to these questions? Or maybe – why would a 14 year old want to know about AIDS in urine?
I would like to have a heart-to-heart with you parents out there. Your kids are curious and they are exploring. Some of them are outright having sex. I have intercepted notes passed in 6th grade about blow jobs. It’s happening and it is my belief that abstinence education is not the answer. In fact, an intensive study that came out in 2007 called Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs Final Report found that “youth enrolled in the [Abstinence-Only] programs were no more likely than those not in the programs to delay sexual initiation, to have fewer sexual partners, or to abstain entirely from sex (Adovcatesforyouth.org).”
What do we want? Ideally, we do not want children to have sex with one another. If this is not possible, then we want them to have safe sex that is free of pregnancy and STI’s. In order to do this, they need to understand what sex is and what sex is not. They need to understand the concept of consent, which seems tough for some adults to comprehend. They need to know how reproduction works. Lastly, they need to know what STI’s are, how they spread, and how they can be avoided.
But it seems that no one wants to talk about these things. There is a fear that if we teach them about sex they will have sex. One Omaha, Nebraska grandmother said that Sex Education “rapes children of their innocence (CBS News).” This argument does not hold up. The purpose of education is to enrich students so they can lead more productive, happy, and healthy lives. Hiding information is counter-intuitive, and let’s be honest – teens will explore sexually whether they have their health credit or not.
A comprehensive Sexual Education curriculum includes information about human anatomy, sexual activity, reproduction, health, and rights, safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and abstinence. Sex Ed is not teaching the Kama Sutra. Teens can learn those things from Seventeen Magazine and Cosmopolitan.
Sex Education is essential to a healthy physical and emotional development just like other types of health, biology, and interpersonal education is. We expect our children to know how their body functions and how to keep it healthy. We expect them to know how to respect themselves and others so they can have good relationships. Sexual and Reproductive Health are a part of this picture. We train our children in many things for their personal lives and their future careers, but want to leave out sexual health, which is key to self-respect, self-esteem, and long-lasting relationships. The idea of “consent” has been in the new recently as dozens of Ivey League colleges have been supposedly not punishing students who have committed rape. What is rape? What is consent? How do alcohol and drugs influence consent? These are not questions that college-age students need to be unfamiliar with. These questions need to be addressed in the early teenage years. If we are going to teach our children how to love and respect others, this needs to be part of the dialogue. Other long-term consequences like pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease can come from a lack of sexual education.
What are the roadblocks to getting comprehensive sexual education in schools? In my experience, the problem lies with the parents and the education system.
I have always worked in the Deep South and it seems that parents feel that sex education is an issue to be discussed and tackled at home. Parents do not want schools to address these delicate issues beyond reinforcing abstinence. We are religious down here too, and that is a big factor in what parents want their children to know about and what they allow teens to do physically with each other. Parents want to control what their children know and what they do.
But parents are not talking about sex with their children or they are waiting until it is too late. Parents find the topic difficult to address. As a teacher, I beg of you, please have the talk with your children – the sooner the better. You’re children have access to the internet through all sorts of smart devices. They are googling things. They are seeing pictures. They are watching videos. They are sending pictures of themselves to other teens!
You need to start early. Most schools begin have some sort of puberty talk with children around the age of nine. NINE. You know what happens after puberty hits? Babies. Babies happen.
You need to make a plan. Get a book if you are uncomfortable. There are great books for all ages to buy under the Amazon category “Children’s Sexuality.” Do something. Make sure your child understands the things they need to understand properly.
Also – please support thorough sex education curriculum in schools.
Do you know who teaches health? Coaches do. Most dislike teaching health education. In my college health class our teacher, who was also a football coach, said that men could get cervical cancer. This is not correct.
All states have curriculum frameworks regarding health education. Only 24 States require sex education – including the state I teach in, but I know that not all sex education is made equal. Some teachers jump in and show the “Miracle of Birth” video and hang up real-life photographs of STD’s, while others focus on basic reproduction and skip ahead to other less awkward health issues like Drugs or Nutrition. What about the other 26 states? I guess their students are not getting sex education or, more likely, Sex Ed is dependent again on which teacher your student has and what that teacher is comfortable with. Another issue is that students can choose what year they take health. Some students are learning about health when they are 14 and others wait until their senior year – or at 18 years old to take the class. This is far too late.
One of the high schools I worked at planned a new special Sex Education Course for students. The girls and boys were going to be separated and would be given multiple sessions that tackled reproductive health and information, sex, STI’s, pregnancy, and resources. I enthusiastically signed up to help one of the female counselors design and teach the girls program. Months passed and we were getting close to Thanksgiving break. I asked the lead counselor when we were going to begin planning the class. She told me that the Sex Education course had been cancelled because the football team was going to the playoffs. True story.
So what should be done? Firstly, Parents need to talk with their children openly - about everything. You need to make sure your child understands about reproduction, consent, sex, STD’s, and pregnancy. You need to know what your child is up to and you need to be willing to provide your child with birth control or other types of contraception if necessary.
Parents need to support the schools and their state legislatures in their efforts to provide a thorough and appropriate education to students. Reproductive education should start at nine and Sex Education in some form should begin no later than 12. Sex Education should be mandatory in all states. If you are concerned about what schools are teaching – get involved and help write the curriculum.
Your child’s smart phone killed the idea of Abstinence Education. You need to let that go.
Secondly, we need all 50 states on board with mandatory sexual education courses that are age-appropriate and offered beginning in middle school. We need special training for all health teachers so they are held accountable to teach the set curriculum and are ready to tackle the tough, and sometimes awkward questions. This topic also links in with other issues like reproductive rights and funding for contraception, but I won’t tackle those here.
In my ideal world Sexual Education is a basic component of all health education in schools. It is not shunned, but embraced. Children who go through the program are able to learn and ask questions in an environment free of shame and embarrassment. They have access to resources that the need. In the end, they will be more self-confident, more respectful of themselves and others, and will be able to have healthy-long term relationships.
Want to learn more? Here are some great Resources:
NPR Story with Audio Clip “Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Sex Education Today”: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/06/01/406988245/beyond-the-birds-and-the-bees-surviving-sex-ed-today
Amazon Books Best Seller’s in Children’s Sexuality: https://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Books-Childrens-Sexuality/zgbs/books/3245/ref=zg_bs_nav_b_5_3237
Advocates for Youth Parents Sex Ed Center: http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/parents-sex-ed-center-home
Advocates for Youth Sex Ed Resource Center: http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/for-professionals/sex-education-resource-center?task=view
Scarleteen: Sex Ed Guide and Resources for Teens: http://www.scarleteen.com/
References from Article
“The Truth about Abstinence-Only Programs”. Advocates for Youth. Advocates for Youth. http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/publications-a-z/409-the-truth-about-abstinence-only-programs. 2016
“Parents, schools divided as sex ed controversy erupts” CBSNEWS. CBSNews.com. 19 January 2016. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/sex-education-controversy-erupts-in-omaha. 2016.
Lately I’ve been reading When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Journalist Gail Collins. So far it is a fantastic read. Gail opens the book with an anecdote from the 1960’s where a New York Judge, Magistrate Edward D. Caiazzo, dismisses Lois Rabinowitz, a secretary, from traffic court for wearing slacks. Caiazzo later told reporters: “I get excited about this because I hold womanhood on a high plane and it hurts my sensibilities to see women tearing themselves down from this pedestal.”
Let this sink in: Just 56 short years ago, a woman could be dismissed from court for wearing work slacks and not a dress, and no one questioned it. Mrs. Rabinowitz apologized for her actions.
I’ve had several conversations with women my age (early thirty-somethings) and younger girls in my high school and college classes about “the F Word” - feminism. Many women do not understand what being a feminist is about. It seems to have a nasty connotation these days. The Feminist Movement is about being equal. Not superior. Not hateful or rude. It’s not anti-family or anti-men, and it is not getting permission to be a bitch. Feminism means that we fight for policies and programs that allow women to have equality. It is that simple. There also seems to be a belief that Feminism was something that happened 50 years ago and it is over now. This is also not true. The horrid misogynistic rhetoric during this last election cycle helped to put inequality and bias back in the news.
You need to know your own history – women’s history. It is assumed in history classes that the women’s experience is the same as the men’s experience. It is not. For example, Black women in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement were marginalized by men in those movements and white women in the Feminist Movement of the 1960’s. Chicana Women had a separate movement than both the Chicano Movement in the 1940’s and the Feminist Movement in the 1960’s. Race, class, and gender all create unique experiences that need to be understood.
2017 is upon us and it is the time for New Year’s Resolutions. I know that we have had a tumultuous 2016 with the election, and then with the Trump win. As we go in to 2017, I would like to discuss how far women’s rights have come, and how far we still have to go.
Women’s lives have changed drastically in the last 100 years. Women have the right to vote and hold office. We can own land and have bank accounts. We have access to education and the workplace. Women can serve in all positions in the military – including combat positions. We have access to many types of contraception and Roe v. Wade allows women to obtain safe, legal abortions up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Women have options now in the littlest things: in their clothing (Yay pants!) and hairstyles. Women today take these strides for granted, forgetting that life wasn’t always as it is now.
I’m afraid some of these basic rights will be up for debate in the coming Trump Administration. Mr. Trump has already expressed his disregard for women through his coarse comments and the Republican Party has a bad track record in its policies regarding women, especially concerning Reproductive Rights. Going forward into the new year- and the upcoming Trump Administration – and for my whole life - I will resolve to fight for the following goals for women:
· Full Insurance Coverage for all types of Contraception.
· Access without obstruction to unbiased pregnancy and abortion education and abortion services.
· Continued funding of organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide invaluable health services to women.
· Nation-wide mandatory and thorough sex education delivered through health classes in all Junior High Schools and High Schools.
· Equal representation of women in all levels and branches of government.
· Women are welcomed at all levels of all careers.
· Women receive equal pay (We are currently at women earning 80 cents to men’s 1 dollar).
· Women’s History and Gender Studies are more incorporated into all levels of K-12 Curriculum.
· The addition of an ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) is added to the constitution that gives women full equal rights (At this point the ERA would be symbolic, but I believe it is still essential).
· Maternity and Paternity Leave is extended so that it is comparable to other developed countries.
· Governmental childcare support and funding.
· The first, and second, and third…women presidents.
· More access to mental health services and domestic violence and abuse support.
In my utopian-America, we go beyond saying that women are equal – to women actually being equal.
WRITING OUR STORIES
What are the stories and myths we grow up hearing? How do these stories impact us? Do they impact the future we envision for ourselves? Do they change our desires and our perceived potential? How do they define who we are as women and the roles we play?
In 1986, hundreds of grade school children set out on an important task: to write their own fairytales. They were given one of ten short prompts as inspiration. As the stories were read and cataloged, patterns began to immerge: The children who received a prompt in which the character was anxious or a victim, made this character into a girl. If the writing prompt described a character that was independent and bold, the children made this character a boy.
The reaction of boys and girls to the stories changed after this. Boy writers would change their victim girl characters into heroines. Despite having the anxious beginning provided by the prompt, the boys writers would create female characters who would overcome obstacles and go on to do the same heroic adventures as the male characters created by boys. The girl writers were not so resilient. Girls would write female characters the same regardless. When given a prompt that has an anxious or victimized character and they write this character as a girl, this female continues to be the victim in her story until the male character finds and saves her. If the girl writer gets an independent character in her prompt who she perceives as male, she writes the male with one purpose: to find and unite with the passive female.
These stories were part of a three year study involving over 1,000 students in Germany. Germany is the birthplace of Grimm’s Fairytales and the author of the study, Kristin Wardetzky, wanted to see what effect, if any, these tales had on children’s own stories. The original purpose of fairytales was to both entertain and instruct, but can they also be seen as a type of propaganda?
But persuasive and influential writing isn’t just in fairytales. Betty Friedan discusses at length the changing narratives found in women’s magazines from the 1930’s through the 1960’s in her book The Feminine Mystique. Women writers in the 1930’s and 1940’s embraced independent heroines for their stories: “The majority of heroines in the four major women’s magazines were career women – happily, proudly, adventurously, attractively, career women – who loved and were loved by men. And the spirit, courage, independence, determination – the strength of character they showed in their work as nurses, teachers, artists, actresses, copy-writers, saleswomen – were part of their charm.”
“The stories were conventional: girl-meets-boy or girl-gets-boy. But very often this was not the major theme of the story. These heroines were usually marching toward some goal or vision of their own, struggling with some problem of work or the world, when they found their man…Her passionate involvement with the world, her own sense of herself as an individual, her self-reliance, gave a different flavor to her relationship with the man (Friedan).”
With the end of World War II, the United States began a new campaign: to put women back in the home. They served their country through work and volunteering during the war and it was not their patriotic duty to return to the home, allowing the men back into the jobs that they deserved. Women began marrying younger and having more children, and magazines reflected this change. After the war many of the women writers were replaced by men, and according to Friedan “The new writers were all men, back from the war, who had been dreaming about home, and a cozy domestic life.” Their writing and their creation of the “New American Woman” reflected these ideals.
“The transformation, reflected in the pages of the women’s magazines, was sharply visible in 1949 and progressive through the fifties…By the end of 1949, only one out of three heroines in women’s magazines was a career woman – and she was shown in the act of renouncing her career and discovering that what he really wanted to be was a housewife…These new happy housewife heroines…have no vision of the future, except to have a baby (Friedan).”
By the mid-1950’s the influence of the New Woman trope was taking effect. Friedan noted that readers showed less interest current issues or the economy. They instead pursued lighter reading about domestic issues, beauty, and fashion. “They may have the vote, but they don’t dream about running for office - If you write a political piece, they won’t read it. You have to translate it into issues they can understand – romance, pregnancy, nursing, home furnishings, clothes. Run an article on the economy, or the race question, civil rights, and you’d think that women had never heard of them (Friedan).”
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf describes the flaws in female characters and their relationships: “All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in Diana of the Crossways. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.”
Be aware of what you read and the beliefs and policies motivating the writing. What myths about women are we used to hearing? Where are they coming from? Why are they being propagated? The Bechdel Test, also known as the Bechdel-Wallace Test, which was inspired by Virginia Woolf, offers a solution to analyze literature and film. This test asks three questions of the work: 1. Are there at least two women in the work? 2. Do they talk with each other? 3. Do they talk with each other about something besides men?
Isn’t sad that we have to have such a test? That we must question whether or not the women in a work of film or literature “are only shown in their relation to men”?
I know what you are thinking-- in recent years we have seen more “progressive” stories like The Hunger Games Series or the Divergent Series. “Dora the Explorer” is a girl and Mexican! I am not dismissing these. We can all list the same handful of stories, but these few examples cannot hold up to the onslaught of the hundreds of stories written over the past 200 years. We need more than one or two examples. We need to write new stories from now on so that we and our young girls don’t have to struggle to imagine a world of these heroines. These worlds already exist and they are achievable.
I challenge all artists, writers, and filmmakers: When you are creating women, do not continue on with the status quo. We need new stories for our children and for ourselves that show women in all capacities. We already have a trove of stories where women are passive, are the ingénue, or the sex pot. We know about women as victims, or as helpless. We know about the evil step-mother or the seductress. We also know about the nervous, overwhelmed housewife.
We do not need any more of these representations.
We need women who are bold, fearless. We need women who are cunning and women who are kind. Career Women and stay-at-home Women. Women who are doing things that don’t involve romance or men. We need overcoming women and warrior women. We need to see women of color. We need to read about women of all ages and women from different religions. Women who are independent and confident, and who can battle the dragon herself. We need women who are self-actualized, who in their moment of clarity or independence don’t lose their faith (The Color Purple) or lose their minds (The Bell Jar, The Yellow Wallpaper) or get raped (Where are you going, Where have you been?) or drown themselves (The Awakening).
What if Captain Ahab had been a woman? The Great Gatsby a woman? Huckleberry Finn a woman? What if the Count of Monte Christo had been the Countess?... What if God is a woman? ( I just had to) -- Women as daring. Women as cunning and sly. Women as adventurous. Women as ruthless. Women as ultimate creators. How would these representations have changed us, our perceptions of ourselves, and our potential?
Do not be afraid to make women into all things, because women are still people, and writers have forgotten that.
Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997
Garber, Megan, “Call It the ‘Bechdel-Wallace Test’. The Atlantic. August 25, 2015. Online.
Lamb, Vanessa Martins, “The 1950’s and the 1960’s and the American Woman: the transition from the ‘housewife’ to the feminist”. History. 2011. Online.
Wardetzky, Kristin, “The Structure and Interpretation of Fairy Tales Composed by Children”, The Journal of American Folklore. Vol . 103, No. 408, April- June 1990, pp 157-176.
Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2012.