A great many who have attended a co-ed elementary school in the United States no doubt remember the day when their class was divided into two groups, girls and boys. Separately, these groups were then given information about breast development and menstruation, erections and ejaculations, and how an egg and sperm are needed for the process of conception. Depending on the school, a film may have been shown, likely with a title such as “Your Changing Body” or perhaps, “Becoming a Woman” or “Becoming a Man.” Whatever the specifics of the lesson, it most likely focused mainly on the biology of sex: hormones, the sex organs and their functions, and the mechanics of reproduction (although it may also have addressed the dos and don’ts of conventional sexual morality). In more progressive schools, students may have taken a course in which a wider range of sexual topics came under discussion, often entitled something along the lines of “human development” or “health and hygiene.”
A major premise of
Dennis Carlson’s chapter, “Constructing the Adolescent Body: Cultural Studies and Sexuality Education” (pp. 4-28), offers something of a primer on several major thinkers aligned with the cultural studies tradition and helps to illustrate their contributions, actual or potential, to sexuality education. Key among these thinkers is Michel Foucault. Here, Carlson describes how, according to Foucault, schools “produce” adolescent bodies in accord with dominant norms for masculinity and femininity. In Foucault, Carlson sees the possibility for rethinking sexuality education as the study of
Also featured in Carlson’s chapter is Eve Sedgwick. Sedgwick famously challenged the pervasive and deeply entrenched homo/hetero dichotomy, arguing that it fails to do justice to human sexual experience. It was Sedgwick who argued that sexual liberation and equality requires dismantling the homo/hetero binary. Carlson believes that an implication of Sedgwick’s argument is that sexuality education should offer a “more inclusive and multifaceted conception of normal sexuality” (p. 16).
Another scholar included in Carlson’s discussion is Susan Bordo. Bordo has examined the influence of popular culture, particularly images of sexuality and gender, in terms of its influence in shaping adolescents’ perceptions of femininity, masculinity, attractiveness, and sexiness (p. 20). Carlson adds to Bordo’s account by illuminating the economic dimension of popular culture: “A highly-commercialized popular culture serves to commodify adolescent desires and by emphasizing image over substance” (p. 20).
Finally, Carlson discusses the work of Henry Giroux. In Carlson’s chapter, Giroux takes on great significance in light of his work in the areas of critical pedagogy and cultural studies, which, as Carlson points out, have important implications for sexuality education. Giroux is attuned to the fact that various media objectify and commodify images of youth. Critical pedagogy can be practiced in a way that helps to unmask this aspect of media and thus work against the “commercialization and exploitation” of adolescent sexuality (p. 18).
In “Sexuality Education: Lessons from Drag Kings” (pp. 171-185), Leslee Grey examines the experiences of women who dress and perform as men. Grey compares this experience to a palimpsest. A palimpsest is a sturdy writing surface, such as a papyrus or parchment, upon which past writings that have been erased continue to show through. In similar fashion, in a drag king show, a “male” costume covers- is written over - a “female” body. But the erasure of the female in never complete. Describing this complex layering as a type of palimpsest highlights the discontinuity of psychic life and instability of sexual identity. Drag kinging thus has interesting pedagogical implications, Grey believes. Not the least of these is that it challenges singular identity categories and opens a space for youth to talk about experiences of having “layers and traces of desires, hopes, anxieties, and resistances” (p. 183).
“The Self-Porning of American Youth” (pp. 348-362) by Joshua Garrison provides a Foucauldian analysis of erotica produced by adolescents featuring their own images. Some, but not all, instances of “sexting”-sending erotic images of one’s body electronically--are cases of self-porning. As Garrison explains: “Whereas sexting is simply a way of representing or replicating one’s sexual corporeality, self-porning entails envisioning the self as a pornographic subject, when the substance of one’s own subjectivity is influenced ...by the form and content of... spectacularized sex” (p. 359). Garrison is skeptical of policy makers’ efforts to control “self-porning” through such means as abstinence-only sex education and the use of surveillance strategies. He sees sexing itself as a mere fad, but the pornographication of culture as enduring and deep-seated. Understanding that aspect of culture will require critical and theoretical sophistication beyond that which the institution of schooling is likely to foster.
Many of the chapters in