A version of this article was published in the Fall, 2018 print edition of The International Educator.
Sex Ed and World Peace
“Sex and gender equality is so basic and essential to peace and security.”
—Sex and World Peace
Years ago I told a colleague I was teaching The Kite Runner in my literature class. He immediately had a problem with it. He said, you can’t teach that book, there’s that awful scene where the boy gets raped. It’s not appropriate. But what about all the seminal texts we teach where women are raped or abused,I asked, (I listed several on our curriculum). It’s different, he said. Why? It just is.
I’ve only every worked in elite international schools. Over the course of my career not one school had an intentional and updated sex, gender, and relationship program, where we could examine these concepts in a holistic, interdisciplinary way.
Coincidentally, in several of the schools I’ve worked at there have been instances of sexual violation and coercion: teachers violating students, students coercing others into performing sex acts. There have been students recovering from rape and sexual trauma where we could offer no in-school support; I’ve witnessed the sexualized bullying of students identifying as LGBTQ; and I’ve taught students with such a misunderstanding of sexuality and reproduction that future sexual trauma feels inevitable.
And then I read the news.
The correlation between weak and non-existent sex Ed and examples of sex and gender inequality in society, is so obvious, we’re missing it. We’ve been too busy, in our elite programs, preparing students for success, preparing them for power. We haven’t taken the time to teach where power comes from and all the ways it can be stolen, lost, wielded, and recovered. Because sex, in a broader term, intersects with all the things that cause war: power, politics, race, gender, identity, tribalism, masculinity, money.
The book Sex and World Peace takes a holistic view of this complex problem. The authors claim that the barrier to a peaceful world is gender inequality, and that inequality is a form of violence. As teachers in international programs, it’s vital that we teach this now. Relevant and thorough sex Ed is one way to help promote equality and reduce sexual crimes in college, in the workplace, and in the home, because often the root of these actions is systemic ignorance. When sex is something we are afraid to talk about in school, students will seek answers elsewhere: from pornography, from youth culture and group think tendencies, or they will rely on the information (or lack thereof) that they inherit from their families, most of which is likely out-dated and insufficient.
Many international schools will say they can’t teach sex Ed because it goes against the values of the host country, the parents, or the school itself. Given the far and interdisciplinary reach of sex and gender issues, there’s also the question of who feels qualified to teach it. Despite these barriers, we cannot continue with fear and apathy, releasing students into the world without so much as a discussion on consent.
Since so many international students are graduating with little to no sex Ed, I argue that the change has to come from the programs themselves, not from the schools alone. In order to graduate, a student in the IBDP, for example, must complete a 4000 word EE, fulfill their CAS and TOK requirements; and now, imagine that they must also pass their Sex, Gender, and Relationship class—a course purposefully designed to teach them that understanding the complexity of sex and gender issues is responsible citizenship.
Will a class like this deter schools in conservative countries from offering the IB programs? In the end, I doubt it. International schools are in the business of making money–for profit and for better programs in their schools; and anyway, what are the implications for a school that drops their affiliation with an international program that believes that sex Ed is a human right? Sex education should not be considered dangerous or unnecessary. The #metoo and #timesup movements have cracked open a dialogue about systemic sexism and have revealed a desperate need for better education and healing around these issues. And there are ways to adapt the content to different contexts without sacrificing core knowledge.
So what could this program look like? Core topics could include Sex and the Self (sexual health and identity), Sex, Power, and Ethics (a great time to teach consent), Sex in the Digital Age (a way to support students through the barrage of messaging and media). Deeper examination could include the history of sexual beliefs in different cultures–another great way to illuminate the relationship between sex, gender, and inequality. A strong TOK class pushes students to question the architecture of their beliefs; a strong sex Ed program should do the same.
Imagine if students graduated with an updated vocabulary with which to think and talk about sex and gender; with a sense of confidence in themselves as sexual beings—aligned, of course, with their own context and values; and with an understanding that sex and gender intersect with many other sensitive issues that they are likely to encounter in life.
Students shouldn’t have to wait until they reach university to deeply examine these issues, as most of their core beliefs about their sexuality will be shaped in high school anyway. They deserve support. The explicit choice not to educate students about sex increases ignorance, secrecy, shame, and allows for misguided people and collective behaviour to shape the understandings of vulnerable communities—and teenagers are a vulnerable community. If we want a more peaceful world (and who doesn’t?) sex education is vital.