The National Interest: Once a month, this column is tackling broader questions about what the country should do about gaps in achievement and opportunity, especially for boys of color, in a partnership with The Root.
We can’t teach safe sex if kids don’t understand their own and others’ gender identities.
Women across the gender spectrum are being killed and raped every day, but our policy debates about gender are hung up on bathroom use in schools, a GOP-fueled witch hunt intended to demonize transgender women.
If we really care about keeping women safe, we need to reform sex education — as well as bathroom signs — to help young people better understand and navigate gender identity: the self-defined and, too often, societal-prescribed state of being a man, woman or other identity on the gender spectrum.
If a good understanding of bodily functions were all teens needed to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, schools would be just fine offering a good biology course. But kids need to learn about gender, along with the skills that promote safe sex, if they’re going to have positive relationships and respect one another.
Like forbidden conversations about race in education, gender is also a taboo subject, causing more than philosophical disagreements and policy conflicts. People are dying at the intersections of ignorance, gender, race and sex.
Eight transgender people have died this year, and 22 transgender people died last year in the United States because of violence, according to the Human Rights Campaign. It was the most ever recorded, according to the advocacy group.
Looking more closely at this year’s deaths, all eight transgender people killed so far in 2017 were transgender women of color, according to GLAAD.
Meanwhile, nearly 1 in 5 (18.3 percent) women reported experiencing rape at some time (pdf) in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also found in a nationally representative survey of adults that 37.4 percent of female rape victims were first raped between the ages of 18 and 24, and 42.2 percent of female rape victims were first raped before age 18.
Identification as a girl or woman is associated with taking on the risk of violence from boys and men. Let’s be clear: President Donald Trump’s rescinding of federal guidelines permitting transgender students to use public school bathrooms that match their chosen gender identity wasn’t about protecting women. Separate bathrooms haven’t protected women. Trump is protecting masculinity.
We simply wait too long to teach about gender — if those lessons ever come. Children’s health and very lives depend on our helping them to make more-informed choices around gender, as well as helping the next generation to be more tolerant and supportive of one another.
There are opportunities to teach about gender in sex education courses.
All states have some form of sex ed for students. There is great variety in the nature of these courses: Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education; 33 states and D.C. require that students receive instruction about HIV/AIDS; and four states require parental consent before a child can receive instruction.
There is evidence that our patchwork system of delivering sex education is working. Teen pregnancy in the U.S. dropped below 25 births per 1,000 female teens ages 15-19 for the first time since the government began collecting consistent data on births, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That may be because teens are having less sex than their parents were having at the same age, according to the CDC.
While still higher than those of other women, the number of HIV diagnoses among African-American women fell 42 percent from 2005 to 2014, according to the CDC. In the same period, HIV diagnoses among young African-American gay and bisexual males (ages 13 to 24) increased 87 percent. Those numbers have plateaued recently, with diagnoses dropping 2 percent since 2010.
Teaching about gender would take sex education beyond the single focus on disease and pregnancy prevention into a more positive conversation about relationships and reducing violence against women.
“Quality sex education should include prevention messages and help young people build the skills necessary to form healthy relationships, negotiate and communicate preferences, and employ critical thinking and decision-making skills that promote autonomous decision-making,” said Sonya Norsworthy, director of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement.
To infuse gender studies in sex ed courses, classes must become more inclusive of information and materials relevant to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) community. The 2015 call from a number of national groups proposes just that.
A primary goal of schools is to develop students’ ability to have positive relationships with their peers, teachers and family members. We do this in order to prevent violence while they are in school and to promote a civil society when they graduate. When sex education courses provide a safe reflection of the gender identities through which we navigate and experience the world, then schools will be more equipped to fulfill that mission.