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Better Sexual Health Education

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber

Governor Brown’s signing into law of the California Healthy Youth Act (AB329) is a milestone for California. Along with mandating “comprehensive, accurate, and unbiased sexual health” in schools, the bill focuses on “provid[ing] pupils with the knowledge and skills they need to develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender, sexual orientation, relationships, marriage, and family.”

To be implemented beginning on January 1, 2016, AB 329, authored by San Diego Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, has the exciting potential for disrupting the inequality and culture of silence surrounding gender and sexuality in schools. However, this curricular change is just one step in undoing entrenched practices that reinforce gender and sexual hierarchies, foster misperceptions, and are exclusionary within our schools.

The teaching of gender and sexuality is not new. However, rather than take center stage with the three R’s in our curriculum, the lessons so central to our lives have typically been evaded or relegated to the hidden curriculum. In this form, they have appeared insidiously in schools in unequal messages about opportunities, ways of being, and relationships.

When gender diversity and inequality are invisible in the telling of history and analysis of literature, incomplete and inaccurate knowledge are transmitted.

Historically, schools have explicitly reinforced double standards and strict gender expectations. This has occurred through the unequal funneling of students into different classes such as home economics for girls and shop or auto-mechanics for boys—preparing youth for gender-specific careers and lives. Similarly, schools were known for unequally banishing pregnant females, shaming and putting the burden of reproduction on adolescent girls.

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Still today, if left unchanged, everyday practices in schools send strong messages that contradict the tenets of AB 329. When gender diversity and inequality are invisible in the telling of history and analysis of literature, incomplete and inaccurate knowledge are transmitted. This reinforces assumptions about who belongs and who doesn’t. Likewise, when schools divide girls and boys, they reinforce gender binaries and naturalize difference. When schools unquestioningly host traditional proms and homecoming courts, messages are sent regarding narrow conceptions of beauty, gender appropriate behavior, and heterosexual relationships. Within a climate where only traditional gender performances and heterosexuality are celebrated, it can be difficult to form healthy self-concepts or inclusive attitudes.

Moreover, depending on their descriptions and implementation, school dress codes can have a similar negative impact. Dress codes, such as the policy in some schools, mandating that female bodies be covered so as to not “detract” from learning environments convey misperceptions that females are to blame for arousing excitement and interfering with schooling. Whether intended or not, the enforcement of such dress codes simultaneously sexualize and control female bodies – potentially infringing on their rights to develop healthy concepts related to adolescent development and body image.

Educators and students also play a role in these daily teachings when they ridicule classmates for their sexuality, gender performances, and body types. Heteronormative assumptions and silences, especially by adults, in the face of derogatory language and harmful actions can also be just as stifling as this harassment.

Despite their prevalence in schools, these everyday practices and messages often go unchallenged. They are taken for granted and even accepted as “normal.” However, their ramifications are many, including feelings of isolation, experiences with bullying, and overall disengagement with schooling. Without classroom spaces and course materials to facilitate learning, sexism and homophobia go unchallenged.

A rigorous sex education curriculum provides students with the knowledge necessary for the development of healthy people in control of their bodies, relationships, and lives. This is the real world education that AB329 will provide. Integrating sexual health education into our schools’ formal curriculum is an important step in truly educating youth and unmasking misperceptions that have infiltrated our society. However, we should not stop with formal curricular changes. We, as a society, must take a hard look at the persisting practices and beliefs that may inadvertently undermine the larger potential of AB329.


Gilda L. Ochoa