I’ll start with a little ice-breaking self-disclosure. When I was little, even though I’d heard the word vagina, my parents called it “gin-gin,” so that’s what I called it.
For those of you who also grew up skirting around the proper names for genitalia, see any names you recognize? (If not, you should leave a comment with what you called yours.)
So what does calling your vagina a “wee-wee” or penis a “pee-pee” when you were a kid have to do with reproductive justice? Answer: Lots!
This humorous naming phenomenon illuminates just how awkward our society is about sexuality. We make socially constructed associations between sexuality and negative sentiments, e.g., shame, guilt, fear, when in actuality, there is nothing inherently negative or unnatural about sexuality. On the contrary, sexuality is an absolutely natural part of human development. Nonetheless, as products of our culture, it is engrained in us to take a negative approach to sexuality – one that “focuses on sexual problems, risks and consequences and excludes the positive aspects of sexuality.” While educating youth about the risks of unprotected sex/sexual acts has its merits, a negative approach inevitably fosters a negative perspective on sexuality and a reluctance to engage the subject.
The reproductive justice movement promotes a positive approach to sexuality. Sex positivity emphasizes safe sex and the importance of informed consent, as well as encourages sexual experimentation and pleasure. So as you might have guessed, sexual health, defined by WHO as “a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality…[requiring] a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence,” plays a central role in reproductive justice. Here’s the way I see it: Let’s get real, guys. Teenagers are going to have sex. Shouldn’t they know how to do it right? (Just to be clear, by right, I mean safely, consensually and pleasurably.)
Sex education programs in public schools, regulated on a state-to-state basis, demonstrate that a negative approach is counterproductive in terms of sexual health. Let’s zoom in on my home state. Georgia requires all public school students to complete a sex education program; sounds great, right? Wrong. It is also required that the sex education programs stress abstinence, and it is not required that students receive information about contraceptives and other more realistic ways for teenagers to engage in “safe sex.” Advocates for Youth reports that fifty-six thousand teenagers in my state are sexually active; yet, in 2007, $8 million from the federal government was used to fund abstinence-only sex education programs. Advocates for Youth also reports the outcomes of these programs: compared to the national average, Georgia has higher rates of AIDS, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection (STI’s). If so many teens are not taking the abstinence-only approach to their sexuality, why do these programs withhold information that would help teens make smarter (or at least informed) choices about their bodies and sexualities?
We at Choice USA strive to help create “a world where all people have agency over their own bodies and relationships and the power, knowledge and tools to exercise that agency.” Knowledge is a crucial piece in creating this world. Knowledge is power. Knowledge helps us figure out what tools we need and how to exercise agency. Sure, talking about sexuality can be embarrassing, but not because sexuality is negative. Sexuality is natural, and talking about it can only foster knowledge and consequently a sense of agency over your body.