Throughout life if we are conscious or observant enough we will notice the countless ways that heteronormativity affects our lives. A very common and seemingly harmless way is the one I addressed in this post’s title – questions with which we follow the information about someone’s sexual orientation. If you are a heterosexual woman, it is very unlikely that someone will ask you: “So when did you know you liked guys?”. The reason for this is that heterosexuality is perceived as the norm in our society. When people find out that I am bisexual, they often ask a similar question: “So when did you know you liked girls?”. Whenever I hear that, I answer: “I never thought I was heterosexual”. Many people, just like me, don’t have an amusing story about how they suspected that they were not “normal” because they were attracted to the same sex in middle school. If we use the sociological perspective, we can see how heteronormativity affects not only individuals, but society as a whole. One of the harmful ways that it does that is how sexuality education is being taught in our school.
A gif from “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999)
One of the works that tries to tackle this problem is “Discourses of Exclusion: Sexuality Education’s Silencing of Sexual Others” by Elia & Eliason (2010). They provide a historical and cultural context while answering the question of how did we get here. The authors state:
“It is abundantly clear that sexuality education has not changed much since its beginnings in the early twentieth century. The focus has always been on promoting heterosexual, procreative sexuality within the confines of marriage. “
The article provides explanation for how did abstinence become such a big part of sexuality education in the US. Even the idea seems ridiculous looking at the statistics of teenage sexual activities, paradoxically instead of teaching kids how to prevent unwanted pregnancy, the system shames them for having sexual urges and stigmatizes contraception. Moreover, an abstinence teaching system is extremely exclusive towards same-sex couples. Authors note how knowledge about STI’s is not generalized enough and therefore reinforced the prejudice towards the LGBTQ community. The article however ends on a positive note, providing guidelines for how sexuality education can be “anti-oppressive and inclusive” and notes that the situation is getting better.
A fragment of the “Mean Girls” (2004)
The article “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youths’ Perspectives of Inclusive School-Based Sexuality Education” by Gowen & Winges-Yanez (2014) provides some more insight on the topic of sexuality education. The study was conducted among thirty youth, most of which identified themselves as a part of the LGBTQ community. The authors introduce us to concepts without which it is difficult to understand the phenomenon. It is explained how heteronormativity, here taking the form of heterocentricity affects the youth. It is stated:
“In describing their sexuality education experiences, many focus group participants recalled instances in which heterosexuality was the perceived norm. For example, sexuality education focused on vaginal intercourse and pregnancy prevention. “
Once again, we are shown how the members of LGBTQ may feel ignored or silenced by Sex Ed. Even if introducing contraception or teaching how to prevent getting a STI, the curriculum focuses on or is limited to heterosexual vaginal intercourse. Things like dental dam are not mentioned. Moreover, sexual orientations other than heterosexuality are being apathologized by being associated with HIV/AIDS and other STIs.
A gif from “Sex Education: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (2015) (HBO)
Both articles mentioned before bring our attention to the issue of sexuality education and how it is influenced by heteronormativity. What should provide knowledge, reinforced misconceptions and prejudice. We need to consciously review data collected from studies and try to change how we teach about sexuality, because it is one of the elements that shape our society. That’s why the curriculum needs to be revised and adjusted, so it does not cause harm or increase inequalities.
- Michaels, L., Fey, T., Waters, M. S., Lohan, L., McAdams, R., Meadows, T., Poehler, A., … Paramount Pictures Corporation. (2004). Mean girls. Hollywood, Calif: Paramount.
- L. Kris Gowen & Nichole Winges-Yanez (2014) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youths’ Perspectives of Inclusive School-Based Sexuality Education, The Journal of Sex Research, 51:7, 788-800, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2013.806648
- John P. Elia & Mickey Eliason (2010) Discourses of Exclusion: Sexuality Education’s Silencing of Sexual Others, Journal of LGBT Youth, 7:1, 29-48, DOI: 10.1080/19361650903507791