This story was printed in the DAWN issue.
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When I envision the ideal sex ed “package,” I think of fact-based stigma-free information about birth control and STIs. I fantasize about honest, open discussions about consent and sexuality. I hope for time invested and accuracy guaranteed, of questions answered and concerns reassured.
It’s a package that would stir fear in the hearts of politicians and parents in Texas. It seems completely out of reach.
The package most teens who grew up in Texas (or any of the 26 states that stress abstinence) got was empty, void of support or education. Maybe it wasn’t quite empty, though. It was filled with the intangible burden of shame, a heavy, lasting substance that would take years to wipe off. The package was hurriedly wrapped in thin gift paper, the same paper that abstinence speakers compared our virginity to in auditoriums filled with impressionable minds. Virginity: One of the most important things about us. Or so they’d have us think.
Too many of us were left uninformed, fallen between the gap of systematic and parental negligence.
But out of this seemingly dark, hopeless system, we grew up and we unlearned what we were “taught.” We began having the conversations we need to be hearing and sharing the images we need to be seeing when it comes to sex. Although federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs significantly decreased under the Obama administration, the current administration puts us at another crossroads. Those who have the power to push for comprehensive sex ed in public schools aren’t going to do us any favors anytime soon. Yet we can take back control if we’re willing to get creative and make the effort to introduce truth into sex ed.
Like this radical notion:
“You can change your mind about anything at any time. ANY thing. ANY time. Even in the middle of sex, even if you’re 102 years old, even that you want to start dating someone with different biology then you have in the past, even about whether you ever want to have sex at all. Your body belongs to you, and you should always feel good about who you’re sharing it with, even if that’s no one, even if that’s lots of people.”
Elisabeth Aultman, the producer of the California-based FCK YES web series that depicts affirmative consent in a funny, honest and relatable way, wants young people to know that “consent is for everyone.”
The project’s 14-episode first season involved eight creators, thirty-five actors, and a 90-percent female crew on a micro-budget. Funding to get the second season available on Seed & Spark, a film-centric crowdfunding, and online streaming platform, is currently in the works. The project’s creators are intentional about representing a diversity of experiences on screen by “creating dialogues in various communities about the intersections of how race, gender, class, and ability show up in the bedroom.”
Making that happen means hiring and consulting with a diverse team of people. “Finding talented, driven, community-oriented people who aren’t cis-heterosexual white men was perfectly simple,” Elisabeth says.
The message is clear: You are not alone in your experience. You exist, and we see you.
From confusion over how consent is brought up to ideas about how genitalia is supposed to look, young people’s perceptions of sex are warped by the unofficial sex ed of many: the porn industry. To combat the one-dimensional images and messages in porn, more and more artists are creating work that is both educational and activist in its intention.
Denton Artist Meredith Grace White started drawing vulva and vagina imagery as a “personal rebellion against art and societal norms.” Growing up in Texas with typical sex ed scare tactics, “genitalia covered in STDs and watching a video about the perils of intercourse,” she says one of her long-term goals is to change and expand sex education as much as possible.
A part of a larger feminist illustrator community promoting messages of body positivity and self-confidence about body hair choices, periods and the diversity of the unedited human body, her Instagram account (@ClubClitoris) took off in popularity after Willow Smith shared a piece of hers about normalizing menstruation.
While Meredith has received plenty of positive feedback, she’s also gotten her share of violent reactions, including rape and death threats. The negative, in addition to the positive, serves as a reminder of why she does what she does.
“The fact that seeing vagina illustrations can cause such true anger and horror is clear proof that my mission is important.” she says.
We need this work because there are men that still correlate the appearance of labia majora (the outer lips of a vulva) or vaginal “looseness” to how much sex a woman has had, meaning that they believe that a penis has the power of reshaping a woman’s vulva or vagina. These beliefs not only reflect a misunderstanding of basic anatomy but a deeper ingrained problem with the way in which we view female sexuality. You don’t hear people talking about a promiscuous-looking penis that has lost its shape because it’s been used too often.
We need this work because it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize the difference between vulva and vagina, and I know I’m not alone.
Utah-based Painter Jacqueline Secor also combats the limited representation of vulvae in porn through her “Diversity in Nature” series, nature-inspired paintings of real models – friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers – who send their photos to her.
“This series honors each body in all of its individuality. It is my hope that in the face of such beauty, there will be no room left for comparison,” her artist statement reads.
Jacqueline says the project wasn’t originally intended to be public or political; the paintings were a personal manifestation from a time in her life when she was dealing with the effects of a toxic relationship and environment. Painting the spectrum of vulvae helped her to process the body dysmorphia she developed after moving to Utah; though Jacqueline was raised Mormon, she has since resigned from the Church.
After positive feedback from close family and friends, she realized the power of her work in helping others deal with their own deep-rooted insecurities about their bodies.
“Even today, despite the prevalence of female nudes in art museums, despite the accessibility to pornography, there is still tremendous pressure on women to hide themselves, to be ashamed of whatever doesn’t conform to societal standards of beauty and propriety,” she says.
“It’s part of this strange dichotomy that culture has created for women: reveal and conceal. On one hand, we’re always supposed to reveal enough of ourselves to be sexually attractive, but simultaneously we’re expected to conceal our bodies, our opinions, and, ultimately, I believe, our power.”
As with most societal taboos, being pressured into silence about sex is the root of harmful misconceptions and generalizations. Pushback against that, people shamelessly speaking out and creating work that peels back the layers of deception, is refreshing and contagious. The breaking of stigma surrounding topics of sex creates a domino effect of personal testimony that doubles as political resistance. One person gets inspired to reveal their own truth to inspire others, and so on, and so on.
Together, we learn from one another, growing and healing out of the cracked sex ed system.
Like what you see?
This story was printed in the DAWN issue.
Secure your copy here.