I didn't know whether to laugh or get infuriated when my 10-year-old daughter and her friend came home from school last week, gleefully regaling the silly things their sex education experts told them. The husband and wife team (who are, according to my daughter, "close to grandma's age and wear matching outfits") teach the children that girls have "penises, but you can call them she-nises." Eliza, my fifth grader said she thinks the teacher may have used the word clitoris once but continued to talk about the female penis.
Was the reference to a penis supposed to make the girls feel better about themselves? Didn't the notion of penis envy die around the same time as the sky-blue prom tuxedo? I started to write an email to the school's headmaster with the subject heading: Vagina Envy. My daughter forbade me. (None of my four kids or my husband laughed at dinner that night either about my potential email, actually they found it quite humiliating.)
Nevertheless, Eliza and I (and her friend) giggled over our after school snacks talking about what they should be telling boys. As in: "don't worry, you have something very similar to a clitoris, you can call it your man-oris." I think it's great to talk about sexuality in school (in addition to what must go on in the hallways, I mean), but let's really think hard about the messages we are promoting.
The New York Times last week reported that after a Northwestern lecture on sexual arousal, .J. Michael Bailey, the professor, invited a man to talk about kinky people. According to an email Bailey wrote and was later reprinted, the man "asked me whether it would be O.K. if one of the women with him demonstrated female ejaculation using equipment they had brought with them." For the record, it was after class and attendance (and I'm assuming participation) was not mandatory. About 100 of nearly 600 students in the human sexuality class showed up, according to the New York Times. Bailey said none of the information would be included in the exam.
What's the lesson? Female ejaculation? Come on. How close were they sitting?
I teach classes and I know it's hard to figure out ways to arouse students (in an intellectual way, of course). During a course I taught in a New York City high school a few years ago covering the cultural politics of medicine, we included a section on reproduction history. When it came to birth control, one student, a young man, asked me to explain the I.U.D. He also wondered whether it worked by vibrating. I explained the mechanics of the device, which I thought was truly educational, and added that it does not vibrate. I felt like adding: "hey, good idea-vibrating birth control, a sex toy and contraception in one!" But I thought my glib remark was just that. Inappropriate and not fit for the classroom.
It's seems these days that the political conversations about sex education boil down to abstinence-only versus abstinence-sometimes missing all the subtle yet important nuances. We don't need strippers to entertain our college students, and we certainly don't need to boost the self-esteem of little girls by telling them that they have penises too. Even Freud, I suspect, would have been troubled by that one.