In Skirting the Issue: Teachers’ Experiences “Addressing Sexuality in Middle School Language Arts,” Laurel Puchner and Nicole Klein of Southern Illinois University interviewed 15 middle school language arts teachers from eight school districts across America’s so-called “Bible Belt” to investigate how the topic of sexuality is handled when it arises in the classroom. These were majority suburban areas, with majority white student bodies, all 15 teachers were white, and only three schools had majority low-income students (2012, p. 4). While this sample of teachers was nonrandom, small, and homogeneous, the study provided valuable insight into how middle school students are learning (or remaining ignorant) about sexuality.
Puchner and Klein found that sexuality came up frequently in school, and the majority of the teachers they interviewed “believed that frank discussion of sexuality issues would be beneficial for their students” (p. 6). The authors agree with them, citing studies that indicate open dialogue concerning sex helps students understand the importance of safety practices, understand how sex is portrayed in the media, and grow into sexually healthy adults (p. 2). Ignorance in this area perpetuates incorrect information and prejudice and violence towards the LGBT community (p. 2). They even suggest the curiosity and fascination surrounding sex can be used to spark interest in science, history, and literature, and that “it is useful for promoting democracy because sexuality is so closely entwined in the issues of racial oppression, gender oppression, class oppression, and sexuality oppression” (p. 2).
However, a “culture of silence” (p. 3) persists because teachers are afraid to go too far when discussing such a controversial subject. Many see the positives in open communication, but there exists a “benefit-risk tension” (p. 11) that requires teachers to mentally weigh risk versus reward for any situation in which sexuality arises. Teachers are fearful of angry parents and/or administrators, of losing their jobs (p. 13). And naturally, some simply don’t see it as the teacher’s prerogative to teach such issues (p. 12). In their conclusion, the authors push for a change in attitude: If the ignorance teachers perpetuate with silence has a negative impact on the sexual development of adolescents, this must change, and it should begin with dialogue between superintendents, principals, and teachers on how open an educator can be when discussing sexuality with students (p. 14).
I agree with Puchner and Klein’s stance. Conservative American culture tends to deem sexuality a dark secret that must be locked in the closet, despite the fact that besides the intake and expulsion of nutrients and oxygen, plus the sleep cycle, sex is the most common biological function of all life. If adolescents are not educated, they are left in ignorance. We need to move toward the belief that the benefits outweigh the risks. Students should not have to rely on their peers for information on sex. They should be able to count on respected parents and teachers to educate them, and although some adults may feel parents are the only ones with this responsibility, I believe the educator plays a critical role. When a learning moment arises from a novel students are reading in English, or a discussion on the gay rights movement in history class, or a lecture on anatomy in science, it should be taken advantage of and used as an opportunity to discuss and examine this controversial topic, to the ultimate end of producing informed and sexually healthy adults and eliminating the controversy entirely.
Puchner, L., & Klein, N. A. (2012). Skirting the issue: Teachers’ experiences “addressing sexuality in middle school language arts.” Research in middle level education, 36(1). http://www.amle.org/portals/0/pdf/publications/RMLE/rmle_vol36_no1.pdf.