The Price of Sexual Silence
Lillith is a queer femme currently living in the Dallas area. Part diva, part academic masochist, her favorite hobbies are hula-hooping, rounding up fresh leather, scalping fundamentalists, and spanking insolent pin-up girls. She spends her days roaming libraries and her nights running gloryholes, and is close to perfecting the art of stripping while playing the piano.
Working as a high-school teacher in a very conservative, very wealthy, and very white school district in Texas was, to say the least, an educational experience for me. I arrived every day to two separate parking lots: the teachers' lot, which was filled with well-cared-for Toyotas, beat-up Buicks, and, of course, the requisite number of pickup trucks. The students' parking lot, on the other hand, boasted a variety of shiny red and blue Mercedes convertibles, glowering black Hummers, and no shortage of Corvettes. On a daily basis, the teachers faced overwhelming opposition from privileged children of lawyers and doctors, and the administration, more often than not, sided with the parents when teachers were accused of "discriminating" against students (read: holding them responsible). And yes, as you can imagine, we prayed before every meeting, game, and student function. Gay/straight alliance? Not a chance. Comprehensive sex and health education? Laughable.
In Texas (like many other states), the public school system is not set up to allow teachers the flexibility to meet the various and diverse needs of the students they work with. While many teachers blindly follow the doctrine set forth by the administration, there are just as many good-hearted, caring teachers who work hard to find ways to get students the information they need, often at risk to their careers. Students in this particular city, however, had no problem reading between the sheets—on a daily basis, I saw an enormous number of thong panties peeking out of jeans, miniskirts, boob jobs, and suggestive t-shirts. I was particularly horrified/amused by the 9th-grade boy in a t-shirt proclaiming "Snatch: The best stuff on earth!" in the style of the Snapple logo. (As I dragged him to the office, I fought back the urge to ask him where he got it so I could get one for myself). More often than not, administrators were loath to require dress modifications for fear of reprisals from angry parents. Dress code was a losing battle that most teachers gave up on, so the kids flaunted their bodies and their sexuality with almost no restrictions. Tales of sex and drug parties, prostitution, polysexual encounters, and abortions floated around the halls with surprising normalcy. The thriving abstinence-only club had an unwritten rule that anal and oral sex didn't count. No doubt, sex education was occurring all over the school, but without the support of knowledgeable and caring adults. In fact, we were told that giving information to students about sexuality (including, for example, how to use a condom) would result in termination. Period.
So none of this is surprising, I'm sure—these are the same stories coming from teachers all over America who are fighting the clash between a social system that encourages (requires?) sexual development at an early age and an education system that denies the very existence of sexuality. My stories, though, are a little different. I watched these rich, privileged, grown-up-children float through the halls, but when I went back into my classroom and closed the door, I was faced with a group of kids who did not have the ability to wade through the mixed messages. Most of my students were from countries other than America, most were older than their grade-level counterparts, and all were academically delayed (although not necessarily intellectually). None of them could hear.
I've been an interpreter for the Deaf for thirteen years, became a teacher in 2004, and subsequently got my master's degree in Deaf Education. Teaching was what I wanted to do, and at first, it was a dream. The district was wealthy (one of the top schools in the country), the program was exceptional, and the kids were amazing. They were bright, funny, and creative, and even though it was hard to meet their incredibly diverse needs, teaching was always a joy. For a while, that is.
When one of my students, we'll call her Maria, asked me why she bled every month, I was pretty surprised. She was 18, and had been menstruating since she was 12, but she never knew why. When another student chimed in, echoing the girl's questions, I realized the problem was bigger than I thought. I quickly learned that none of my students had any information about basic reproductive health, including menstruation, reproduction, and gynecological care. I quickly put together a unit on basic health: I drew pictures of fallopian tubes, eggs, and sperm (much to their disgust) and used a toilet paper roll to demonstrate how to use a tampon. One of my (female) students asked me why penises leak (a surprising piece of information to know when you don't even know what menstruation is). I awkwardly explained about ejaculate, but when they asked about sex, I am ashamed to say that I glossed over it and answered the way I was "supposed to." When they asked if they could get sick from having sex, I said yes, and that they should wait until they were married to do it (as if that would prevent STIs). I refused to talk about contraception, and I failed to address sensitive issues like acquaintance rape. I've never been a supporter of abstinence-only education, but at that point, I didn't want to lose my job, so I played the game. I wish I could take it all back.