On Friday I posted some of the questions and topics that my middle school students had asked in class last week and I promised short versions of my answers today. Here you go:
First, the questions from the more reticent class (dealing with erections and periods, and rape and how it relates to age):
- I first defined and described an erection, because it was clear that not all of the students in the room were aware of what it was from the word. I then described how erections generally come as part of the sexual arousal process, but that they can come at other times as well. My assistant (who is male) jumped in to talk about living with erections as a part of life, that having your penis brush oddly against your pants or something else completely innocuous can trigger an erection. In terms of dealing with unwanted erections, we talked about shifting your thoughts and attention away from sexual stimuli that might have triggered it, untucking your shirt, and other practical and concrete responses.
- Regarding period paraphernalia, we talked about bleached versus unbleached, scented versus unscented, the length of time before a pad or a tampon needs to be changed, and how to continue in activities that you want to participate in even when on your period (including swimming and gymnastics). The conversation went into detail on why bleach and chemical scents are problematic when brought into contact with the vaginal lining when they are not when put used on clothing. We put each of the above items into a bowl of water to see how they expanded and absorbed water. The conversation also drifted to what exactly menstrual fluid consists of since it is not, strictly speaking, blood.
- One of the students told a story during class about an adult woman who was convicted of rape of a thirteen year old boy and wanted to know our general thoughts on the matter. In response, we first defined rape as it is most general defined: sexual activity that is forced on someone without their consent. We then went into discussion of the legal definition of consent and who can give it (in the state of Texas, you must 14 to give consent to sex with anyone). The imbalance of power and judgment between an adult and a young teenager are substantial, and we briefly touched on this as well. We will spend an entire class discussing rape and sexual harassment much later in the course, so we put off more conversation until that point. We invited students to write questions about rape on their anonymous questions at the end of class if they had any they would like answered sooner.
And now, the questions from the more inquisitive class (the essential nature of sexuality, BDSM, and religious freedom as it relates to gender):
- Human sexuality and the human drive to be sexual is a complex matter that is not only about reproduction, but also about building intimacy and connection. The most current thinking on this matter (as best described in the wonderful book Sex at Dawn) suggests that humans have sex in order to connect, and that reproduction is a secondary effect. There are clearly some animals who have sex only in order to reproduce – for example the animals who only have sex when they are in heat, or ovulating. However, there are other animals who have sex to build community, including our closely related primates, the bonobos. The students were, I think, not prepared for the nuance and depth of information present in this conversation when they first asked the question. Nevertheless, they were interested and engaged during the conversation, asking follow-up questions until I decided it was time to move on.
- Adults who are acting in consensual, trusting, sexual relationships have a wide variety of sexual acts which they may or may not chose to engage in. After a student asked about bondage and sadism, I defined BDSM for the students in just a few sentences, as simply as possible. I then focused the conversation on the need for safety (a safe word, specific conversation beforehand regarding exact consent on exact activities) and trust (extensive knowledge of the partner both sexually and in other contexts before moving into a restrictive or pain related sexual scenario). I mentioned that engaging in BDSM is something that requires an extraordinary sense of self and self-knowledge to engage in safely and healthily. I pointed out that it could be easy for a BDSM relationship to be unhealthy.
- The issue of freedom within religion is a complex one, and the ways in which individual women chose to participate or are forced to participate in their religious traditions reflect that complexity. The example raised by one of the students in class was the burka. Because we would be talking about religion, morals, and beliefs in the following class, and because the specific issue of the burka is one that can easily be delved into with some depth, I did not allow this conversation to extend very long. Instead, the conversation was brought up, students contributed a number of perspectives, I contributed a few more, and then I wrapped the discussion for the time being. I look forward to next class to see where it will lead us!
These are just a few examples of where young adolescents’ minds go when they are invited to consider and discuss sexuality in an open environment. Every week, every class brings unique questions and thoughts to me and their classmates. It is quite an adventure to respond and moderate their conversations!