Identity in the online world, or Dr. Alice Dreger Live Tweeting Sex Ed

I’m sure that last week many of you followed the sex ed story of the week that went massively viral about @AliceDreger, the mother who live tweeted her son’s sex ed class. I first saw the story on Vox.

This story was pretty fantastic, I have to admit. I followed along, read with the tweets. They are both horrifying and enlightening. And, coming from Texas, I’ve heard so many stories like this before.

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So there they are. Two of them, at least. Live, bold, and in person.

This story has gone dramatically viral. Even USA Today is in on the story.  I think that the best place to read about the experience is at The Stranger where Dreger writes about it herself.

One of the reasons I prefer to read about this at The Stranger than one of the zillion other places I could read about it is that The Stranger doesn’t immediately label Dr. Dreger as a mother. Because that’s not her primary role in life as it relates to sexuality education. Dr. Dreger is a well-known and respected speaker and author. (Her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science has been on my to-read list since it was recently published. I just bought it and can’t wait to dive into it.)

So what’s the deal? Why are all of these media outlets focusing on Dr. Dreger’s parenting and kinda leaving out why she is qualified to talk about issues in sex ed classrooms in the first place? Some of the articles about Dr. Dreger’s live-tweeting experience did, once you got deep enough into the text, mention that she has professional credentials, but many of them left out that piece entirely.

I see two issues with our cultural perspective that has landed us here, ignoring a professional woman’s knowledge and skills that provides her with content expertise on the topic she is speaking on:

  1. Education, and particularly sex education, is not a career or a profession that has unique insight and understanding, but rather is seen as something that parents are more qualified to weigh in on than trained professionals.
  2. Women’s roles are primarily based in the home and the family rather than their professional lines of work. This means that the mother-role is more important than the professional-role and should be mentioned first.

Dr. Dreger did go into the classroom because of her parental relationship with one of the students in the classroom. (In The Stranger piece linked to above, she talks about her embarrassment that she neglected tales of horrific sex ed in her local schools until her own son was in the class.) But it was both things – not only her parenting role – not only her professional role – that gave her unique insight and engagement with that classroom’s content.

I’ve worked in education for a long time. I haven’t ever, really, done anything outside of this field. And I’ve heard the jokes: “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” They’re wrong, they’re insulting, they’re exhausting. They make me so angry. There is content expertise and then there is pedagogical expertise, and they are both important to a high quality learning environment. Dr. Dreger has both. And so we need to – we must! – listen to what she has to say about topics that are relevant to her areas of expertise. Not just because she is a parent. It seems that because adults spent a huge chunk of their lives in classrooms, as students, that they think they are experts about what it means to be in a classroom as a teacher. That is just not true. (Incidentally, the same is true of sex. Because most people have sex, most people erroneously consider themselves experts on it. But that is a post for another time, because I have a meeting I have to get to.)

But she is a parent. And that is relevant to the story; she was in the classroom because of her parenting role. It is worth mentioning, but it is not the entirety of the story! We cannot let women’s professional roles outside the home fall second fiddle to their parenting roles inside the home. This is an issue that permeates our society and is deeply divided along gender lines. Hillary Clinton was recently taken to task in the press for having her family along with her during campaign stops – it was suggested she was too much of a mother, not enough of a president. Male presidential candidates take their families along with them on political campaigns all the time and are encouraged, lauded for their dedication! But women? They’re either all-family or all-work, without an understanding of the contextualization that happens in an individual’s identity that not only leaves room for both, but actively incorporates both. This is true for all people along the gender spectrum.

Dr. Dreger’s story is one example of the ways that we fall culturally short in our understandings of both sexual and educational expertise and the ways that we conceptualize motherhood. So while I’m thrilled that poor sexuality education is part of the current national conversation, I’m disappointed in its shortfalls. Dr. Dreger is an expert. And, frankly, her book is awesome in so many ways. Everyone should put it on their to-read list.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.