September 12, 2011

Sex in the Classroom {featured news}

During the hormonal rage of puberty; what's best for girls and boys: co-ed or same sex classes? Without students of the opposite sex in the room, "We can just act like ourselves," says an eight-grader at a middle school in the Twin Cities where single-sex education has been introduced. Comments a school's teacher:
One key benefit of separating boys and girls is that "they act more age-appropriate." Girls in her classes are more relaxed, she said, while in the co-ed classes she used to teach, "It was always about who's trying to get a boy." (Star Tribune Sunday Sept. 11, 2011, B7)

Though research remains inconclusive on the benefits of single-sex classrooms, a growing number of public schools nationwide are venturing into single-sex education, in turn fueling debates about it. Inevitably, gender essentializing arguments pop up in the discussion, often quoting Leonard Sax, the founder and director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE). In Why Gender Matter: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences (2005), Sax writes that:
Many young boys are energized by confrontation and by time-constrained tasks. Few young girls will flourish in high-pressure, do-it-in-five-seconds-or-you-lose formats. (90).
Neuroscientist Lise Eliot offers a thoughtful response that steers away from the stereotyping of Sax' binary approach to gender, and the impracticalities of queer theory's undoing of gender. The gist of Eliot's Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It (2009), is that boys and girls are different, but not so different as cultural stereotypes would have us think. And differences caused by genes and hormones can be compensated for by encouraging appropriate games and activities to kids. (My brief review of Eliot's book is here.)

Eliot does consider the potential benefits of single-sex schools, in particular at "the middle- and high-school level, when gender differentiation and peer opinion become overriding influences for some students" (311). And especially for disadvantaged and age-risk children. But in the end, writes Eliot,
The strongest argument against single-gender education lies in the reality of adulthood: girls and boys ultimately need to learn to work together, respect each other, and also compete against each other. While single-sex schools may be a good Band-Aid for some students, they are never going to close the real gender gaps that still trouble us. As I've tried to show throughout this book, each gender has much to learn from the other. Girls in the past few decades have obviously benefited from emulating boys' more assertive and ambitious ways, while boys have always gained from the studious example and calming influence of girls in classrooms ... While single-sex schools or classrooms may be a temporary fix that works for some boys and girls, I believe that the greater risk--of gender stereotyping and the loss of mutual understanding--makes such segregation a step in the wrong direction. (312)
To combat lingering gender stereotypes and foster mutual understanding, comprehensive human sexuality education is also needed, an from an early age; helping to prepare girls and boys to face the hormonal changes that occur in puberty.


  1. It doesn't have to be just one or the other. I think elements of sex education should be taught single sex (eg. anatomy, periods, wet dreams), and other elements mixed (relationships, respect, sexually transmitted diseases).

  2. But as Karen Gravelle argues, it is important to demystify the opposite sex and foster mutual understanding between the sexes, and especially as they approach and deal with puberty. In her book aimed at pubescent boys, What’s Going on Down There?, she includes an entire chapter to what happens to girls during puberty, providing a detailed description of girls’ external and internal sex organs and how they change during puberty, as well as menstruation (does it hurt, and why does it make girls cranky? etc.). See my review of her book here. I also discuss this book in my article on fostering children's positive relationship with their genitals. Here's a quote from this article:

    Yet young girls are pressured from many holds today. – And young boys too need frank information about girls’ bodies and sexuality in order to foster respect and appreciation for the female body. A woman featured in I’ll Show You Mine recalls how she came to think that the appearance of her vulva was something to be worried about, after boyfriends started using terms like “sloppy joe” or “meat curtains” for her labia (75). Another recounts how a boyfriend told her that he wouldn’t perform oral sex on her because her “pussy was unusual and not uniform,” suggesting she have her labia surgically altered (87). Aimed at pre-adolescent and adolescent boys, Gravelle’s What’s Going on Down There? Answers to Questions Boys Find Hard to Ask (1998) prepares boys on what to expect when they explore the naked body of pubescent girls, providing a positive detailed description of girls’ genitals and how they change during puberty.

    I also think for girls knowing more about what's going on with boys in puberty would help girls feel less intimidated around boys and their raging levels of pubescent testosterone. Knowledge is power. Denying knowledge is denying girls and boys the tools with which to navigate safely.


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