Sexual Health & Relationship Education via Life Stories

A riart Grrrl, a folklorist and a condom monologuer get together to discuss the phenomenon of real-life storytelling in the context of sex education

The three authors of this post come from different trajectories in the field of sex and sexuality but we share the belief that real-life storytelling should play an intrinsic role in sexual health and relationships education (SRE).

storytelling pieceHere we discuss the need for real-life stories that address safer sex practices and how to navigate health risks in relevant ways. Dr. Jeana Jorgensen and Xaverine Bates both explain that sharing real-life stories has transformative power to validate perspectives which may be overlooked or silenced in public discourse. Storytelling has the ability to convey scenarios that one may never have imagined before. Hence, they raise awareness about social issues and invite people to learn and unlearn ways of looking at bodies and desires. As stated by Xaverine Bates, founder of riart Grrls and aGender, “The power of storytelling is crucial for truly effective sex and relationship education (SRE), with a firm emphasis on emotional health in order to foster a deep understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship.”

Taboo Manages How We Talk about Sex

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen, folklorist and writer at MySexProfessor.com, argues that due to social taboo towards talking publicly about sexual experiences, these life stories

“are limited to settings where the teller doesn’t have a professional or personal stake in the listeners’ reactions. I think this is unfortunate, because personal narratives are really potent genres for education. When someone tells a personal narrative, they not only educate the listener (by conveying facts about their life), but they also invite the listener to empathize with them and consider their values.”

Jeana continues, “So, because of the taboo on oversharing about one’s sexual activities in many settings, people tend to share personal narratives on sexual topics within their peer groups, age groups, friend groups, and hobby groups. This guarantees that if you’re making yourself vulnerable by sharing sexual information, you’re probably doing it to a sympathetic audience. But it also means that you risk living within an echo chamber, and you’ll only hear stories that confirm your own set of values. To that end, I think it’s really important for people from diverse backgrounds to learn each other’s stories and thereby gain empathy for how different life circumstances can lead to a variety of life (and lifestyle) choices.”

The internet is one place where people subvert this taboo and overcome issues of access. At Condom Monologues we’ve circumscribed a bully-free space that aims to be as inclusive as possible allowing anyone to ask questions and share their experiences with safe sex (see our archive). Whether the admins agree with the storyteller’s values or choices is not the point. However, we do not represent everyone’s experiences and have our limitations. One can never control how stories are appropriated and re-purposed in the digital world, and that is a risk all storytellers face. But there are ways to protect identity as well as mediate discussion around sharing stories, such as workshops like aGender (explained below).

Teaching Which Facts with What Stories…

The taboo Jeana highlights also affects the way in which sex education informs students. Narratives in class are rooted in political interests and social fears around sexuality. Pleasure and desire are rarely mentioned even as a side-issue. Instead, young people are fed a platter of warnings and doom-laden data about STI epidemics and teen pregnancy. One need not look further than this and that mandatory abstinence-only assembly to be told horror stories about how boyfriends used “condoms that had holes in them” or told girls that if they use birth control “your mother probably hates you.”

KnowledgeIsPowerEducators rarely offer information about safer sex beyond vaginal-penis intercourse. Diverse sexuality and the spectrum of (trans)gender identity are excluded. Addressing issues such as STI stigma, homophobic, transphobic and sexist language, cyber-bullying, sexting and sexual anxieties are inadequate at best.

Medical information is often presented without context nor provide students with diverse options on how to apply these facts in real-life sexual relationships. And that’s if we can call them “facts” to begin with! In the US, only 13 states require sex education to actually be medically accurate, according to a 2012 study by the Guttmacher Institute. Meanwhile, in the UK, Xaverine explains that “there is currently a bias towards the biological side of SRE” which “favors plain biological facts” without focus on issues of enthusiastic consent and emotional confidence.

What Young Adults are Saying

Students’ experiences in sexual health class are telling. As a college instructor, Jeana hears young people share their experiences in sex education which, she explains, “constitutes their own type of personal narrative. The topics that people remembered tended to be biological rather than emotional; physiology was covered, but not necessarily relationships or pleasure.”

Xaverine agrees. She points to testimonies by 19-21 year olds who participated in women’s-only focus groups that examined the effectiveness of SRE (Kavanagh, 2011).

For example, one participant said,

I was like scarred by sex education at secondary school, they came in with like these big blown up pictures of STIs and stuff and said, you know, if you have sex and stuff this is what will happen to you. It was horrible…(ibid, p-13).

All focus-group participants commented on the lack of relationship education in schools with an emphasis purely on the biological. As one put it,

I think relationships and morals and respect need to be put back in place, for everyone, not just males or females, and I don’t believe in the saying nothing (abstinence teaching) because I think if everybody was to turn around to me and be like, you’re not doing this, you’re not doing that, I’d do it…I’d rebel (ibid, p-15).

“Comprehensive” SRE is in dire need of revision. Negligence of these topics results in an unsafe, non-engaging space that silences and restricts young people’s sexuality and gender identity. Students are left inarticulate about what they want, what they need and how to manage risks. Thus the vicious cycle of sex-shaming continues and proliferates the spread of STIs and unhealthy sexual relationships.

Changing Narratives

Failures in sex education programs are the reason why organizations like aGender exist. In an attempt to move beyond standard curricula, Xaverine states that “opportunities need to be made for young people to talk about their fears, expectations and experiences of sex and relationships in a healthy and supportive environment…without fear of embarrassment or repercussions from peers, teachers, parents or carers. This is what we are aiming for at aGender.”

“aGender is beginning its pilot project this month, which consists of a series of workshops to complement an exhibition, txt, at Claremont Studios in St Leonards, which will be a collection of contemporary visual artworks that incorporate written word. The exhibition will explore the tension and complexity created when a word is used not only for its literal meaning but also as a visual cue to lead through to layers of subtext and implied meaning. In light of the current reports on the psychological impact of texting, sexting and cyberbullying on young children, SMS messaging and the power of seemingly innocent words to imply malicious, threatening messages- it is anticipated that the challenging nature of the artwork will be both engaging and inspirational for them both as viewers and as participants in the workshops.”

Storytelling as a Transformative Process

Storytelling has played an important role even during the preliminary stages for aGender. Xaverine explains,

“As part of our research in planning the workshops, which cover texting, sexting & cyber-bullying, we have had many discussions within our focus group about how best to tackle such a difficult subject. As a result, we have shared many of our own experiences of sex education, our own relationships, previous abusive situations and much more, all through the medium of storytelling.”

Image from Xaverine Bates' blog depicting one of her live art performances on gender stereotyping and class.

Image from Xaverine Bates’ blog depicting ‘Peepshow 2’, one of her live art performances with Miranda Sharp on gender stereotyping and class.

She continues, “It will be fascinating to hear the young peoples’ stories . We are planning to have a multi-platform element to the workshops, incorporating social media of their choice (e.g. instagram, twitter, etc.) to encourage young people to engage with the subject in the days between workshops. This way we will hopefully elicit more stories that they may feel uncomfortable in telling us directly, as many feel more comfortable revealing personal information via social media, which ironically is one of the reasons that the problem of sexting has arisen in the first place – the illusion of anonymity and neutrality has enabled young people to feel that exposing themselves in their bedrooms is acceptable to post online, to potentially thousands of viewers. This false sense of security is what leads to the repercussions as seen in aggressive bullying and cyberbullying.”

Read updates about how the work shop went.

aGender’s project is one example in which artful use of information and communication strategies can re-engage public awareness and find new ways to talk about being a body, being sexual, and negotiating healthy relationships. Jeana also pinpoints the transformative phenomenon of personal storytelling and listening. She describes how sharing experiences of sexual assault can help challenge shame and affirm agency over one’s narrative. Jeana states,

“One of the most powerful things I’ve witnessed when it comes to sexual storytelling is the importance of processing trauma through storytelling. Specifically, sexual assault survivors are often able to work through what happened to them by narrating the events in a way that is transformative and therapeutic. One of my mentors at Indiana University, Dr. Nicole Kousaleos, did her dissertation on how women who have survived sexual abuse can, in narrating their stories, experience greater agency in their lives. Narrating a story is also an invitation for listeners to respond, and in this case, the audience can help reinforce that the survivor was not to blame (since one of the biggest stigmas that prevents sexual assault survivors from speaking out is the tendency in our culture to victim-blame). I’ve observed this phenomenon informally, among multiple friends and acquaintances, and thus I believe that overcoming the shameful silence surrounding sexual assault is an important part of the healing process for many people.”

“Additionally, since one of the functions of personal narratives is to create intimacy and empathy, listeners can learn more about the reality of sexual assault. The numbers are already shockingly high -such as the CDC’s estimate that nearly 1 in 5 American women have been raped at some point in their lives- but numbers are abstract, whereas people telling their stories are concrete, real, human. Storytelling about sexual violence puts a face on the problem and helps to humanize it, and that’s why I believe it’s so powerful.”

Conclusion

People are inherently story-driven. The way we understand the world is through narrative. That is why first-person stories are very powerful in facilitating awareness and understanding, especially when they offer an experience of the world never previously imagined. What’s lost in the public discourse of SRE are the real, everyday lives of youth and adults, and making medical facts relevant to their complex needs and desires. The three authors here advocate for more opportunities for people to engage in safe and participatory spaces to actively listen and reflect upon stories.

Because there are so few authentic first-person narratives in sex education (especially a lack of non-heterosexual voices), storytelling provides us with non-stereotypical and often unexpected representations of people, gender roles and relationships. Stories should not be seen as merely anecdotal but as a potential source of knowledge for both the storyteller and the audience.

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Kavanagh, K. (2011) ‘Priming Pubescent Sexualities; Sex and relationship education, without the relationship education?’ [unpublished].
For recent reports on cyberbulling and sexting refer to Ringrose J, Gill R, Livingstone S & Harvey L (2012). “A qualitative study of children, young people and ‘sexting’”. NSPCC.

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