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Eco-Sex Education: 
The (Forgotten?) Notion that at the End of the Day (Beginning of the Night), We Are All Human(s)*

Student 24's picture

I want to preface this paper by saying a few things about my growing understanding of ecological thought. I have found that this process of thought is really about process of thought itself. Ecological education is a space where I study the process of my thinking, what triggers my thinking, where it pulls me, from what it pushes against, the ravines into which I fall, and the valleys in which I find myself hopelessly spinning (or wondrously dancing, depending on the atmosphere), where I can sit on the stump of a fallen tree or city street curb and embrace the full access I have to my own mind, style, and words. As a 360, we have well discussed the notion of education not needing to be confined in the walls (be they plaster-white or flashy with rainbow alphabet trains and glamourous posters illustrating parts of speech or the quadratic formula) of a classroom. Education and learning happen everywhere else too: watching clouds in the sky, sitting in a city park, smoking in a jazz club, browsing through a yellow-paged bilingual dictionary, and twiddling your thumbs during a Ukrainian Catholic mass drenched with incense and harmonies of perfect fifths. Most fundamentally, though, it occurs within my mind and my body. If that is the fundamental, then I need to begin there. This paper may feel segmented, but then, life occurs in segments and unrelated events and thoughts. The only thing sometimes connecting events is the passage of time within the body experiencing the events, and that fluidity itself is often what causes connections to make sense.

Although I did not begin with the fundamental originally (well, at least within the curriculum of this 360), my mind eventually pulled me to return there, to the human body and its endless complexities. This is a paper that attempts to begin the exploration of sexuality and sexual education in the sphere of ecological and environmental literacy. I have no thesis, I have no straightforward goals other than laying out my own journey of exploration and starting to build a platform upon which we can all further explore. Because I believe process is instrumental to being conscious of my brain works, I want to briefly lay out from where I am thinking and the steps I have so far taken. At some point during this semester it hit me that in all the literature and discourse surrounding children’s education and immersion in their ‘environment,’ there was no mention of sexual education. This surprised me. We are human beings, living biologically-functioning creatures, who reproduce sexually. Sexual reproduction is a part of life during which we engage most directly with our biological and physical purpose and our social and psychological selves. It is the subject in which we can explore almost any and every dimension of humanity and life (to phrase this all vaguely, but I want to emphasize the everything-ness of what sex can be). To exclude this subject from discussion about ecology is to place it in a separate sphere and ignore how intrinsically we are a living species fundamentally through our basic existence. 

I wrote briefly before about birds and bees and the exploitation of outside, public, and natural exposure of sexuality to analogously educate children about human sex, and the dangers and limitations with dancing around the subject. That approach does not bring human beings into the grand picture of the environment, but rather, puts us as observers and uses the natural world as an external textbook, so to speak, from which we can extract literary messages and themes to apply to our humanity. I went to Ludington Public Library in town and browsed through the “Parents and Teachers” shelf of the children’s book section. Without too strict of an agenda, I picked out books whose titles appeared to be related to sex education in the classroom and in the home. (Again, returning to the process of thought that I feel to be ecological, I didn’t want to limit myself by setting up a rigid method of searching for the right materials, because through reading and analyzing, I wanted to be as authentic in my response as I could). I put myself in the position of a teacher or parent looking for what educational resources would be available to me in my local public library. I felt this to be the most authentic approach.

I began with the three illustrated picture-story books I’d removed from the shelf. Here I will respond specifically to the three books, and then more broadly about existing children’s literature on the topic of sex, sexuality and family life. The first book is Molly’s Family, by Nancy Garden. The narrative involves a girl in kindergarten being questioned and told (in varying degrees) by her peers that she cannot have two mothers; that families need a mother and father as parents, and it doesn’t make sense to have two mothers. Molly talks to her teacher and to her mothers and they all tell her that families come in all shapes and sizes and there is no right or wrong way to have a family. I’ll briefly discuss two points about this book. 1. The appearances of the illustrated characters in the story depict them as predominantly, at least they are all light-skinned, not living in an impoverished neighbourhood. Molly’s family seems relatively well-off; well enough off not to have problems with the court when it comes to the adoption process (as explained to Molly). There is also no mention of marriage between the mothers, which raises the question: is a short children’s book not the place for raising this discussion? Or, more positively, is author implicitly illustrating that queer marriage isn’t a discussion that needs to happen? The book is not bringing religious and cultural histories onto the page, which is a huge part of many children’s lives (just this afternoon in Camden, one of the students adamantly reminded us to bring Bibles to our settlement on the Moon). 2. The second point is about the generic American classroom environment. Children all come from different families and structures of family life, and these lifestyles clash. Bullying, insecurity, uncertainty and doubt are all huge parts of school and classroom environments, where ‘real-life’ societal structures are evident in quite a pure form. Creating a ‘safe space’ in school for children to be open about their sexuality or the sexuality of their family life is in a sense a great success for fostering an atmosphere of openness and acceptance, however there is the danger of disillusionment when returning to the ‘real world.’ The safety of the space tragically remains in the space once a child leaves, which for many means returning to their family and their house. This is oftentimes the space that feels least safe and very psychologically detrimental. Picture books, or any books, can be safe spaces and provide refuge for children who feel challenged and conflicted about their family life, but who can stick around to make sure these children’s reality can reflect the story in the books?

The second book was Mommy Laid an Egg or Where DO Babies Come From? by Babette Cole. The illustrations are absurd, silly, and messy which make it fun and entertaining for a child to read, but also put an inappropriately light atmosphere on the subject of sexual reproduction. The text also (possibly because it might be inevitable in this topic) presents a very strong gender and sex binary. The family is also white, which raises questions of race and tension between the reader and the characters represented in the book (I will return to this point soon). The third book was Do I Have a Daddy? A story About a Single-Parent Child by Jeanne Warren Lindsay. I won’t summarize the plot, but instead I will touch upon a theme from the first two pages. A boy child and a girl child are playing house, the girl pretending to cook with pots and pans, and the boy wearing a tie. I personally cannot recall explicitly “playing house” as a child, but I have had a few classrooms and playgrounds in my early childhood education that had child-size play houses with plastic doors and a stove and telephones with a colorful number dial. Having the place for playing in a miniature house structure creates a space for reinforcement of a child’s family lifestyles, or, in fact, the reinforcement of the traditional and socially-acceptable family lifestyles, because children have each other as a peer-pressure-inducing audience and don’t want to act in a way that causes their own exile and isolation. Now I will return to the earlier point of race and character presentation in books. Authors of books have to make choices about what race represents their characters (or what characters represent which race), the context of the plot, and the decisions made by the characters in order to teach a lesson. An author cannot illustrate a realistic, immediately and universally applicable world for children by drawing purple humanoids or animal-people, for example. However, that could create an equal enough barrier for every race of child reader. Will that create equity by establishing a gentle (and entertaining) but fairly distributed sense of exile for every child? Is equal exile better as opposed to more for some than for others? Choices, when creating children's books always have to be made, and if we are going with a first-cause-no-harm approach, then this seems to be one way that the universal, mutually-felt harm of un-relatability can be cancelled out and effectively cause no racial or cultural tensions.

As someone picking out these books playing the role of a teacher or parent, I have to respond to the idea of libraries as education institutions. These are three specific books I found in a library on the Main Line in a very specific section, written by specific authors probably with a specific audience in mind. Should libraries have curricula? Do they? Should libraries cater to their specific communities and local demographics and provide relevant resources to residents? Here I transition to generally discuss a few themes of the literature of our education class. Since the beginning of the semester we’ve explored ditches, urban wildscapes, unsupervised play, and the conflict between children’s need to ecologically interact with their local home environment and parents’ concerns and restrictions to that interaction due to the dangers and risks that exist all around us. I am inserting a personal anecdote, which I wrote for class a few years ago but which aptly tells the story of what once happened to me.

"The following story is regrettably true.

I was never really good at riding my bike without holding onto the handlebars. With one hand, it was fine, but letting go with the other just didn't work for me. My friend, Sarojinee, was really good at it, but she was 15 and I was only 12, so I still had time to learn. We were headed to one of our favorite alleys in the neighborhood, one which was mostly smooth asphalt, as opposed to the crumbling cobblestones and uneven patches of cement which made it pretty darn near impossible for me to try no-hands.

We turned left, just off New Hampshire Ave, into a brightly sunlit alley, where the shattered glass bottles sparkled among the decorative discarded toilet and thrown-out furniture. When we got bored, Sarojinee and I would sit on sofas left on the sidewalks and throw M&Ms into the street, waiting to see if a car would run them over. But this alley didn't have many cars or people passing through, so we were free to make fools of ourselves attempting bicycle tricks.

“Count how many seconds I can go,” she told me. I nodded as she took off. She wobbled a bit, then held her arms out to the side to balance. 3, 4, 5, 6 seconds. I hopped back onto my bike tried to follow her. I let go with my left hand. 13, 14, 15. My right hand loosened its grip. 18, 19, 20, but I started tipping to the left so I quickly clutched onto the handlebars with both hands to even out. 23, 24, 25. I would have tried again, were it not for the fact that we had reached the end of the alley, where a large black SUV stood, its engine humming loudly. The two men sitting in the front looked at us and switched off the engine. 

The man on the passenger side opened the door, stepped down and leaned on the side of the car. His companion grunted and fidgeted with the car keys. “Do you speak English?” the first man asked, in a somewhat shifty German accent. I glanced at my friend, then back at the man and said, “Yes, we can speak English.” “Can you read English?” he asked. Sarojinee took a step back. She replied, “Yes, um, why?” The other man who was sitting in the driver's seat leaned towards us and said, “Our CD player is not working.” He pointed at the CD slot on the dashboard. “It's not working. The screen says something but we cannot understand what it says. And we are not sure how to read the instructions book. Can you help us read it and fix the CD player?”

And I fell for it. I completely fell for it. I was about to tell two complete strangers that sure I could help them out and climb into their car to figure out what was wrong with their CD player. But before I could open my mouth and say something that to this day I still regret even thinking, Sarojinee blurted out, “Um, no sorry we have to go!” And we sped away on our bikes.

It didn't fully hit me until that night, when I was trying to fall asleep, that what I had almost done could have – well, no. I didn't want to think of what could have happened. I was just glad that Sarojinee had the immediate common sense that I clearly lacked. But still, why hadn't it occurred to me in the least that those men had wanted us to get into their car?

I've developed one theory about this. Because I'm an audio, or auditory, learner my primary focus is on what I hear, rather than what I see. And the men, they never once mentioned the word “car” or anything about getting into it. So, even though their large and menacing SUV was staring me right in the face, I was subconsciously paying more attention to what they were saying to us. Still to this day, I can't really remember what I was looking at, what the men looked like, what they were wearing. But I remember exactly how they sounded and what they said. I remember the sound of the man playing with his keys. I remember the shuffling of Sarojinee's cautious stepping backwards, and the sudden clink of the bicycle chain when we dashed off.

I remember tightly gripping the handlebars with both hands."

By revisiting this anecdote of a memory, I am rereading my experience and analyzing it with the vocabulary of the eco-literacy texts we have studied. In this story, the characters (my friend and I at the ages of 15 and 12, respectively) are engaging in play in their local urban environment. They live in Dupont Circle, in Washington, D.C. and their parents, both from very different backgrounds and living situations, allow the two friends to wander and roam freely around the neighbourhood with the confidence and trust that they are street smart but also that the neighbourhood itself is relatively safe enough. The friends are exploring their ditches of alleyways without adult supervision and during that exploration they encounter very serious and real-world dangers. This pattern follows the classic set-up of events which I read in one of the Ludington Library books, It’s OK to Say NO! A Parent/Child Manual for the Protection of Children by Robin Lenett. The book was written to teach the “most important safety lesson of all - body safety,” as opposed to only teaching “the dangers of crossing the street, the risks of poisonous substances, the hazards of playing with matches” to children (Lenett). In the first half of the book, Lenett explores the social, personal, and familial dynamics that occur surrounding sexual abuse. “What makes it difficult for children to deal with instances of sexual abuse? Essentially, it’s because children inherently trust their elders, and because they are taught to respect authority figures….A child’s highly developed sense of trust and respect for authority erodes with experience. In effect, a child must learn to be distrustful of adults, and must learn that authority does not automatically carry the mantle of infallibility. To help children protect themselves, we must speed up the learning process a little bit. We must teach our children that they do sometimes have the right to question authority, that not all adults are to be trusted without hesitation.” She continues, “The molester has an additional powerful advantage over his victim—fear. In a world controlled by adults, and at a substantial physical disadvantage, a child is relatively powerless in his or her relationships adults….Added to these enumerated fears is the natural reluctance of children to tell their parents anything ‘dirty’ that they may have been involved in.” These excerpts portray the conflicting nature of child-adult relationships because of the constant ominous undertone of sexual abuse and inappropriate, threatening, and dangerous behaviour. Adults serve as role models, parents, siblings, teachers, and older friends for young children. How do you reconcile the support of the positivity that comes from strong and healthy relationships with all the potential for violation and abuse? Relationships create a shared space between people, and that space cannot constantly be supervised by the ‘right’ adult.

Lenett writes, “The establishment of a climate of frankness between you and your children, an environment in which they feel free to discuss matters of concern to them, is a vital step in the process of dealing with the potential of child sexual abuse….You should teach your child to inform you about any statement made to them, by any person, about love or sex.” The language of "climate" and "environment" here serves as a reminder that social spaces, such as homes, classrooms, and family-shared spaces are part of the social ecosystem that is a platform for discussion of the biologial and evolutionary elements that make us humans. Because these are intimate, personal and intrapersonal spaces, that also creates the access to performing the actions that make us humans. How do we foster spaces of authority from adults to children without silmultaneously creating the trusting relationships that expose children and leave them vulnerable to violation? The book offers numerous short stories to be read to children about how the "right" way to behave in a potentially threatening situation. "The children in these stories always do the right thing," and the stories follow a very clear pattern of a child alone going about their daily life activities, quite often outdoors. "Jason was waiting outside school for his mom to come and take him home. It was raining hard, but Jason didn't mind. He had his rain slicker and his boots on, and he liked to watch the way the rain bounced in the puddles." Another story begins similarly, "Andrew was sitting on a park bench one day, waiting for his friend Carol to come along. It was a nice, sunny day, and Andrew was watching the cars and buses and trucks go by." Very explicity, the stories illustrate children as being unsupervised and independently observing their local environments, be it the weather or transportation patterns. Much like in my story, children are out and about actively engaging with and musing about the world around them.

For children to grow, we give them the freedom and space to explore the ditches of their home environments, with varying degrees, of course, depending on the location and the culture of supervision which the parents of the family establish. In this 360 so often we've gravitated quite enthusiastically towards the framing of home being people, rather than physical place and location. But, environment and ecology are not the same, and we need to be more than just mindful or aware - we need to be in in our place and hold it to our identities, if we want that to lead to behaviour that deals with our place. I have to wonder - and it frightens me that this thought even occurred to me - if in fact, sexual predators are people who are successfully ecologically literate and aware of the social and physical ecosystems around them? Children, left to their own devices and, who are fortunate, like myself and my friend, to live in a perceivably-safe enough area to be unrestricted and unsupervised in their pursuit of fun activities to keep them occupied and engaged with the play space that is their city neighbourhood, are vulnerable to everyone else who has access to that same space, which could conceivably be anyone. In Lenett's book, the adults/older characters of "authority," relative to children, are presented to have some sort of agenda, pattern, style, with which they seek out to achieve their goals. More often than not - and if the case was not so, this book would not have been currently or historically relevant (and can something be historically relevant when it is helping design a prescription for the future which is a history that has not yet occurred?) - children in trusting adult-child relationships have been violated and abused when the adult has had the intention of doing so. I return to my question, can we be promoting children's active engagement with the world around them in everyday life if these dangers and risks are very real and perhaps more detrimental than children's non-achievement of ecological literacy? And another question: If something negative is historically and presently consistent, is in an issue? If human society has naturally and independently (on a micro level) fostered a macro-social behaviour, is that something we can realistically resist? Or is this intrinsically part of our human ecology? Do these events serve as part of our ecological education? The experience I had in my story did provide me with an education. I learned from that event and I've gained crucial knowledge about how important it is to be as fully aware of my surroundings as I can be. I take this education to be ecological, and as unfortunate it is - though also fortunate that my friend and I escaped before anything wrong happened - it is not something we can ignore taking into consideration if we want to think about how children can grow to independently become ecological thinkers.

I am not using this paper to discuss morality or ethics or "right and wrong" about sexuality, sexual reproduction, or sexual behaviour. I am using it to explore so far the material I have on the subject as a process of creating a platform for furthering this discussion. The last book I will reference in this paper is Talking with Your Child about Sex by Drs. Mary S. Calderone and James W. Ramey. The authors discuss fundamentally what sex is, its complexities, how to bring that into conversation in the household and the positive effects of making attempts to foster a safe, open, and honest environment in the household when bringing sex into conversation between parents and children. Sex is no secret, and the more secrecy surrounding the subject, as with any subject, the more room for fear, misconceptions, and uncertainty to grow. The authors write, "Sexual functioning is something all human beings share. Our kind of sexuality is unique to being human, because for us, unlike for other mammals, it involves far more than the sex act and reproduction. It involves who and what we are as male and female, how we get that way, how we feel about it and how we deal with each other about it. It also involves dreams, fantasies and ideals, and gives us pleasure, even laughter. And in involves learning, thinking, planning, postponing, enveloping moral values and decision-making." The book discusses children being "born sexual, a trait just as characteristic of being human as the inborn capacities to walk upright and to speak." (I want to quickly acknowledge the dangers of this literature in how it takes for granted the sex/gender binary, but I will not expand more on it, simply to say I am aware of that.) The authors discuss the stigma and discomfort that is placed around children being young and exploring their genitals and sexualities and "how can a baby be bad or sinful for doing what he or she was created to do - learn how to walk, to talk, to think and how to explore and civilize his or her inborn sexuality?" This discussion is returning to the fundamental function of ourselves within our human bodies. I want to ask, is there a fear of us realizing that our only reason for and meaning to existence is our sexual reproduction? That we can have fun, enjoy life, stimulate ourselves emotionally and intellectually, but at the end of the day (beginning of the night) we are only here to keep us physically healthy and able to continue a physically healthy and able human species? Sure, life has gotten longer and more exiting with ways to pass time since our species was cave men, but evolution and survival of our species is still occurring and whether or not our personal life goal is to perpetuate humanity, that is effectively what our existence does. There is an association of shallowness associated with living animalistically or primitively in terms of reducing our human existences to acts of sexual activity and reproduction. I ask, if something is basic and intrinsically accessible without much effort, does that make it shallow, lesser, or not worthy of embracing? Or does it mean we shouldn't worry about it because as biological creatures, our bodies will naturally function the way they need to in order to make our species survive?

I've laid side by side the ideas of literature regarding children's ecological education and literature regarding children sexual education and personal, physical safety. Have the two threads of literature not intertwined because there is fear and discomfort in doing so? Because it hasn't occurred to authors that everything in life is eventually connected and relevant? Because sex and sexuality is so natural and intrinsic to the point it doesn't need to be addressed at all? Ecological and sexual education - are they parallel issues existing in separate spheres? Does one sphere hold the other? If so, which? I have to wonder if ecological thinking can even be an educational priority in the midst of a sexually unstable, and at times destructive on the macro-social level, society; our globally social and biological environment. Which education can teach us what it fundamentally means to be human?

P.S. Human(s)*. Humans versus Human. I couldn't decide which connotation I wanted to bring to this paper, and this discussion of biological facts versus morally-engaging creatures could a whole paper or book all on its own. I just want to draw attention to the higher discussion that is taking place here.

P.P.S. If I had more time I would have included discussion about the media and the flooding of messages that occurs all around us every day.