Intersectionality in Sex Ed
By Jessica Higgins, Communications Coordinator
June 22, 2017
The first thing that struck me about Loretta Ross was her total lack of fear. She cussed like a sailor, grinned toothily, laughed often. She was the keynote speaker at the Colorado Advocacy in Action Conference – a conference dedicated to sexual assault and domestic violence – but stayed seated throughout the entire speech, wryly noting that there wasn’t a chance she was going to stand for a whole hour.
But if anyone has earned the privilege to lean back and scoff in the face of propriety, it’s Loretta Ross. She was one of the founders of the theory of reproductive justice and has been fighting for human rights all of her life. She’s a black woman who went to KKK rallies to try and understand Klansmen, the mother of a child of incest, a self-described “student of hate.” She wears her trauma on her sleeve, using it as a tool in her quest to educate.
And the lesson she attempted to teach at Colorado Advocacy in Action? We need to work together, expand our interests beyond siloes, and embrace intersectionality.
The concept of intersectionality asks us to consider the multiple identities that exist at once in each human being, and by doing so gain a deeper understanding of identity and systemic oppressions. For example, I walk through the world as a white, cisgender, heterosexual person, and those different identities contribute to my experience of privilege. But I also walk through the world as a woman and as a survivor of sexual assault, and those identities contribute to my experience of oppression. Intersectionality asks me to consider how each of those identities interact with one another, and to consider the ways in which others walk through this world, the multiple identities they hold within them.
Ross was talking about intersectionality in approaching domestic violence and sexual assault, but since her speech I’ve been thinking about it in regard to sex ed. When we talk about sexual health, sexual empowerment, or sexual liberation, the reality is that we cannot approach those topics with complete honesty unless we consider the multiple systems of oppression that get in the way.
On the surface, sex ed is the simple education of how to have sex and be in relationships safely. But you dig a little deeper and realize that youth can’t have sex safely without access to the resources that allow them to do so (condoms, birth control, affordable healthcare), and so sex ed must consider what prevents students from accessing these resources. Similarly, sex ed must consider what might prevent people from being in safe relationships. Suddenly a topic that seemed relatively simple on the surface must consider class, race, trauma, gender identity, sexuality, religion, and so on that might prevent young people from accessing resources or from entering healthy relationships.
In other words, the act of being a sexual person deeply intersects with multiple identities, and so the framework of intersectionality should be fundamental to sex ed. It often isn’t. As Ross points out, “People are confused about intersectionality because they believe it is an explanation of differences: No. It is an explanation of oppressions.” Taking an intersectional approach to sex ed doesn’t mean creating division; it means taking a good hard look at how we can truly come together, and truly work to create change. That means being humble and acknowledging what we don’t know, and it means being open to different ideas and different experiences.
It also means listening – really, truly listening. The first thing that struck me about Loretta Ross was her fearlessness, but the second was her ability to listen to and attempt to understand the worst of humanity. If Ross can listen to white supremacists and fascists, surely we can reach out to other groups fighting systemic oppression and attempt to work together toward a common goal; surely we can listen to students and attempt to understand how their experiences of race, class, disability, gender, sexuality, and other identities impact how they approach sex and relationships.
Activist Lilla Watson once said, "If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." In a time of frustration, mistrust, and division, one of the most powerful things we can do is listen, and take steps to build partnerships with those who experience the world differently than us. Or, as Ross put it, “We don’t need to sing the same song, but we need to sing our different songs in harmony.” So, let’s keep singing the song of sex ed, but consider the harmonies while we do.