David Segal: Adult material
I was in the sixth-grade when my school started formal sex education. It happened under the guise of “Health” class, a euphemism that did no one any good. Teachers we knew from other arenas, such as English class and gym, stepped in to fill key roles like being an adult and pressing play on a VCR.
One day, they split us into separate classrooms for girls and boys and showed us an ultrasound video of sexual intercourse. That sounds as sexy as it looked: It was a grainy profile view of gray splotches moving back and forth. How would such a film come to be made? Somewhere a couple lay on an examination table with an ultrasound technician seated nearby, holding a wand and a squeeze bottle of ultrasound gel.
“Just pretend like I’m not here,” he might have said.
At the film’s climax, the roomful of boys erupted into cheers and applause, as if the home team had scored a touchdown. It was a spontaneous outburst of masculine energy.
I did not cheer. Not because I was a gentlemanly conscientious objector who found the whole charade tasteless, but because it simply didn’t occur to me to clap for that. I was relieved the video was over, but that was cause for sighing and slinking to recess, not hooting and hollering.
If I was caught off-guard by the ovation, the teachers were stunned. Whatever their lesson plan had prescribed for following up the monochrome two-dimensional sex video, it wasn’t this. Shushing the hooting of a hundred horny bonobos (sorry, redundant) would have been easier than quieting this troop of panting pubescents.
What had been unleashed? The teachers did not seem to have a better grasp on it than I did. Was it a display of machismo? A juvenile attempt to claim the mantle of manhood through sex? Was it a virtual victory lap? As if to declare, “We did it!”
Was it also a smokescreen for male insecurity? A chest-beating show to hide an underlying fear of inadequacy?
Was it just “boys being boys?” And if it was, what was wrong with me? Next door in the girls’ classroom, no one had cheered.
The teachable moment went untaught. None of these questions were posed, none of the boys’ reactions unpacked. That moment stands as the first time I remember learning that men relate to women as objects of sexual conquest, or more basically that men relate to sex as a contest, a way to prove something, to “win” at being a man. I’m sure I’d encountered that idea before, in songs or movies, but that class was where it sank in.
It could have gone differently. The curriculum could have prepared us to think about sex not as merely a mechanical act but a complex social interaction between real people, where pleasure, power and consent collide.
The teachers could have used the boys’ reaction as a conversation starter about our tendency to confuse sex and control. They could have taught us about the harm that comes to women and men when boys grow up with pressure to prove their manhood through sex. They could have helped us start to dismantle the ugly sexual culture feeding that attitude, and feeding upon it.
Instead, they silenced us. I don’t want to be too hard on those teachers, since I don’t know if they had the right training or support for what was needed in that moment. Nor do I know if I could have done a better job. Now that I have children, I know how hard I will try, when the time is right, to help them answer these questions — or, at least, to ask them.
This episode happened about 25 years ago. The #MeToo movement has unveiled 25 years later that those boys — us boys — who cheered that day trying to become men in the same corrosive and imbalanced sexual culture in which Harvey Weinstein and all the rest abused serially and with impunity. Bringing these sexual predators to justice is long overdue. And so is the work of transforming dysfunction into balance.
I don’t have all the answers for how to equip our sons and daughters with the tools to create a healthier sexual culture. I do know that good sexual education requires training, support and intention. What is scariest for adults is that it demands we confront our own miseducation. Some learning must begin with unlearning.
David Segal lives in Houston, TX. Connect with him at http://www.rabbidavidsegal.com. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.