Sexuality education hit the headlines again yesterday. I usually cringe when I see sexuality education in the media, because the media tend to usually take a shock! horror! perspective, that is usually unjustified. (I have written about this before here for some background).
Yesterday's story in the Sunday Star Times arose out of a statement on a true/false quiz presented to students at an Auckland intermediate school - the statement read: "If a boy has no hair on his chest, he is homosexual."
Before we jump on the OUTRAGE! bandwagon, I think the story needs to be critically examined.
Sure, in isolation this statement looks an odd thing for a group of 11 year olds to be dealing with. But we need to consider this statement in its context: I imagine the quiz used was similar to this one recommended on the Ministry of Education’s website. The statement would have been part of an activity to get kids talking and to stimulate discussion of myths surrounding our bodies and sexuality. The students would have gone through the statements with the teacher and critically analysed each one, deciding whether there was any measure of ‘truth’ in them. Presumably, the statement in question would have been debunked by the teacher and a discussion could have ensued about how people’s bodies are very diverse, but sexual orientation has no bearing on physical characteristics. This is an important discussion to be had, as many students this age have absorbed a message that homosexual people are inherently different to heterosexual people in many ways other than simply preferring a particular gender/sex for their romantic partner.
Rather than the SHOCK! HORROR! response that intermediate students were exposed to the notion of ‘gay’, I think we need to focus on the secondary message contained in the article: that many New Zealand teachers are under resourced and undertrained to teach sexuality education. The Education Review Office 2007 report on sexuality education in New Zealand backs this up, stating that “The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” Many teachers have completed their teaching qualification with very little instruction on sexuality education (and sometimes none at all). Then they begin their teaching career and are expected to teach sexuality education, with no professional development offered. And, as this article points out, usually with very few resources. The Principal in this article stated that the reason they were using a Johnson & Johnson quiz was because there was a lack of resources from the Ministry of Education. What other subject in the curriculum needs to rely on a multinational corporation for teaching resources?
(Note that Family Planning do provide a number of quality resources and I would recommend teachers check these out before deciding to use commercial “free” resources)
As was also mentioned in the article, every school is required to consult with the community every two years about sexuality education, so parents are aware of what is being taught. A number of people I know have expressed surprise at this comment, as they have never been consulted by their children’s school. This consultation process is really important and it goes some way in avoiding panicked parents calling in the media. I really encourage parents to view their school’s sexuality education policy, and to participate in the consultation process when (if?!) it occurs. You can see what each school is required to do here.
Unfortunately, articles such as the Sunday Star Times' do nothing to increase teachers' confidence in their ability to teach sexuality education. (Which, it should be noted, is a compulsory part of the curriculum until Year 10). Many teachers find teaching sexuality education challenging anyway, the last thing they also need to be worrying about is the media jumping in and creating a moral panic about what is happening in their classroom. Schools need to work with their teachers and families to ensure that quality sexuality education is available to every child in New Zealand.
***I am really interested in learning about how different schools go about the sexuality education consultation process. I would love it if you could leave a comment or contact me regarding whether you are aware of a consultation process occurring at your school, and if so, how it is done. Many thanks!
I have fond memories of my collection of childhood toys - wooden blocks, Big Ted, My Little Pony, the Cindy doll my parents bought me (instead of the Barbie I REALLY wanted), Lego, railway tracks... And nowadays I enjoy sometimes escaping into the imaginary world with my four-year-old boy and his collection of treasured toys. I read about the toys on offer for kids, I see kids playing with toys and the students I work with tell me about the toys that are and were important in their lives.
There is a lot of writing about the highly gendered and also sexualised nature of many childhood toys these days, but on Friday I suddenly realised that I could count on one hand the number of times I have been in a toy store since entering adulthood. Inspired by other writers, I decided it was time to hit the front-line. What was on offer for New Zealand children? Was it as bad as it was in the USA? (where much of the research I read comes from) And what are the 'good' options out there?
Armed with my camera, I entered our local toy store (one of a nationwide chain). And thus began an hour of walking up and down every aisle, taking note and photographing the good, the bad and the plain downright ridiculous.
Into 'GIRL ZONE'
Upon entering the store, the first thing I noticed was that there was an area labelled ‘Girl’s Zone’, but the only other zone to be labelled was 'Pre-school'. Is this because all the other toys in the store are designed for boys (the default ‘normal’), or is it that all the other toys are for both boys AND girls but this wee corner is for girls only?
I headed over to investigate further and was nearly blinded by the pink-ness.
First up, the Barbie display...
"Hmmm, who do I want to be today?"
I had high hopes for the Barbie 'I Can Be..." range. I recall as a child in the 1980s Barbie was a real 'girls can do anything' kinda gal, so I thought that surely by 2012, any remnants of that 1952 original passive doll would be well and truly banished. Unfortunately it seems that Barbie's career options in 2012 are very limited to what she can do whilst still wearing form-fitting lycra and/or heels. And the ubiquitous pink of course. There were five career options in the character dolls (see below) - I challenge anyone to find me any real-life professional woman whose wardrobe resembles any of these outfits?! And as someone who spent my teen years as a surf lifeguard, it sure as hell didn't resemble this Barbie scene. A friend was telling me recently that she had relented and had promised her daughter a Barbie as long as she could find one doing 'normal' things - such as snowboarder Barbie. There wasn't a snowboarder Barbie in this shop, but I can envisage her ensemble already...
And if you wanted to simply give your exisiting Barbie a new career, you had six different outfits to choose from. As you would never guess the occupations from their outfits, let me label them top to bottom, left to right:
Next to Barbie was the much criticised new line of Lego, designed especially for girls - the 'Friends' range. Their catch-phrase is "The Beauty of Building" - because we wouldn't want girls to forget for a moment that regardless of the activity, it always comes down to beauty, right?
Anyone for Disney Princess paraphernalia?
I personally dislike this range from Lego. I dislike the emphasis on beauty and I hate that the 'Friends' range have totally different bodies to the 'standard' range - they have boobs and makeup. There is no way one of the 'Friends' would EVER want to play with a standard Lego boy or girl! It's problematic that in creating a specific 'girls' range, by default the rest of the Lego range becomes a 'boys' range, thus limiting girls' options. And the narrow range of activities and colours offered to the girls drives me nuts. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to indicate that girls have a natural inclination towards pastel colours. Lego is just playing into the pinkification of girl-world that serves to further the gender gap amongst children and thus increase the profits of those marketing things to children.
Next up was the Disney Princess Zone. In a moment of marketing genius, this line was released in 2000 and now there are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items and many other companies have jumped on board to create Princess-mania in girl world. Lyn Mikel Brown, co-author of Packaging Girlhood, is concerned by the the sheer dominance of princess culture: “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice; it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”
As I continued to wander round 'Girl's Zone' I found more and more pink washing, and more and more toys with come-hither eyes and sexy poses. What really struck me was how much some of these toys had changed since I was a girl. In my day 'My Little Pony' was a sweet chubby thing with demure eyes. Her latest incarnation is decidedly sexy, curvy and oh, those eyes.
There were a few brands in 'Girl's Zone' that really stood out in a positive way:
Venturing out of 'Girl Zone', I headed towards the 'Pre-school' zone...
I was pleased to see the gender-neutral 'preschooler' sign, although interested in the offerings as many of the toys in the 'Girl's Zone' were aimed at the pre-school age group. This section gave the impression of being very gender-neutral, but upon closer inspection, many of the toys revealed themselves to be playing into tired gender stereotypes:
However, there were also some great non-gender-limiting options:
(No other 'zones' were labelled, so the following categories are ones that I have used)
Puzzles and games
Of all the different types of toys, I would have thought that this genre would have the least need to be gendered. Apparently not. I think the biggest issue with gendering things like this is that it strongly discourages cross-gender play. Unfortunately I feel that few four year old boys would want to play with the pinkified versions of these games. By then, for many boys the gender message has been well and truly absorbed.
A WINNER from Little Tikes! Gender neutral packaging PLUS an image of a boy and a girl playing together!
*calm down Rachel, keep in mind how ODD it is that this is so rare!*
Building and Science Sets
These were located in the area I think a child would describe as the 'Boys' Zone' (although there were no actual signs to indicate this). Alongside these sets seemed to be an overwhelming collection of toys based around themes of fighting and violence. As the mother of a little boy, I am disturbed by the messages these toys give him about what it means to be a man. I could not find a single toy in this area that depicted a boy or a man in a caring or nurturing role. Play is one way children learn about what it means to be an adult as they role-play with the toys provided to them. What are the consequences of raising a generation of boys whose understanding of manhood is based on ninjas, soldiers and Avengers?
My little adventure into the toy store was both depressing and comforting.
Depressing because of the overwhelming number of gender-limiting options out there. I imagined my four year old son Sol being let loose in that store to explore and admire the toys available to him. He would be confronted with SO MANY gender-limiting stereotypes. He would be presented with a very clear picture of what it is to be a girl, and what it is to be a boy. Both of these definitions are very narrow, and he would quickly realise it was high time he dumped all of his female friends.
I would label very few of the toys in this shop inherently "bad or "wrong", but it's the overwhelming message they present en masse, and also the stark reality of what is missing. I managed to find three images of girls and boys playing together IN THE WHOLE STORE. Research shows that cross-gender play in childhood increases the likelihood of more healthy romantic relationships in the teen years, yet it seems that marketers are doing all they can to prevent this.
Comforting because I realised that, if I searched hard enough I could find toys and games that were not gender-limiting. There are options out there for parents willing to take the time to find them. Some companies are still marketing their product to both genders, and although many had fallen into the highly-gendered trap, a number still offered a 'gender neutral' option alongside their gendered stuff. For this, I am heartened, and this quote comes to mind: "Don't tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I'll tell you what they are." - James W. Frick
Childhood lasts for such a precious short time, let's not shorten this further by placing limitations on who and what our children can be. Let's not allow the financial motivations of toy companies have any part in how our children define themselves. Let's give our children the time and the space to explore and experience their world without being limited to what pop culture dictates is "right" for their gender.
In 2009 I was in a yoga class with the wonderful Nat from Zing. My mind was wandering to this seemingly far-off, unattainable goal of being a freelance educator - creating and delivering inspiring and empowering programmes that change people's lives. In a lightbulb moment I suddenly realised that I needed to start on that goal - NOW. There was never going to be a better time. By the time I got home from that class there was a plan in place. On reflection, I had been in great need of some destuckification and something about Nat's class got me on-track. (Thanks Nat!)
It's been quite a journey. I let go of the ridiculous notion that I would be a neglectful mother if my son spent time in a daycare (I compromised on two days a week and became a night owl. I also cried in the classroom the first morning I had to leave him). I created my own website on a $50 budget (yes, this one - it's nothing fancy, but don't think you need oodles of cash to get a website). I started writing again, and discovered I love it, and I started reading reading reading. And then I made sure I told the people who were writing the amazing stuff how great I thought it was. Most importantly I started to get out and about in the world telling people who I am and what I do. It took a fair amount of courage, because I don't think we live in a society where it's seen as admirable to 'think big'.
I was clear in my mission: To empower youth to build positive relationships based on respect, love and healthy choices. I knew how I was going to do this. But I was stuck on a name. What do I call what I do? I got myself a Facebook Page and connected with some amazing people, but I didn't want to just brand myself as 'me'. It's going to be bigger than that. I got a little stuck again, trying to define what it was that I was going to be doing.
Then I made a great decision: I would have this clarified by the end of these school holidays. The thing I love about deadlines is that it prompts me to action. I am one of those sorts of people who never reads the instruction manuals, but just jumps right in. It's not always a great result, and I admit I do break a LOT of stuff, but I am definitely a woman of action rather than contemplation. So, having set my deadline, I was ready to jump right in and could barely focus on anything else. (Warning: Hanging out with me can get monotonous if I am in a 'stuck on an idea' frame of mind).
Last night I told my mother that I wanted this name to incorporate the idea that I wanted to encourage people to start having conversations, to be authentic and real and honest - to encourage "good talks". And then I suddenly realised I had it - "Good Talks".
I couldn't sleep last night because I was too excited. This thing is launched already - I would love you to come and join the conversation.
A few days ago I wrote a post about a radio station who were running a "Win a Wife" campaign. Along with many others, I thought this was appalling. We decided to gather together like-minded people in a Facebook page to share ideas and information about why this competition was not OK, and strategies to stop the competition. In six days we gathered the support of over 1200 people!
This campaign has been a huge learning experience for me on a number of different levels.
Learning Experience #1
I have been saddened and horrified and depressed and angry at the abuse and pornographic images hurled at us. A few of the less-explicit examples can be found here. I learnt that there are a lot of people with lots of destructive anger out there. This vitriole is reason enough for us all to question what sort of sentiments this particular radio station is encouraging.
*Update: If it's all getting a bit much, the best remedy is laughter. Do check out this post with a choice selection of some of The Rock's supporter arguments.
Learning Experience #2
More importantly, I learnt that there are so many wonderful people out there who are so passionate about creating a just and equal society, and are willing to take action to make this happen. And I just loved connecting with them all. People sharing their knowledge and supporting each other. The Facebook page we created was just a vehicle that brought such people together.
It was amazing to realise that a small action (creating the page) snowballed in to something so much bigger than we ever thought it would. AND WE MADE A DIFFERENCE!
Learning Experience #3
It was a beautiful summer evening this evening. My family was here for dinner and my little boy was being particularly gorgeous. (I know, I know, I am biased, but that's him this evening in the photo below - don't you think?). But I was so angry at the world, having spent the afternoon dealing with abusive people and deleting explicit photos off the Facebook page, that I couldn't enjoy the evening. I was grumpy and preoccupied.
So I turned off my computer and went on a lovely walk with my wonderful sister. I raged about it all, and then I realised, over the past six days this campaign had consumed me. I had not been fully present with my little boy or husband, my garden is overflowing with needed-to-be-picked-yesterday produce and I have neglected my writing and positive work with teens and parents. I learned that neglecting these things I love makes me miserable.
So I decided to step down from moderating the Facebook page. (Of course I remain an passionate supporter). And I will not publish comments from others on this blog attacking my stance on the 'Win a Wife' competition. I have had every 'argument' (and more!) thrown at me about this issue and remain strong in my conviction. I have a HUGE amount of respect, gratitude and admiration for people who are continually standing up for injustice and inequality (Catherine Manning, Melinda Tankard Reist, Sue Bradford... the list could go on). I am not sure I could ever do what you do - I would certainly need thicker skin! And for all those wonderful people who are writing the letters and emails and generally spreading the word that it's not OK to treat anyone as second class citizens - you guys are awesome.
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.