Comprehensive Sex Education as Social Transformation

Zoe Sullivan

Most news right now focuses on the coronavirus pandemic. Rightly so. But, as the Wisconsin spring election demonstrates, other important things continue to happen. So, if you’re open to some non-COVID19 reading, you’re in the right place. If you’re interested in Wisconsin politics, I’ve included some links at the bottom.

Last year I spent 2 months in Buenos Aires. I went because the husband of my former mentor was dying. I was there for the immediate aftermath, and extended my stay in part to do more reporting on Argentina’s feminist movement, specifically on young feminist activism.

Ana Belatti was the Vice President of the Carlos Pellegrini High School Gender Commission when I spoke to her last year. Carlos Pellegrini is one of the best public high schools in Buenos Aires, like Bronx Science or Stuyvesant in New York City.

Argentina’s political parties often have youth branches that operate within the country’s high schools. Belatti said she isn’t affiliated with a political party nor is the Carlos Pellegrini Gender Commission.A doctoral candidate in sociology I interviewed, Soledad Gallardo, told me that the push for comprehensive sex education may have begun as a political move to engage young people, but they embraced the cause and made it their own, leaving the parties on the sidelines.

During our interview, Belatti shared something that stunned me. In 2016, as the power of the Ni Una Menos anti-femicide movement was gathering momentum, young women began to feel the need to move beyond “going to a march, wearing glitter and singing.” They were recognizing that they themselves and their classmates were victims of gender-based violence, whether rape or catcalls, unwanted touching or belittling.

So, a group of young women at the Colégio Nacional, the top public high school in Buenos Aires, created a women’s group. The Colégio Nacional has a history of activism: 14 students and teachers were disappeared during the most recent dictatorship when the junta killed approximately 30,000 people.

“That space for empowered women began,” Belatti says, “because that March 8th they didn’t want to march with the Student Center because they didn’t want to march with the men who had abused them, and they didn’t want to be represented by the same flag flying over the abusive men. So, they created a separate space to march and to come together.”

Before coming to Buenos Aires, I had heard that the youth activists in this movement were a force of nature, that they had run workshops at the annual national women’s gathering, and that they were an engine propelling the movement for legal abortion and gender equity. But I was surprised that these groups were also dictating whether young men could march with them on International Women’s Day.

Belatti and Eugenia Marino, the Vice President of the Gender Commission at Carlos Pellegrini, described the school had two separate groups, one for empowered women and another focusing on new masculinities. Both Belatti and Marino said that initially they were frustrated with the masculinities group because “there were few guys, and they would talk for 15 minutes and then leave because they didn’t know what to discuss nor how to discuss.”

Still, the group reflects an effort to begin examining the social norms and construct that lead to gender-based violence.

Transforming the roots of gendered oppression is a clear mandate for Argentina’s young feminist activists. They have prioritized comprehensive sex education because they see it as a critical tool in dismantling a social system in which heterosexual, cis-gendered men are free to oppress and violate women and non-binary identities.

They have also come of age at a time when the country’s feminist movement has become an international reference. In 2015, feminists called for demonstrations to protest grotesque femicides. They called for “Ni Una Menos,” not one fewer, that is, no more murders. Tens of thousands of people across the country filled its squares in an unprecedented show of solidarity and disgust with the status quo.

I went to a fundraising concert that the Carlos Pellegrini gender commission organized in early May last year, representatives from other schools’ commissions convened in the gym to discuss issues and strategy with bands played and young people crowded the school’s courtyard.

In 2006, Argentina passed a law requiring its public schools to provide sex education in a holistic manner. That means not just addressing the biology of reproduction and preventing the spread of infections, but also including the concepts of consent, sexual pleasure and non-binary gender identities.

“We don’t want to just talk about the body and reproduction,” said Gabriela Ramos, a feminist teacher specialized in holistic sex education. “We want sex education that includes a gender perspective. We want sex education that includes a rights perspective.”

But basic things, like school dress codes, continue to rankle, say Belatti and Marino, since dress codes seem primarily to regulate how young women dress and present their bodies. They also point to bathrooms as a point of tension. “There are people who don’t know what bathroom to use or who don’t feel comfortable using either,” Marino said.

“What is clear is that comprehensive sex education connects all these issues. It’s not just specific items. It changes the logic of what school is supposed to be,” Marino said.

Only 14 of Argentina’s 23 provinces have ratified the 2006 comprehensive sex education law. Hugo Figueroa* is the Secretary of Human Rights in the northern province of Santiago del Estero where the law remains unratified.

“We’ve had certain interferences,” he said. “Santiago is a highly sexist, religious society. And within the context of religion, for families and priests, the issue of sex education is a taboo.”

Figueroa points to three reasons to implement the law:  to prevent child sexual abuse by teaching children that their body is sacred; to eliminate gender-based violence by teaching children that boys and girls have the same rights; and to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

In 2018, senators who voted against decriminalizing abortion in Argentina said that before permitting greater access to the procedure, the country should ramp up its efforts to provide sex education.

But Figueroa explains why this isn’t a straightforward solution.

“[The movement to decriminalize abortion], has created a whole debate and [has] mobilized right-wing institutions” Figueroa said. “They organized a conference parallel to the holistic sexual education conference called the ‘conference of love.’” The “they” Figueroa referred to are Catholic church, evangelical sects and Catholic schools. He explained that while progressive activists organize events to promote comprehensive sex education, conservatives have held conferences promoting chastity and virginity until marriage.

At some point, I’d be interested in delving further into what’s happening with the rise in popularity of fundamentalist Christian groups and how that connects to feminists’ struggle for liberation, but that’s too much for this email.

One example of the kind of interference Figueroa describes can be found in the state of Tucumán, which neighbors Santiago del Estero. Last year, the case of “Lucia,” an 11-year-old girl who had been raped by her grandmother’s boyfriend, made headlines. Lucia’s mother wanted her to have an abortion, but doctors and the courts delayed for weeks. Ultimately, Lucia was forced to give birth via cesarean section.

Since abortion in the case of rape or danger to the mother´s life is legal in Argentina, Lucia should have had no trouble terminating the pregnancy. As her case, illustrates, however, the reality of obtaining an abortion is a different matter.

Little wonder that the decriminalization slogan is: “sex education to decide; contraceptives to not abort; legal abortion to not die.”

Mature activists like Ramos recognize “If there is something that comprehensive sex education will try to do is change daily school practices.” She points to the way comprehensive sex education includes conversations about pleasure, consent, and love as well as preventing infections and unwanted pregnancies. This approach to sex education, she said, means all teachers are involved.

But teaching isn’t a one-way street. “They are the ones teaching us and teaching their companions what the needs are,” said Ramos.

Sasa Testa agrees. “The reality that I live on a daily basis, is that education from a holistic gender perspective should be more for adults and teachers than the students,” Testa said. “The greatest discrimination I’ve suffered and that I continue to suffer comes from my colleagues.” Testa has a non-binary identity and teaches literature in public high school in Buenos Aires.

“It makes me wonder if schools are really ready to receive these new, possible ways of life,” Testa said. “Or if schools aren’t still an ideological apparatus of the state…an ideological apparatus of the paradigm of mandatory heterosexuality.” That paradigm, he said, is one of the pillars of capitalism.

I highly, highly recommend Dan Shafer´s newsletter, the Recombobulation Area, if you are interested in Wisconsin politics. This piece analyzing the outcome of the April 7th primary offers a wealth of insight. The map alone showing the counties that swung is worth it.

I also want to plug my friend, Eleni Schirmer´s piece about the role labor organizing plays in creating a new norms.

As always, if you´re not interested in these musings or updates, lemme know, and I´ll pull your email from the list.

Thanks for reading, stay safe, and may we all find the space and energy to reimagine our society.

*Figueroa passed away before this piece was published.