Friday, March 5, 2010

Sexuality Education As Justice Making

This is not the blog I had intended to post. I’m scrambling at the last minute, putting aside my original work. I tossed and turned all night thinking about our work as sexuality educators and the profound impact we can have on cultural attitudes towards poverty; specifically its effect on women and girls. You are probably not surprised given the comments I made in class about this issue.

My restlessness was brought on by going to the movie theatre last night to celebrate International Women’s Day organized by the authors of Half the Sky and CARE (a humanitarian organization). The set-up was a live concert streamed from the Skirball center at NYU, which included musical performances by artists like India Arie and Diane Birch. Several celebrities read excerpts of women’s stories from the book (Marisa Tomei, Maria Bello, Sarah Ferguson). It also featured a short film of one of the stories of a girl named Woinshet from Ethiopia. She was the victim of the cultural practice of bride abduction, where a girl is kidnapped and raped by a man who then forces her to marry him afterward to avoid paying a dowry as well as any punishment for the rape. It was the first of several documentaries to be made into a TV series that will tell these women’s stories to an even wider audience.

Half the Sky, through its Pulitzer-prize wining authors, exposes three major abuses of women: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence including honor killings and mass rape; maternal mortality, which needlessly claims one woman a minute.

During the panel discussion each panelist responded similarly to the question of what can be done: EDUCATION. The dominant theme of this presentation was the power of education. It is one of the Millennium goals of the United Nations (United Nations, 2000). There are groups of people, including Woinshet, who travel throughout Ethiopia educating women AND men.

This is some SERIOUS education. This is not like writing a lesson plan on how to effectively use a condom or the benefits of masturbation. I can’t imagine a koosh ball activity that could stop a group of men from gang raping a young girl.

I expect to be confronted with the effects of poverty on sexuality in my work here in the United States. I expect this because poverty is very real here. The 2006 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 13.3% of Americans live in poverty. Women and children represent a significant portion of this population (Michigan Domestic Violence and Treatment Board, 2008).

How can we maximize our effectiveness in this culture of poverty? Research shows an undeniable link between poverty and sexual violence (Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, 2007). To me it is the “ism” that is at the root of many of the other “isms” we encounter.

Sarah Ferguson suggested that each of us develop a discipline of gratitude and that this discipline be the basis for our efforts. Then we act.

Today’s blog asks you to identify your gratitude, to claim it; then to ponder how you as an educator can act. Think about the career path you may choose, the curriculum and programs you will create, the organizations with which you will associate, your relationships with colleagues, the dissertation you will write. On our first day of class, Dr. Dyson asked us to consider the role of culture and other influences on our community partners/target group.

How does poverty influence your group in any way? I look forward to your responses.

And to a good night’s sleep.

Your colleague,

Kristof, N. and WuDunn, S. (2009). Half the sky. Knopf Publishers, New York:New York

Michigan Domestic Violence and Treatment Board (2008). The intersection of poverty and sexual violence. Retrieved from

Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (2007). Poverty and sexual violence: building prevention and intervention responses. Retrieved from

United Nations Millennium Development Goals (2000). Retrieved March 5, 2010 from


  1. What a thought provoking post Sandra...thank you for it. I'm definitely not surprised to see this topic given the conversation we had in class. That day in class, I felt that I view the world really in one way... and that's my way, without considering the way others might experience the same situation. Since that day, I have challenged myself to try to view things through other lenses, and it's not easy.

    My daily interactions are mainly with students that generally come from upper middle class backgrounds where they have many opportunities and positive influences. Poverty is a concern for a very small population in our building, so I admit that I don't think about it as much as I might like to. I need to do that, because not everyone I work with has the same privileges and opportunities.

    More to come on that... I'm going to ponder this a bit.

  2. Sandra,

    Your blog shows just how much we as educators can have an impact on others. I know a large portion of our class members have taken time to help others in some way, even before entering Widener University. Sax, Astin, and Avalos (1999) stated that if undergraduate students are involved in volunteer opportunities upon entering college, the students are likely to continue volunteer involvement for up to nine years. With that in mind, just think of all of the people we have/will positively influence with the knowledge, attitude, and skills we have acquired.



    Sax, L.J., Astin, A.W., & Avalos, J. (1999). Long-term effects of volunteerism during the undergraduate years. The Review of Higher Education, 22, 187-202. doi: 10.1353/rhe.1999.0002

  3. A powerful post, Sandra. I remember seeing the documentary Born Into Brothels and just being stunned because I had never even imagined the possible existence of these children's lives. Much less designing interventions that could address their educational needs.

  4. Providing cross-cultural sexual health education in Kenya has opened my eyes to the concept of privilege and oppression.

    Street-dwelling youth are a common feature in low-income countries. Family is regarded highly and is a close knit network in Kenya. However, extreme poverty has led to the breakdown of the family structure.

    Kaime, Lindmark, Persson & Ahlberg, (2007) discuss the three categories responsible for health care seeking behavior of street-dwelling youth in Kenya: financial, structural and support.

    In response to gaps in government programs in Kenya, the Children & Youth Empowerment Centre (CYEC) was formed in 2006. Penn State University has collaborated with the CYEC and has a multiyear engagement. Next week on my blog I plan to expand on the many innovative programs that are in progress for the youth in Kenya.

    Kaime-Attehog, W., Lindmark, G., Persson, L. & Ahlberg, B. M. (2007). Burning centre bolt: experiences of sexually transmitted infections and health care seeking behavior described by street boys in urban Kenya. Children and Youth Services Review, 29, 600-617.


  5. I can remember reading the Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne and the issue of sexuality being brought up a little. The book mentioned that women in poverty may have to sleep with a man in exchange for services or good (getting a car fixed, money for groceries, etc). From working in a low income school, I find that sexual activity of women in poverty is often an area of disapproval from most teachers. While for the women in poverty sex may be seen as a means of survival for her and her family, to teachers its seen as being irreponsible and lazy (she could go get a real job!). These negative views are especially true if sex results in a child and if the woman already has multiple children.
    Sandra, your article made me think that if teachers could accept sex as part of poverty (or even life for that matter) than maybe the predjucies and negative attitudes that surround parents could be less. I think its really hard to imagine what it would be like to be in another culture, when your (most of the teachers are white, middle class women) culture is a culture of privledge.


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  7. I think we often assume that sexuality education is the stuff of privilege: start with a basic "survival" approach, then move on to other things like people's sexual rights. While I agree with the basic needs of survival (food, shelter, safety) being paramount within sort of any outreach for marginalized communities, I disagree that sexual rights are a step beyond that, especially for women (I refer to what you said above, Sandra, about the correlation between sexual violence and poverty).

    That being said, one thing that comes to mind for me (albeit tangential, though it certainly arose within our class), as an educator, is to never approach a marginalized community as a "savior" and use my privilege to speak down to anyone (see "White Saviors" -

    Darcie is right, it IS hard to imagine oneself in another culture, virtually impossible to imagine another's experience as our own. Nevertheless, I am firm believer that turning our education on ourselves first and foremost is always a valuable starting point.

  8. Sandra, you're right that this is very serious education, and I agree: trying to imagine doing the koosh ball activity to directly prevent a gang rape situation, seems like a pretty disjointed image.

    But! We're talking about cultural changes, and culture is very slow to change. When folks say that education is the key to change, I think that is true. But I don't think it can be limited to something like "Don't commit rape." It's so much more than that.

    Changing culture is slow, but even the smallest things can have an impact. What contributes to a rape culture (to continue with the example)? What are the components of that culture? One component I like to think about is language. A small (but maybe significant) example is "guys." I try to avoid saying things like, "Hey guys!" because even though lots of people will say it's gender-neutral, I don't think it is. I think it implies that masculine is the default or "norm," and anything else is "other." So I try to say "folks" or "you all" instead. I'm sure plenty of people will disagree, but I think it's a small, everyday step toward a better society. Of course, there's so much more than this kind of "little thing" - like affective education, or helping people become critical consumers of media...

    And so, maybe a koosh activity CAN help, if using it to educate about something like, "Women aren't objects" or "How would you feel if you/someone close to you was in this situation?" Things like that. Maybe it's all about chewing the elephant one bite at a time.

    Also wanted to briefly comment that I think you're right: the "isms" are definitely linked! One helpful acronym I learned, to cover many of the oppressions: AFASHCAR - ageism, faithism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, appearanceism, and racism. Somehow, I think we need to start taking an intersectional approach to oppressions. Wasn't that supposed to be part of the next wave of feminism??

    Anyway... Here's a link to a resource I used when I was educating my peers at UConn, trying to help prevent sexual assault (it's called "What will you do to prevent violence against women?"):

    Thanks for the food for thought!! I hope the conversation about culture & oppression & education will continue among all of us, and within the program at large... and beyond!!


  9. Impact of poverty on women and girls
    Poverty alone is devastating. However, to live as a woman and experience poverty can become demoralizing. Women have often been socialized to believe they are the weaker, more dependant species. Through advanced technology, media, radio and general social interactions women are taught how to be/remain dependant. When living in poverty and oppressive settings women are vulnerable and targeted because of gender. Some women use their gender as a bargaining tool and are socialized to know their body can make money. When reading more on women and poverty I found the following resources helpful:

  10. One of the most powerful ways for me to see the importance of sexuality education was to see how devastating it can be when that education is discontinued.

    In her 2006 book “How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics, and the War on Sex” Cristina Page looks at the importance of sexuality education abroad in helping to end poverty and the effects on this mission when the United States pulled its funding in 2002.
    Page argues that family planning education is critical internationally because it not only decreases maternal, fetal and infant deaths but also reverses the cycle of poverty. Economist Jeffrey Sachs’ arguments support what Page is saying, “When impoverished families have large numbers of children, the families cannot afford to invest in nutrition, health, and education…high fertility rates in one generation , therefore, tend to lead to impoverishment of children and to high fertility rates in the following generation as well…thereby exacerbating the poverty.”

    In her discussion of family planning education to help end poverty, Page talks about the UN agency UNFPA which works with more than 126 countries on family planning education, as well as, a variety of life-saving reproductive interventions not including abortions. In 2001, the United States, one of the largest financial supporters of UNFPA froze all their funds for the agency and then cancelled the funds altogether in 2002, as a result of pressure from the pro-life movement. UNFPA lost $34 million in funding from the US and had to end or curtail several of their family planning educational programs which according to Page led to 12 million unintended pregnancies, 5 million abortions, 374,00 infant deaths and 27,000 maternal deaths worldwide every year.

    I think Page’s example of UNFPA is a powerful example of how important sexuality education is to poverty and human suffering globally and what the devastating consequences can be when that education ceases to exist.

    Check out Page’s book at

    Follow Page’s blog at