Recently, I taught a series of health classes to a number of 5th and 6th graders in a public school setting. The subjects I taught were the social, emotional, and physical changes associated with puberty, healthy relationships, the anatomy of reproductive organs, conception, intimacy and social media. The script that happened was to be expected. Upon my arrival and my dreaded introduction: “Hi! I’m Ms. Haug and I am a Sexual Health Educator and I will be teaching you for two days about our bodies and relationships.” One could cue the groans, gasps, the comment, “I think I’m going to faint,” and then the ever famous sinking head into the collar of the shirt to search for a tunnel that transports you to any other place then the current health class.
I knew the children were going to feel uncomfortable, mostly because I remember how I felt in health class. My health class consisted of separating the boys and girls into different rooms and we watched a short video on periods and breast development and that was it. The video turned off and there were no questions or discussion. This is my memory of it. There’s a good chance I blocked most of that experience out of memory. These kids would be getting much more information. For starters, they would be sitting together with all their classmates in one room. I also planned a number of interacting activities and a question and answer section. I wasn’t going to send these students into the world of puberty wide eyed and confused as I had been.
In part of my curriculum I make a distinction between our private parts not being secret parts. I asked the students to list all the parts of the body we consider private. What happened during this stage of the presentation was wide spread giggling and saying, “NO! We can’t do that!” Then one brave soul shouted them out. I asked them why they couldn’t say them. So, I pointed to different parts of my body and asked them to name them: “Nose,” “Elbow,” “Knee,” “Ear.” So, I said, “You named those body parts just fine. Penis, testicles, breasts, vagina, vulva…these are also a part of your body. We shouldn’t be afraid of naming them.” There it is. When I went to health class it was in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It is now 2018 and we are still afraid to talk about our bodies. I believe our goal for this country is to get to a point where we don’t dread health class but find it to be a natural occurrence.
When I talk about how private parts shouldn’t be secret parts, I mean that we shouldn’t quiet our voice when we speak about them. I also mean that if anything feels weird about them, like they itch, feel unusual, or have a different odor then we are used to, we should be able to talk to our doctor or parent about that. It also means that if anyone tells you to keep your private parts a secret for them to touch, then that is not okay. We have created an environment of secrecy around our private parts, our bodies, and our desires or lack of desires that when we enter a room where that topic will be discussed we walk in covered in full armor. Our shoulders are touching our ears, our arms are crossed, and our stomach is wound into multiple knots. On the flipside, as we have created an air of secrecy we simultaneously have also exploited our private parts in such immense ways that it is hard to process where the line of standards lie.
I will admit that I have a hard time understanding how we can objectify the body and overly sexualize it for all eyes to see, but yet can’t say the words: penis, vagina, vulva, anus, testicles, or breasts without feeling weird or slightly offended. Do you see how that doesn’t compute? When we make things secretive like our genitals by starting off giving them names such as woo woo, diamond, wee wee, or down there, then we are making them weird. We are saying that one of the most sensitive, important, necessary, and pleasurable parts of our body is strange and peculiar. This is the beginning of shame. The message is that this is part of my body I should not know, understand, or be able to discuss with others. This could be a correlation why we also have a hard time understanding consent. When we can’t even say the proper names for our body parts, then how do we find the language to protect or guard them? We all have bodies and they are our vehicles of understanding this world and each other. In order to better understand the world and each other then we need to talk about them. It is not shameful, it is natural.
When I teach any class, regardless of age, everyone enters scared. Actually adults look like they are entering their health class all over again. When the class or session is over, shoulders come down, arms are no longer crossed, and I always have a line of people waiting to talk more with me. We need it. We need to know, understand, and talk about our bodies. It’s okay. It really is. So say out loud today the words: penis, testicles, breasts, anus, vagina, vulva, and let’s not forget her, clitoris. Their our bodies, don’t be ashamed of them or keep them a secret.