General Articles

Side eye, sex ed, and intersectionality (Say that five times fast.)

By Jennifer Driver, State Policy Director

We are living in the age of the emoji. We respond to texts with emojis — sometimes without any words. People use them in emails. We even manage to speak emoji (i.e. Someone says something funny and you respond by saying, “Lol! Crying eyes emoji…”).

When it comes to the debate for “best emoji,” let me settle it right now: the hands down best emoji is the *side eye emoji.*

I give the side eye emoji face frequently. Understood as “I’m judging you — get your life together,” and shorthanded as, “get your life,” our current political climate and, to be honest, the professional field of sexuality education give me ample opportunity to express this face.

I’ve had the pleasure of working in the realm of sex ed for over ten years. When I started working in this field, priority groups were mainly youth-in-care and homeless youth with the subtext that these young people were Black. *Side eye.* We then included women and girls, Latinos, rural youth, and youth who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ).

In applying for grants to implement sexuality education programs serving these young people, the way in which we had to identify the group that we were serving always baffled me. There was this assumption that the young people had to solely fit into one category.

Why, yes, federal government agency, the young people I serve are exclusively Latinos… they have no other identity.”

There appeared to be this inability to understand that a person could be queer, Latina, living in a rural area, in out-of-home care — and all of these factors could impact how this person functions in the world. Moreover, while our approach to serving this young person needed to take into account all of these identities, it rarely did.

So how do we work to help someone like this? We take an intersectional approach to our work. Now hold on before you throw your *side eye* my way, I get it. This word has been tossed around so much that it’s becoming a buzzword rather than an actual approach.

Let me first tell you what intersectionality is not.

  • Intersectionality is not simply examining identities that we have, which is how it is often described. (*A gentle side eye to the misinformed.*)
  • Intersectionality is not simply putting the word in your mission or values statement, your grant proposal, or your presentation.
  • It’s not merely hiring people of color.
  • It’s not thanking Black women in Alabama who showed up to vote for Doug Jones. (*Massive side eye.* Black women aren’t here to save you or this country. *Mic drop emoji.*)

The term “intersectionality,” coined by Professor Kimberlè Crenshaw, in fact, emphasizes how collectively our identities affect our experiences and behaviorsin relation to inequality, injustice, exploitation, and oppression. It’s an analysis related to identity, not an identity itself. Everyone has multiple identities.

When we apply this term to sexuality education and policies, we look beyond the “either/or” and focus on the “both/and” to ensure the multiple identities that a person carries are included. When applied effectively, intersectionality is a powerful tool for analyzing and addressing gaps in sexuality education.

Using it to guide our thinking and work means we have to move away from single-issue (e.g. race-only, sexual orientation-only, gender-only, or class-only) and top-down approaches toward addressing the reality of intersecting identities on the ground, as people experience them.

Intersectionality implores us to stretch sexuality education beyond a white-centered, cisgender, and heteronormative perspective. The framework allows us to see that racism, classism, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression do not act independently of each other, and, in fact, overlap and depend on one another.

For example, “success sequencing” was an idea circulating the field a few years ago that stated a person could avoid poverty if they:

  1. Graduated from high school;
  2. Maintained a full-time job or had a partner with a full-time job; and
  3. Had children while married and after age 21 (if they chose to become parents).

While this idea of “success sequencing” served as a basis for programs and policies, it was inherently flawed because it referred to the needs of “all young people” as if aspects of poverty affected “all young people” homogeneously. But, in reality, the “all young people” in reference were actually White, middle-class, cisgender young people; and the resulting policies that were created to address risk assumed access to services that youth of color, LGBTQ, and lower income youth simply did not have.

Let’s zoom out a bit on this issue. Year after year, I attend multiple conferences designed to increase the capacity of those providing sexuality education to young people. As with my experience growing up, I am one of very few Black women who attend these conferences.

I attend sessions that focus solely on the needs of LGBTQ youth, or teen moms, or serving youth of color (often led by White presenters *side eye*), but rarely do I see sessions tackle the intersections of these groups. What is too often missing is the reality that if you’re only looking at a single issue, you miss how things like racism and oppression compiled with classism impact access to resources and decision-making abilities of these young people. You also overlook how white supremacy (no matter how subtle) permeates the field.

But let me be clear: I don’t dislike white people. I have white friends. (Just kidding, but you see how ridiculous that sounds!) For me, it comes down to a simple dichotomy:

  • White people who call out racism and white supremacy = good
  • White people who call themselves allies but stay silent or only lean in when it’s safe = bad.

Ok, so now you’re thinking, “Wrap this up and tell me how I can improve.” To which I give you another *side eye.*

It’s up to you to do the work. You now know what intersectionality is and is not. So, take some time for reflection.

Critically examine the information you receive and put out as it relates to this field. Challenge single issue approaches whether they be at work, in the classroom, a part of conferences, or even in conversations with friends and family.

Avoid thinking things like:

  • “If I don’t ask ________ people experiencing _________, how will I learn?”
  • “I need someone else to provide me with the tools to be informed.”

Make a pact today to actively call out and reject any white, cis, heteronormative approach to sexuality education that you come across. And, instead, work toward ensuring an intersectional approach that benefits ALL young people *smile emoji.*