Teaching sex ed – what’s love got to do with it?

Reading this article, I was reminded of an interview I had done on a national radio program last spring.  I guess it’s time to revisit this discussion.

The article above explains the dilemma for (heterosexual) boys:

“…while boys crave closeness, they are expected to act as if they are emotionally invulnerable. Among the American boys I interviewed, I observed a conflict between their desires and the prevailing masculinity norms – if they admit to valuing romantic love, they risk being viewed as ‘unmasculine’.”

The writer encourages sexual health educators to teach boys about emotional intimacy; but there is a distinct difference between emotional intimacy and love.  One can certainly have one without the other.  Let’s be frank.  Adults know full well that we don’t have to be “in love” or in a committed relationship to enjoy the pleasures of sexual intimacy.  And one can have emotional intimacy in a casual sexual relationship to which one would not necessarily apply the “love” label.

The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality has published numerous articles on casual sexual relationships (CSRs). This article identifies four types of casual sexual relationships: One Nights Stands, Booty Calls, Fuck Buddies, and Friends with Benefits.    Despite the apparent crudeness of the terms, these are indeed intimate relationships, which hopefully include the basic requirements of good communication, honesty and respect.  Sex educators need to acknowledge the reality of CSRs rather than insist on a societal ideal.  In the early days of sexual health education, we used “love” as part of the discussion of heterosexual pairings leading to commitment and babies.  “When a man and a woman love each other…” etc.  For sex educators, in the same way that we have sought to be broadly inclusive in terms of gender and orientation, we need to avoid upholding a hierarchy of intimate relationships with marriage at the pinnacle.

Not so very long ago, lesson plans abounded with examples of the difference between infatuation and love.  No doubt these classes evolved from educators’ fear of talking about pleasure: we were afraid it might lead to early, risky experimentation.  But what would be the point of raising the question of “love” with children having their first crushes who are just discovering the pleasure of holding hands or enjoying that first kiss?  With older adolescents, at what point in the discussion of the sexualization of relationships would we then introduce the notion of love?

The article insists that we talk with young people about feelings.  And we do.  We want them to be able to evaluate whether they feel happy and satisfied in their relationships.  We encourage them to ask themselves: Do I look forward to seeing my partner?  How do I feel when we are together?  Does my partner treat me the same when we are alone as when we are in public?  On the whole, do I feel happier because I am in this relationship?

Not all feelings measure up to the standard set by romantic notions of love.

What we really need to teach young people are the bases of healthy relationships; viz., integrity, honesty, respect, fairness and good communication.  These are, after all, the values that we hope will inform their relationships.  Depending on the individuals, all of these qualities may be found in CSRs as well as long-term committed relationships.  Moreover, we can teach them the prerequisites of sexual activity – consent, safety and pleasure – which are also rooted in equitable, clear communication.

Let’s teach young people about emotional and sexual intimacy, so that when they are ready to engage in more sophisticated sexual activity, they are able to be present, find connection, take risks, experience erotic intimacy, communicate their desires, explore and be authentic.  After all, aside from asexual people who may only want to experience emotional intimacy, the rest of us also want our sexual desires to be fulfilled.

It is important to point out that many people in battered relationships are in love, albeit a love that is based in a power imbalance.  This tie is particularly hard to break.  Not only do women find it difficult for complex reasons to leave their male abusers but the dynamic also holds true for same gender partners.  We may think we can change the person or control the situation, but it is no exaggeration to say that the scenario may also escalate into murder.  As Maya Angelou says of jealousy,

“Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.”

So let’s teach young people about equitable relationships, and offer them the skills to seek happiness in their relationships, whether they consider themselves to be in love or not.

 

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