What Would All-Male Sex Ed Look Like for Queer Boys?
What must be transformed to include gay, trans and non-reproductive sexual health in education workshops?
Article by Chase Ledin
In a recent article, sociologists Sally Brown and Fiona McQueen demonstrate that a workshop approach to sex and relationships education (SRE) might provide a more-open style of discussion and exchange for young working class men. The aim of the study was to understand young men’s views of SRE, particularly through a workshop experience that thematises “male” and “masculine” social experiences and problems. The researchers analysed the knowledge exchange that took place between the self-identified male educators from a local charity and male students. The researchers derived two core themes: (1) maleness and (2) atmosphere. These themes pinpointed how “boys only” and “male specific” learning engendered a space in which the boys could use humour and “be able to speak and listened to” in a non-traditional classroom format. The workshops were designed to emphasise the all-male environment, facilitated by male-identified educators perceived as “experienced” or sharing similar life trajectories. This included topics like being a dad, relationships, baby development and childcare, and mental health. The workshop was a space in which “relevant” information for young men could be shared and exchanged without the fear of being silenced or labelled as “immature”. The study highlighted the need and desire for male-specific spaces in which young men can discuss emotional and psychological experiences without employing a risk-based model of sexual health education. Based on this, Brown & McQueen concluded that (1) workshop settings, including both male and female instructors, are effective models for SRE in secondary schools; (2) a workshop approach can provide a more equitable space for discussion and exchange among working-class, self-identified boys; and (3) incorporating educators with relevant or “real life” from outside traditional academic spaces provides students with an opportunity to explore and relate “real-world experiences” to their own experiences.
Discussing the study’s results at an Usher Institute Social Science Seminar in March 2019, Brown suggested that the openness of the classroom layout and focus on male-specific dialogue provided an opportunity for students to establish a fondness for and relationship with the educators who shared their experiences as fathers, sexually-active men, and conveyors of sexual-health expertise. The students found a space in which to negotiate their “maleness” and “masculinity,” where it was not challenged by traditional school authority (i.e. the teacher). Rather, they were encouraged to share burgeoning ideas about what life as a man might entail. Students participated in play-fighting, laughed through difficult topics using shared and in-group jokes, and expressed perceptions of what their futures might hold, including visions of a stable career, an interest in sexual and romantic partners, and the desire to get married and have children. Thus part of the workshop process was necessarily about male-to-male camaraderie, in-group social influence and the negotiation of social mores. Both the instructors and the students, Brown noted, found the experience welcoming and easier for conveying effective sexual health education than the traditional classroom set up.
Crucially, Brown extended the boundaries of the study by reflecting on the gendered valences of the all-male workshops. The workshops took place based on self-disclosed gender identification. The choice of all-male settings (the pedagogical design) foregrounded risk reduction, empathy and reproductive safety through the lens of male-identifying experiences. Though the study suggests that one participant was comfortable asking for more representation of LGBT issues and needs (p. 10), the workshops focused primarily on conceptions of masculinity and maleness across heterosexual and reproductive life experiences. During the Usher seminar, several attendees wondered in what ways these spaces maintained stereotypical or rigid images of Scottish masculinity. For instance, how did this workshop style encourage certain forms of masculine expression while decentering other sexual and romantic experiences? Brown expressed interest in understanding how gay, lesbian, transgender, and gender-queer sexual health might (or might not) be incorporated into these all-male spaces. She asked: in what ways are gay, bisexual, transgender and gender-queer boys included and/or neglected in discussions of masculinity/ies and family building? Brown suggested that the types of dialogue taking place within a male-identified pedagogy lacked a critical recognition of gay and queer experiences of fatherhood, maleness, sexuality and non-reproductive health. She proposed that future research should consider how to create connections between heteronormative and queer SRE.
I want to reflect on Brown’s proposition in order to speculate how and what must be transformed in the process of including gay, trans and non-reproductive sexual health in SRE workshops. In line with the Scottish Government’s Sexual Health and Blood Borne Virus 2015-2020 Framework (see Outcome 5, p. 6), I want to suggest two approaches to enrich the SRE workshop through non-reproductive, body-oriented and affective pedagogy. First, in what ways might an all-male workshop provide life-affirming spaces and resources for gay, bisexual and transgender self-identifying boys who wish to become fathers? This question asks researchers, practitioners and educators to consider how sexual and (a)gender identities, life experiences and technical realities populate the signifier “fatherhood”. It seeks to deepen our understanding of how reproductive and familial-based education might incorporate the emotional, psychological and technical needs of non-heterosexual, bisexual, gay and/or transgender boys. This question looks at problems that are sometimes separated from, or in addition to, prevailing perceptions of fatherhood and family-building. For instance, a queer-identified boy is less likely to have a child in the same way as his heterosexual counterpart. He may wish to have a child, nonetheless, through a surrogate mother or adoption. Consideration of the ways in which this boy might experience “fatherhood” through the technical realities of adoption or surrogacy is essential to his formulation of queerness and fatherhood. Incorporation of multiple forms of fathering and conception would value discussion(s) about adoption, how to negotiate the desire (or lack of desire) to have a child, and the outlets and resources for becoming a father, making it more than a “queer” pedagogy. It enables additional questions like: What are the similarities and differences between heterosexual and gay fathers? What qualities and responsibilities do they share? How do those similarities relate to their sense(s) of masculinity and nurturing? These questions cut across gender and sexual identities and encourage “male” connections through the process and experience(s) of fatherhood. Critical analysis and discussion of the variety and styles of “fathering” through multiple technical realities might then push SRE approaches toward more fluid understandings of how desire, sex, pleasure and intimacy populate through the processes of fatherhood and family-making.
Second, how might the inclusion of “gay” experiences of sex make the all-male workshop more amenable to reflection upon non-reproductive sexual acts as a normal human experience across (a)gender and sexual identifications? When devising the all-male workshop, Brown & McQueen suggest, maleness and masculinity frame the pedagogical outcomes. This includes a focus on parental responsibilities, social values and problem solving in complex romantic and emotional relationships. “Gay sex,” or simply sexual engagement with a member(s) of the same sexual preference, might begin tenuously: focusing on the “subcultural” and action-based sexual pleasures. But the introduction and normalisation of non-reproductive action common in gay sex (i.e. male-male fellatio, anal intercourse, fingering and rimming, the use of toys, etc.) is not gender-specific and occurs across relationships and sexual identities. Extending “gay sex” into the all-male workshop merely opens up male sexuality to various ways of experiencing and exploring the body through its many potential pleasures. Including gay sex through discussions of body orientations suspends a cultural fascination (and horror) with the feminisation of the masculine man. It instead turns attention to how these body orientations exist potentially in all bodies. Pedagogy that foregrounds the affective connections that compel these non-reproductive sexual practices might question the social construction of homosexuality as an “othered” practice. It makes room for discussions about how affective sex is central to our understanding of our psychological, emotional and psychical bodies. This approach to “gay sex” in the all-male workshop, then, brackets the preoccupation with a certain kind of person engaging in non-reproductive sex and, instead, encourages critical reflection on how the body proliferates feelings across multiple reproductive and non-reproductive experiences of sex, sexuality and (a)gender.
These approaches raise questions about the reception of new SRE in the secondary classroom. The masculine dynamics described in Brown & McQueen’s account of the all-male workshop demand an awareness of the potential intrusion of non-specific masculinities and male experiences. Students might react to non-reproductive sexual acts by implementing masculine-coded responses, especially homophobic or anal-phobic humour, to diffuse the legitimacy of this sexual health education. How, then, can SRE practitioners design workshop spaces that counter hegemonic masculine responses to queer-inclusive sexual education? One way to incorporate a queer-inclusive SRE would be to reorient the spaces themselves. These spaces of exchange would emphasise sex and relationship as affective processes, thereby challenging assumptions about sexual and gender essentialisms through the familisation and utilitarianism of sex. Sex as an affective process operates in tension with traditional reproductive SRE. In doing so, it opens up critical questions about the fluidity of gender, sexuality, desire and pleasure. These spaces require a different understanding of the (non)specificities of (a)gender and sexuality. Their relations to desire, intimacy, and pleasure require a long-term investment in social practices of affective sex: that is, systemic changes to considerations of the pleasureful and playful forms of sex and desire. Re-structuring the classroom to focus on the affective bodies that surround and populate fatherhood and family-building might push SRE toward thinking about the pluralities of sexual acts and desire across bodies. Indeed, the emphasis on the unending learning processes of experiencing and feeling sex might reorient SRE toward a more nuanced vision of how our bodies and desires -- heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, etc. -- remain intimately connected across identifications, (a)genders and socio-sexual practices.
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