Who's Your Teacher

Who's Your Teacher ★★★★

"There is a profound lack of information across the nation. Young people are educating themselves about sex by Googling. And since porn comes up when you Google sex questions, adult film stars are becoming educators, whether they choose to, or not."




Sex education - (the curricular subject, not the Netflix show) - is a big problem in schools today, much the same as it was a problem during the years when I was in school in the 2000s.

And while Ani Easton Baker's Who's Your Teacher? is primarily informed by the notoriously woeful state of the education system in America - which Baker has firsthand knowledge of from her erstwhile time as a school teacher - the issues highlighted herein about most schools' propagation of misinformation, puritanical prudishness, conservative censorship, and unwillingness to inform pupils about much of anything beyond the clinically biological and heteronormative basic vagaries of sex, are all unfortunately familiar, and completely applicable to my experiences in the UK school system.

I remember how in my first primary school (between the ages of 6 to 8), kids would taunt each other by asking if they were virgins, and while none of us knew what exactly that even meant, answering "yes" or "no" was a zero-sum game that provoked mockery no matter which answer you gave.
I remember how during this same time, a rumour went around that there was supposedly a rapist roaming around the wooded area bordering the playground, and if you went out too far among the thicket of wheatstalks and long grass, this rapist boogeyman would come and get you. Of course, none of us knew what rape was, what it entailed, why it was bad, or anything. (Contextually, I believe this was around the time when the UK news was inundated with details of the Soham murders, and I suppose children across the nation were intuiting the fears the adults around us had about our potential abductions.)

I remember how, later in my second primary school in Year 5 or 6, when the time obligatorily came for us to be taught the beginnings of sex ed, I tried to request not being part of the classes where that'd be happening. My mother was all too happy to enforce this, as she was part of the Mormon church, which considers sex before marriage to be a sin, and my mother saw all sex as being sinful and wrong and hell-worthy, and she wouldn't want sweet little precious prepubescent Me to be corrupted by such information; so she typed up a letter to my teacher, formally asking for me to be withdrawn from sex ed lessons.
What I'm fuzzy in recalling is whether this was before or after the one sex education lesson my class had that was forever burned into my memory. Whenever it was, I remember that the extent of that lesson was the teacher wheeling in the VCR and the square TV, and playing this surreal mini-documentary about sex which featured two stark-bollock-naked male and female actors, shots of the actors individually having showers, unexpurgated footage of a baby being born, and translucent CGI animatics of ballooning erections, and penises inserting into vaginas, with voiceover and arrows and text all explaining the whole process.
Obviously, none of us kids could take it seriously. There was giggling, cringing, exclamations of disgust at the sight of the genitalia (real and animated), and we barely learnt a thing. I think I even closed or averted my eyes through most of it.

I remember that by the time I got to secondary school (both the first one I attended in England, then the second one in Wales that I finished up my school career at), the scant supply of sex education we ever received was relegated to Biology class, and the information delivered was decidedly minimal. It was all just diagrams. Diagrams of sperm, and eggs, and fallopian tubes, and sideways cross-sections of cocks. Diagrams in textbooks, and diagrams in paper booklets with dotted lines underneath that you'd write in to recount the info you were told, rather than taught.
Still, nobody took the subject seriously, because sex was uncomfortable to openly talk about, so we dealt with that discomfort by making it a joke. And besides, we could all tell that the various teachers burdened with this subset of the Biology curriculum were clearly as keen as we were to move past this subject as swiftly as they could, without also being struck off for shirking their teaching duties.
I remember one lesson (in the second secondary school) where our regular Biology teacher was discussing the process of mating or fertilisation or something, and she tried engaging us with the subject matter by randomly picking out one boy, and one girl, and laying out a hypothetical where these two would choose to elope, have sex, and thus produce a baby.
The awkward laughter, and the awkward... everything of that moment, was so indelibly bone-deep that I can still feel the cringe on my skin that I felt that day, just by thinking back to it.

The lessons we really learnt - the lessons I really learnt - lay in what was not taught to us, in the vast chasms of ignorance that were shot through our laughable semblance of "knowledge" like holes in Swiss cheese.
We weren't taught about consent, so consent must be irrelevant.
We weren't taught about homosexuality (outside of it being a thing that exists sometimes, and that's all you need to know, so shut up), hence homosexuality must be irregular.
We weren't taught about transgenderism (with the most I'd ever known of it up 'til that point being via Boys Don't Cry, The Crying Game, and Wendy Carlos, and that's about it), so being transgender must be a concept alien and unknown and indistinguishable from transvestitism.
We were taught only about heterosexual reproduction, and that STDs are very bad, so wear a condom and take birth control, and that's basically it.

(Bear in mind that this isn't even taking into account the things we were societally or parentally taught - explicitly, and implicitly - about matters of sex. Like the existence of lad's mags on the top shelf of every off-licence and supermarket, and the Page 3 girls in the red-top newspapers, conveying the message that women's bodies were inherently sexual and pornographic, and are mostly for the consumption and enjoyment of men. Or the Christian YA novellas in the school library, doling out clunkily-written lessons about the sinfulness of sex and porn, including one book I remember reading about a young boy who gets so addicted to porn, that he loses all control and attempts to rape his younger sister. (Kid-friendly! School-approved! Christian-AF!!) Or, as my mother believed, that sex is a sin, gays are bound for hell no matter what they do, lesbians are gross, and the men in starving African countries should all be forcefully castrated to stop them from making babies. (Did I mention she was a teensy bit racist, on top of the homophobia and misogyny? Well, add it to the list.))

All of these memories hail from an era shortly prior to the inescapable homogeneity of social media, smartphones, and the effortless accessibility and availability of internet porn that blew up over the past decade and change.

So I cannot even begin to imagine how much those leaps in technological and sociological progress would have affected the psyches of a generation who grew up with those advances being just as commonplace as breathing, enduring the hellishness typical of going through school, while at the same time continuing to be stymied by many of the same egregious systemic faults that underprepared, and undereducated my generation, and every generation before mine, in the arena of sex ed.

Baker states forthrightly at the start of Who's Your Teacher? that we ought to rename "Sex Education" to "Human Relations", in order to achieve a few things:
1) Remove the stigma and connotations of those two words in combination, so that people - young and old - won't feel the sting of discomfort they instil at the mere thought of what it entails.
2) Expand the scope beyond just the meat-and-potatoes, birds-and-the-bees type of information, as that approach only serves to reduce sex down to its most unhelpfully perfunctory basics. (Insert Tab A into Slot B. Insert Penis A into Vagina B. Remove and insert repeatedly until task is complete. Beep beep boop boop.) Instead of only being about how we as humans reproduce, "Human Relations" would encompass educating students in all forms of interactivity with other people, be it platonically, romantically, sexually, and all points in between.
And 3) Begin teaching the subject to kids as early as possible, so that they may learn early on how to best behave around others. Much like Maths, Science, and English are mainstay subjects that are taught throughout the entire course of a student's time in obligatory education, "Human Relations" would be a consistent, years-long lesson in the basics of humanity, gradually accruing more nuance, complexity, and eventually, aspects of sexuality, opening minds and answering questions kids would naturally have at every step of the way, to ensure there's no insidious ambiguities, judgements, or taboos inhibiting them from at least asking, so that they know what to do, and what not to do.

In a conversation I had with Ani last year, one topic we touched upon was how children are pretty much never taught at school to engage their empathy to see outside of their own perspectives, nor to better understand or articulate their own tumultuous inner feelings, which keeps kids in a state of self-possession and emotional immaturity that hinders their ability to care to learn about anything that doesn't personally affect them, and thus doesn't interest them.
(At one point I'm sure I mentioned my related thoughts as they pertained to Pixar's Inside Out, opinions of which I still stand by.)
Ani expanded upon this discussion by detailing her ideal scenario for what you could describe as an empathy educational program, which in retrospect sounds part and parcel with what Who's Your Teacher? officially bestows with the "Human Relations" moniker.

"Human Relations" as a concept may be rooted in seeking to improve sex education, but its implications stretch infinitely outwards to so many regions of the human condition that have so often been neglected by our upbringings, at home and at school.

How many future societal ills could we drastically solve if we educated our upcoming generations better than we were taught ourselves?

Teaching not just that racism exists, but teaching why it is bad, and why it's informed so much of our history and culture in ways we've barely begun to come to terms with.

Teaching not just that sex exists, but teaching about consent and communication, and that it's not just a means for procreation, and it's not just between a cis man and a cis woman, and intimacy doesn't automatically have to lead to sex, and also there are people who feel they were born in the wrong body, and sex is different from gender, and some people are non-binary, and gender is a social construct, and trans people don't have to have some kind of special public bathroom identification to satisfy the bigots who don't want to acknowledge their identity or humanity, so carry on reading Harry Potter, just ignore the author's real-life opinions, "Human Relations" didn't exist when she was in school... etcetera, etcetera.

Perhaps it's too utopian of a notion to realistically implement in a world fundamentally built on capitalism, racism, ableism, classicism, fascism, militarism, religious conservatism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and every other toxic facet of our society that hapless neoliberals, and amoral right-wingers alike benefit from, know about, but do their damndest to deny, minimise, or ignore.

Perhaps the idea of "Human Relations" sounds as though it's too difficult to implement, or too idealistic to realistically succeed in our world as we know it.

But is it too much to hope? To wonder: "what if?"
To imagine that maybe, just maybe, doing and changing something is better than doing and changing nothing?
To picture planting the seeds of an idea, that could lead to the creation of a better world?
A world that could be better than the one we know?

What if we could...?

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