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You’re about to embark on an ethics course about sex designed to help students explore sex and sexuality from an ethical perspective.  This course is not like your health sexuality education class or a relationships class you might have had.  It will not aim to teach you how to make better decisions for yourself, but rather how to think about sex from an ethics perspective and how to make better decisions for others and for society.  Sex isn’t just about you and what you do or don’t do.  Sex is a human activity that has an impact on relationships and the world.  This is a class about rights and wrongs.

That being said, this class won’t always tell you what’s right and wrong.  Through reading philosophy, examining dilemmas teens might encounter, thinking about the other person, and applying reasoning and compassion, you will be asked to think through what’s right and wrong.  But, if you think this means that you can simply “decide for yourself what’s right and wrong because it’s all a matter of opinion”, you are not quite understanding what we mean.


Do we have a right to judge others?

Is it all a matter of opinion?  Yes and no.  You will reach ethical opinions and make ethical statements.  You will make judgments about acts and other people and say “that’s wrong” or “I think that’s not quite right.”  Do you have a right to judge others and their acts?  You do.

Those who say that we don’t have a right to judge others mean two things: 1. That no one has a right to judge another person because we haven’t lived in that person’s shoes and circumstances; 2. That we don’t have a right to judge another person because morality comes from culture and we do not have a right to say which culture is right or wrong because every culture has different practices that are right for that culture; or 3. Live and let live; don’t interfere with other people’s choices for themselves.

Let’s address these claims:

  1. Yes, we should always imagine what it is like to be in another person’s shoes and what circumstances compelled that person to act the way he or she did.  This is EMPATHIC reasoning and also PARTICULARISTIC in that it looks at the particular situation in which a decision was made.  BUT, we don’t want a morality in which every act can be explained away based on a particular situation, right?  Or do we?
  2. Morality certainly does come from culture and different cultures differ with regard to what is right and wrong.  However, many theorists agree that there are some UNIVERSALS.  Anthropologist Richard Shweder and scholars Manamohan Mahapatra and Joan Miller (1987) write that all cultures seem to agree on an idea of JUSTICE, and an idea of NO HARM.  They note that individuals may disagree on what is just and what creates harm, but they agree that when you treat a person unjustly or harm another, you may be acting immorally.
  3. If you “live and let live” you may not be examining the behaviors of others in an ethical light with regard to the harm their behaviors may bring to others and to society.  Schools today, for example, are trying to empower bystanders to stick up for those getting bullied and not just stand by and watch.  While everyone doesn’t need to be a hero, doesn’t everyone need to stand up against injustice and harm when they see it?  Sometimes it’s difficult to see the harm in individual actions.  For example, when we throw away a plastic bottle instead of recycling it, we can see that as one small act and assume that not recycling that one bottle will not make one bit of difference in the grand scheme of things.  But ethical practice means exploring the small behaviors in our lives that may contribute to an overall impact on society.  This curriculum encourages students to reflect on this.  To pick an example from the world of sex and sexuality, a recording artist may come out with a song that’s particularly demeaning to gays, women, or a minority group.  While it’s up to the individual whether or not he or she listens to this song and buys the CD, it also seems like it would be a good idea to think through the idea that when we contribute to small harms, we may be contributing to big harms.  It might also be good to consider the injustice surrounding who gets to make CDs and put their ideas out there, who gets supported, and the reasons why certain artists and recording groups have a harder time than others.
  4.  Consider a 4th reason why we may not want to judge in the classroom.  We may not want someone else to feel bad.  People sometimes feel bad when others argue with them or disagree or say that their thinking is wrong.  BUT, this may just mean that we need to do this carefully rather than not at all.

Think about…

  • When is it good to judge the behavior of others?
  • If at some time it is good to judge others, how should we do it?
  • What are some principles to follow that would lead to the kind of judging we would want?

We not only need to decide on principles, but also argue WHY we have chosen each principle.  Here are some ideas:

  • Greater good for the greatest number
  • Causes less pain
  • It’s fairer
  • There are certain rights that each individual has
  • Golden rule
  • Makes people happy
  • Out of respect for persons and their rights
  • It is compassionate and caring
  • It causes less harm
  • Can you think of any others?

 

HOW DO WE DISAGREE? With RESPECT

We need to disagree respectfully and not simply base our disagreements on our backgrounds or our feelings.

HOW ARE WE ABLE TO DISAGREE (in a world where everyone is entitled to his or her opinion)?   Through JUSTIFICATION

We need to justify our ethical viewpoints.  Throughout this course, your teacher won’t just ask for your opinion, but will ask you to justify it; that is, to support it with facts AND argumentation.

THE ETHICAL PERSPECTIVE

Curtler (2004) argues that the ethical perspective involves:

  1. A CONCERN FOR THE CONSEQUENCES OF ONE’S ACTIONS
  2. NEUTRALITY AS FAR AS THAT IS POSSIBLE
  3. IMAGINATION (which enables us to put ourselves in the position of a victim of someone’s moral wrongdoing)

Exercise:  Setting the Rules of the Classroom

A series of exercises will help you establish your rules for discussion as a class.  Beyond justifying your arguments, when you judge, you need to do so by justifying your position so that someone might argue against it, but also do it in a way that won’t hurt other people in the classroom.  To imagine how someone might be hurt, let’s take a moment and drop down the “VEIL OF IGNORANCE” (Rawls, 1971).

John Rawls (1921 – 2002) was an American philosopher who was a leading figure in moral and political philosophy.  He asked what is the best method in which to decide on the ground rules for a JUST society?  First they must assume “the original position.” According to Rawls, the original position is an impartial and fair point of view that people should adopt when they are thinking about theories of justice.  People in the original position are free, equal, and committed advocates of justice.  The most important part about the original position is what Rawls called the “the veil of ignorance.” In a thought experiment, Rawls said picture this:  You are about to enter a new society… there is a veil down (a big theatre curtain), and you are about to see the society you are going to live in!!!  You know it will have politics, and an economy, and families, etc.  And you know it will have RULES to protect the people in society.  But you are ignorant (UNKNOWING) with regard to who you are going to be in society.

Imagine you are behind a curtain and when you step into the classroom you will not know if you will be Black, White, Latino, or Asian American, whether you’ll be an immigrant or born here, whether you are able-bodied or have a disability, whether you are straight, gay, questioning, or transgender, whether you are very experienced sexually or completely inexperienced, whether you are from a very religious family or a very liberal one, whether you have been sexually abused or raped in your past or whether you have escaped this kind of trauma, whether you’ve been bullied or not, or whether you are poor or rich.  Imagine each of these and think about what kind of rule YOU would want for your protection if you were to arrive into the classroom with this feature of your identity.

BEGIN HERE… And skip around as you like.  When your rules start to sound alike for each situation, you can jump to the end and just come up with three general rules.

YOUR RULES

If you were __________________ you would want there to be a rule that says:

If you had a disability, the rule you would want to have in the classroom that would protect you would be:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you were African American:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you were gay:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you had been sexually abused as a child:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If someone you care about has worked as a prostitute:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you were Asian American:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you came from a very strictly religious family:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you came from a liberal family:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you had been raped:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you were transgender:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you had been bullied:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you were Jewish:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you were questioning your sexuality:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you had been hurt recently by a partner:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you have low self-esteem:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

If you INVENT YOUR OWN:

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

GENERAL RULES THAT THESE MIGHT BOIL DOWN TO?

1. ________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

2. ________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 

3. ________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

 


Discussion: Safety and Harm

What has made you feel unsafe in a classroom? Participating?  Handing in work?  Talking about yourself?  Expressing your views?

What have been the responses from other people that have made you feel unsafe?  From teachers?  From peers?


Discussion: Class Agreement

What should we do about controversial topics?

 

How do we talk about other people we know or people in school who are outside of the class?  Should we?  Maybe we don’t want to?

 

How do we make every member of the class feel safe?

 

What is our agreement about confidentiality?  How do we address this issue when it comes up?

 

How do we respond to people if they share something personal?  How do we make sure no one feels forced to share more than they are comfortable with?

 

How do we disagree?

 

Who has the power in the classroom and how does that change?

 

What will we do if someone violates the agreement?

 

What will we do if someone gets hurt?

 

How do we be inclusive?

 

How do we convey respect?

 

What’s the difference between disagreeing and disrespecting?

 

Can one speak with emotion, disagree, and still be respectful?

 


Exercise: On Character

What do people mean when they talk about one’s character vs. one’s personality?  Can people with all sorts of personalities have good character? And what does it mean?

Here are some of the virtues that character education writers think people of good character might have:

Honesty

Courage

Responsibility

Humility

Hope

Loyalty

Generosity

 

Can you come up with your own list?

A person of good character…

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

Is there a way to incorporate these into our class agreement?


Discussion and Exercise:

Educating Citizens for Democracy: What Does That Have to Do with Sex Ed?

Scholars Evonne Hedgepeth and Joan Helmich (1996) outline Thomas Jefferson’s and John Dewey’s views of what kids might need to be able to participate in a democracy:

  1. Knowledge of how a democracy works
  2. Understanding one’s rights and responsibilities
  3. Ability to think critically about ideas, sources of information, and actions
  4. Ability to communicate views in a responsible, constructive way
  5. Understanding of respect and an empathy for different points of views and values
  6. Ability to appreciate the art of compromise and the concept of balance of power
  7. Commitment to be a lifelong learner, searching out information to keep one informed in order to make responsible decisions

Exercise: Being a Citizen

What would it mean to be a democratic citizen when it comes to this class?  Can you take each of the views above and apply it to how we might want to run our classroom so that it inspires us all to be good democratic citizens? What would we need to do to fulfill each of these?

1.

 

 

2.

 

 

3.

 

 

4.

 

 

5.

 

 

6.

 

 

7.

 

 

 

Here are some ideas that others have offered:

  • Kids and teachers together agree to rights and responsibilities in the class
  • The teacher, too, has rights and responsibilities
  • The class builds in a “self-check” (an honest evaluation) to see if their system is working
  • Participants learn to effectively communicate and resolve conflicts as they go along

Democracy and Sex

What are some values and rules of democracy that might extend to the world of sexual relationships?

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________


Discussion: Language We Use

Language is so much more than simply one of several methods of communicating our thoughts and feelings. In fact, many theorists, philosophers, and scholars tell us how language helps to shape, structure, and provide meaning to our perceptions, thoughts, and experiences. One such philosopher, Whorf, describes language as, “not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity…We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community, and is codified in the patterns of our language” (1956, pp. 212-213).

So what does this mean?  It means that our choice of words influences what we think is valuable and relevant and how that information will be organized cognitively and through our senses.

It seems we take our words for granted!  So let’s talk…about talking…about sex.  This is particularly important because in this course, you will be talking, hopefully, about sex.

*A note here: The word “sex” can mean different things to different people.  In this curriculum, when we refer to “sex,” we are often referring to penis-in-vagina intercourse.  We sometimes use the phrase “other sexual activity” to refer to other things, such as oral sex and anal sex.  This means that throughout the curriculum, we are assuming “sex” to take place between a man and a woman, but we want to note here that that is not always the case.  Different kinds of “sex” happen between two men, between two women, among people of other genders, among multiple partners or by oneself, and our use of language here does not always reflect that fact.  We invite you to clarify or ask questions throughout to make this experience more inclusive of homosexual and other sexual activity.  This is an example of how language shapes perceptions and experiences, “normalizing” heterosexuality by assuming a uniform definition of a word when, in reality, the word “sex” has multiple possible meanings.

Talking about sex can be hard.  It can be uncomfortable, fun, funny, scary, and exciting; sometimes all at the same time. Depending on who we are talking to, when, and in what context, the subject can take on more or less of these qualities. A conversation with a parent, for example, is often drastically different than a conversation with a friend.  The words used to describe sex and sexuality may be different, making the topic of discussion more or less serious, and our willingness to speak about it varies with who we’re talking to and in what situation.

Why is this the case?  How do words lessen or increase the ease or difficulty we encounter in conversations about sex?  How is it that the words we use with our parents can differ so greatly from the words we use with friends?

Brainstorm a list of sex specific terms or expressions that you might use with friends, but not with your parents.

____________________________

____________________________

____________________________

____________________________

____________________________

____________________________

____________________________

____________________________

____________________________


Exercise on Language:

Divide into small groups and try to find categories or patterns among the terms for sex that you found/came up with.

What messages do these terms send?  How do we find these terms useful, or not?  Or maybe the better question is, where are they useful and with whom?

________________________________________________

________________________________________________

________________________________________________

________________________________________________

 

Now take a second look at your list of terms.  Which can be identified as “slang”?  What do you think is the purpose of slang?  Why is slang something we use more frequently with friends than parents?

________________________________________________

________________________________________________

________________________________________________

________________________________________________

 

Consider: Language is constantly changing and evolving.  Slang exemplifies this.  In our attempts to connect with others, and to avoid the discomfort some words bring, we change them up; we make them funny, disguise them as something else, or reinvent them entirely.  Most of the time, it seems the words targeted are more proper, formal, or “serious.”  For example, someone may prefer to describe their crush as “hot” as opposed to “exceptionally attractive,” or “particularly physically appealing.”  Our slang serves to separate us from other groups; culturally, developmentally, and socially.  It furthers our ease and ability to discuss and explore difficult or complicated subjects while also re-enforcing our in-group identity.

Slang can be harmless, and allow for greater ease in conversation.  It can also be harmful, depending on how the words are constructed and the images associated.  For example, are there slang words, terms, or expressions in your list that objectify or demean?  Are some more or less explicit or crude?  Are there certain groups or cultures in which explicit slang is more prevalent?  Why is this so and how does it differentiate us subculturally?

Let’s talk about context.  How do we talk about sex in the moment with our partner?  With friends?  In music and the media?  Why does it vary?  Perhaps there are many pieces to this puzzle.  Respect, familiarity, comfort, and the influence of gender may be a few.  Maybe there isn’t enough language that makes up “middle words,” or language that can’t be classified as either “formal” or “slang.”  What do you think?

Example: Jennifer and Brian have been dating for a while now, and have recently started having sex.  On this particular Saturday night, while watching a movie, the couple starts to “make-out.”  Some time goes by, “things” escalate, and Jennifer stops Brian:

J: Can we “do it”?

B: What do you mean?

J: Do you “have something”?

B: Oh yeah, I bought “some” yesterday.

The words in quotes could be put into multiple other contexts and consequently mean entirely differently things.  In fact, that entire exchange could have been placed in an entirely different situation and still make sense.  So where have our words gone, so to speak?

Here are some things to think about:

  • Developmental stage of the relationship; experience vs. non-object gains meaning after its usage.
  • Safety and self-preservation—is the word “condom” too straightforward?  Presumptuous?
  • Does familiarity bring with it the ability to use more complex words?  How is language related to the developmental trajectory of the relationship?
  • Are vague words more seductive?  Less awkward than all that comes to mind with the literal “condom.”  Disguise poses a playful obstacle to the pursuer, a suggestive challenge.
  • In a medical situation, the euphemism refers to something potentially dangerous yet highly pleasurable; in a sexual situation, it refers to something unpleasant yet highly effective in preventing danger.  The difference is subtle but crucial: While each seeks to disguise certain unappealing qualities, one usage goes a step further—it feigns innocence, giving off a faint, seductive ring of irony.

Reading:  Alexis de Tocqueville, from Democracy in America

Creation of machine-readable version: Electronic edition deposited and marked-up by ASGRP, the American Studies Program at the University of Virginia, June 1, 1997.  Freely available for non-commercial use provided that this header is included in its entirety with any copy distributed.  From the Henry Reeve Translation, revised and corrected, 1899.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) was a French historian in the 1800s who traveled to the United States to observe democracy in action. He was very impressed with our new nation but had a few criticisms one of which he called the Tyranny of the Majority.

The Tyranny of the Majority

“I hold it to be an impious and detestable maxim that, politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything; and yet I have asserted that all authority originates in the will of the majority. Am I, then, in contradiction with myself?

A general law, which bears the name of justice, has been made and sanctioned, not only by a majority of this or that people, but by a majority of mankind. The rights of every people are therefore confined within the limits of what is just. A nation may be considered as a jury which is empowered to represent society at large and to apply justice, which is its law. Ought such a jury, which represents society, to have more power than the society itself whose laws it executes?

When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right of the majority to command, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind. Some have not feared to assert that a people can never outstep the boundaries of justice and reason in those affairs which are peculiarly its own; and that consequently full power may be given to the majority by which it is represented. But this is the language of a slave.

A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.

I do not think that, for the sake of preserving liberty, it is possible to combine several principles in the same government so as really to oppose them to one another. The form of government that is usually termed mixed has always appeared to me a mere chimera. Accurately speaking, there is no such thing as a mixed government in the sense usually given to that word, because in all communities some one principle of action may be discovered which preponderates over the others. England in the last century, which has been especially cited as an example of this sort of government, was essentially an aristocratic state, although it comprised some great elements of democracy; for the laws and customs of the country were such that the aristocracy could not but preponderate in the long run and direct public affairs according to its own will. The error arose from seeing the interests of the nobles perpetually contending with those of the people, without considering the issue of the contest, which was really the important point. When a community actually has a mixed government–that is to say, when it is equally divided between adverse principles–it must either experience a revolution or fall into anarchy.

I am therefore of the opinion that social power superior to all others must always be placed somewhere; but I think that liberty is endangered when this power finds no obstacle which can retard its course and give it time to moderate its own vehemence.

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion. God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power. There is no power on earth so worthy of honor in itself or clothed with rights so sacred that I would admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny, and I seek to live elsewhere, under other laws.

In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny. An individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority and implicitly obeys it; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority and serves as a passive tool in its hands. The public force consists of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain states even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the measure of which you complain, you must submit to it as well as you can.

If, on the other hand, a legislative power could be so constituted as to represent the majority without necessarily being the slave of its passions, an executive so as to retain a proper share of authority, and a judiciary so as to remain independent of the other two powers, a government would be formed which would still be democratic while incurring scarcely any risk of tyranny.

I do not say that there is a frequent use of tyranny in America at the present day; but I maintain that there is no sure barrier against it, and that the causes which mitigate the government there are to be found in the circumstances and the manners of the country more than in its laws.”


Activity: How are we Going to Talk to One Another?

Perhaps for this important question, we should consider what de Tocqueville, writing about his visit to America from France, calls the “Tyranny of the Majority.”  What does he mean by that?  What is the problem with the democratic procedure of voting?  What is the problem with majority rule?  Why and when might we not want majority rule?

Decision by consensus has a long tradition in Quaker Meetings.  Is it possible for a class to come to a consensus?  Let’s try an exercise with consensus.

  1. First decide as a class: What does consensus means?  It means more than just everyone coming to an agreement, doesn’t it?  In groups, discuss what you will do to invite minority opinions and honor them towards consensus.  How long do you think it will take to arrive at a consensus?  Why is consensus important?  In terms of fairness?  In terms of respect?  In terms of harm?
  2. Next, individually write down on a note card in large block letters any word that could possibly come up in a class talking about sex.  The teacher will read them out loud.
  3. Notice which ones you laugh at when your teacher reads them out loud.  Stop at the funny ones and talk about why you’re laughing.

 

On the board, the teacher will put up three columns:

FIND A SUBSTITUTE     |    DEPENDS ON THE CONTEXT     |    OK

As a class, place each word in a column based on what the majority of the class decides by voting.  The class will vote on each word.  After the voting is done, divide the class into groups of three and have them argue a minority opinion about each of the words.  Then come together as a class and vote again.  (Note: If there is full consensus on where a word should be placed, you do not need to vote on that word again.)

There will be some conflict over particular words.  The class then must decide how they might go about gaining consensus in an ethical way.

If the class cannot come to a consensus, they can decide to talk again during the next class period and should be encouraged to use the situation as an opportunity to work together, compromise, and find a solution that everyone deems acceptable.


References:

Curtler, H. M. (2004).  Ethical argument: Critical thinking in ethics.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

De Tocqueville, A. (n.d.).  Unlimited power of the majority in the United States and its consequences.  In H. Reeve (Trans.), Democracy in America (Vol. 1).  Retrieved from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/detoc/1_CH15.HTM (Original work published 1899).

Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996).  Teaching about sexuality and HIV: Principles and methods for effective education.  New York, NY: New York University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971).  Theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schweder, R. A., Mahapatra, M., & Miller, J. G. (1987).  Culture and moral development.  In J. Kagan and S. Lamb (Eds.), The emergence of morality in young children (pp. 1-83).  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


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