The Key to Sex Ed? Helping Youths Smash Gender Stereotypes

A video project by teens, for teens, tackles the 'gender box' and sexual health

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

We tell teens to dream bigand then conveniently forget to give them the knowledge and skills they need to escape traditional expectations for men and women. But thanks to the "Gender Box," a video collaboration between Planned Parenthood Los Angeles and imMEDIAte Justice, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that teaches teen girls filmmaking skills to "inspire a new, youth-driven media conversation about sex, gender, love, and relationships," youths are learning how to claim their right to be themselves.

The "gender box" concept, says Sylvia Raskin, a sexuality education initiative trainer for Planned Parenthood L.A., "is a way of talking about gender role expectations." The framework is a staple of its classroom lessons and peer advocate trainings. 

During gender box workshops, says Raskin, participants regularly associate words such as "promiscuous," "sexy," and "marriage" with femininity. Meanwhile, words like "provider," "dominant," and "muscular" are tied to masculinity. Helping youths learn that gender roles are a construct that can be questioned, challenged, and changed is at the core of the workshops.

The partnership with imMEDIAte Justice happened because the peer advocates wanted to "visually show how people, friends, classmates, partnersand even ourselvescreate and maintain the gender boxes," says Raskin.

"It takes a lot of courage for anyone to look at themselves and truthfully examine their gender and sexuality," says imMEDIAte Justice founder Tani Ikeda. "It can be dangerous to express our gender identity in a society that punishes and outlaws desiring differently." 

These static expectations for men and women in our society impede teens' ability to make smart decisions about sexual health and relationships. A 2009 report from the National Council on Gender's TrueChild project found that women who internalize traditional definitions of femininity, says Raskin, "are less likely to be able to or know how to negotiate condom use, more likely to have early and/or unplanned pregnancies, more likely to objectify their bodies and lose touch with their own sexual needs, and more likely to engage in unwanted sexual practices to please a male partner."

As for men, says Raskin, those who buy into accepted ideals about masculinity are "more likely to believe that female insubordination justifies violence, engage in partner abuse or sexual coercion, equate illness with weakness, and postpone seeking medical advice."

The consequences of all this are evident when you look at HIV infection rates. One in four new HIV cases is a youth between the ages of 13 and 24. And 60,000 youths don't even know they're infected. Those who internalize gender fallacies—such as that getting tested means you're promiscuous or that using a condom isn't macho—are being set up for disaster.

Creating the videos had a profound effect on the youth participants.

"I used to believe that only women fell victim to these gender roles," says 18-year-old Dani, "but after talking to the members of my peer advocate group I realized that boys and men are also pressured to embody specific qualities" and are "expected to be masculine and hide all emotions."

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