How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
In 18 years of teaching biology, teacher Tim McDaniel has never had a complaint; not a big surprise, since he teaches his 10th grade classes right out of the textbook, approved by the school district and administrators at the school.
That all changed this year, when a group of parents complained about the subject matter he was teaching. First it was promoting a political candidate by showing “An Inconvenient Truth” and asking students to talk about climate change, but his real damning offense was...get ready for it...saying the word “vagina.”
As you know, here at xoJane, we pride ourselves on being an all-vagina, all the time zone. Vagina vagina vagina! So this story caught my eye pretty much immediately. (I replied to the suggestion that we cover it with just one word, which was, you guessed it, “VAGINA.”)
TEACHING TO THE TEXT
Mr. McDaniel was only covering the assigned coursework for 10th grade biology, which includes a lesson on the human reproductive tract. Like other teachers around the nation, he’s obliged to meet core curriculum standards in order to ensure that his students are provided with the basics of an education so that they can, you know, progress through school and stand a fighting chance of doing well in college and their careers.
The textbook covers human anatomy and the reproductive tract, thus so does Mr. McDaniel, and he makes the class optional, allowing students to decline to attend if they don’t feel comfortable1.
In the course of teaching human reproductive anatomy, inevitably, some anatomical terms are going to come up; presumably people are going to be talking about vaginas, vulvae, and penises. Thanks to the woeful state of sexual education in the United States, and especially in conservative states like Idaho, where Mr. McDaniel teaches, many students may not even be aware of the basics of their own anatomy, let alone the anatomy of those born with a different genital configuration.
The purpose of classes like this is both to further a student’s education, and to demystify. Reproductive parts aren’t scary or alien, and understanding them is pretty important since it’s safe to assume that many people will be using them at some point; and even if you’re not using them, it’s still a good idea to know how the reproductive system works.
But by explaining the biology of the orgasm (in the textbook) and saying VAGINA (ALSO in the textbook), Mr. McDaniel apparently offended the sensibilities of some parents so deeply that they insisted on filing a formal complaint. Now he’s being investigated by Idaho’s professional standards commission, for teaching what was in the textbook.
The local school district says he’s unlikely to be fired over it (gee, how magnanimous), but he may get a formal letter of reprimand, which he’d be required to sign. Such letters stay on your file, become part of your professional evaluations, and can damage your career. Understandably, he’s not that enthused about the idea of signing it -- not least because he did absolutely nothing wrong. He taught his students, precisely as he is supposed to do.
His job as a biology teacher is to educate people about biology. Biology inevitably involves talking about reproduction; sexual, asexual, and otherwise. If you’re talking about reproduction, you need to talk about the mechanics of how reproduction works, including anatomical specifics. That means you’re going to be talking about vaginas, among other things, when you discuss human beings.
And students deserve to hear correct anatomical terms, not euphemisms.
THIS IS ABOUT MORE THAN A WORD
Make no mistake, though, this isn’t just about the fact that he used a “naughty word,” which is apparently what “vagina” has been reduced to in the thought processes of conservative Americans. It’s the fact that he was talking about vaginas at all. No matter how many euphemisms he cloaked it in, it still would have been viewed as unacceptable for him to teach his students about reproductive anatomy, and worse, to talk about orgasms.
Because the only thing worse than admitting that humans aren’t Barbies and Kens with smooth plastic expanses between their legs is discussing the fact that for some people, mashing reproductive bits together is actually pretty fun, and there’s a fascinating biological explanation for why some people really get off (ha ha) on it. The science behind the orgasm is absolutely a part of biology instruction, or at least it should be, but it’s even more appalling than saying some people have vaginas, apparently.
Saying that sex can be fun, as we know, is tantamount to saying people ought to, you know, do it. And sex should be taught as something dirty and gross that people don’t discuss or engage in unless they’re doing so within the context of a “traditional” marriage with the specific purpose of reproduction in mind. The be-vaginaed amongst us, in particular, should learn at as early an age as possible that what lies between their legs is foul, unpleasant, and corrupted.
Teaching students that a vagina is just a vagina destroys the mystique cultivated by a misogynistic and sex-negative society. And going one step further, to say that sexuality can be enjoyable, is an even worse crime in the eyes of conservatives; it implies that consent, agency, and control should be involved in sexuality, and suggests that sexual encounters, far from being formulaic, hasty transactions, can and should be enjoyable for everyone involved.
In addition to being gross on the grounds of contributing to hateful attitudes about sexuality, this is also troubling, as McDaniel points out, because of what it says about education. This is not the first or the last time a teacher has received complaints for teaching basic instructional material already approved by school authorities. And it’s not the first or the last time such complaints have resulted in potentially serious career repercussions.
This is having a chilling effect on teaching across the United States, as educators are reminded that every move is watched, and thanks to the ease of online organizing, it's a snap to get widespread attention for something. On the one hand, this can be great when parents want to, say, call a teacher out on homophobic comments. On the other, it can be awful when parents want to pressure teachers to conform to very narrow ideas of what is “acceptable” in the classroom, imposing religious values on class material.
That’s bad news for teachers, who have to look over their shoulders constantly to see if they’re pissing parents off with subject matter that should be fairly uncontroversial, like the age of the planet, sexual education, or the history of civil rights. Working under those conditions creates a lot of strain, and drives a lot of great teachers out of the classroom.
Parents who want to opt out of state-approved, basic instructional curricula are more than welcome to do so -- but they shouldn’t be allowed to impose their values on others by complaining about it when it comes up in class. Nor should they be allowed to dictate the very shape of that curricula by pressuring officials to fundamentally change standards, slashing sexual education from schools, attempting to force teachers to teach Creationism alongside science in biology classrooms, and more.
Vaginas deserve to be free: how can we hope to achieve anything resembling social equality if a high school biology teacher can’t even talk about human reproductive anatomy without causing an uproar?
1. Though let’s face it, most red-blooded 10th graders are going to make a point of showing up for this one. Return