Cornell student Hadiyah Chowdhury, who has been working with the ACT COE this summer, has a particular interest in how students from different cultures do or do not benefit from the sex education they receive in schools. Although her own high school sex ed was not evidence-based, we asked her to share her experiences of sexual health education in a small upstate city.
I was born and brought up in Corning NY, a town of approximately 40,000 people, 92% of whom are white. My parents immigrated to the United States as graduate students from Bangladesh in 1987. I grew up speaking fluent Bengali until the time came for me to go to school and I forgot all my Bengali. The specifics of my upbringing may not resonate with too many people, but I have a feeling that many people reading might be feeling a sense of familiarity. When I was 11 my family and I moved to Paris where we lived for three years before moving back to Corning. The culture shock I experienced when I moved back to the States at age 14 was confusing to say the least.
In order to get a sense of what I was feeling, it becomes necessary to understand Corning as a town. Corning is a company town, meaning that your parents either work for Corning Incorporated (a company that produces glass) or they do not. The rich and poor of Corning, New York can be described as simply as that. This very visible and obvious distinction led to an extremely stratified high school experience: you had the honor’s kids on one hand, who only took AP classes and whose parents exclusively worked for Corning, and the regents kids (or “dirts” as they were called by some) whose parents did not. Because of this distinction, I pretty much cycled through the same group of 15-20 kids in all of my classes in high school. The only exceptions to this rule were PE and health class.
My health class had a total of seven students, only three of which I had interacted with before. As was the case in most of my other classes, I was not only the only South Asian person in the class, but also the only person of color. I remember being apprehensive of the class (as many teenagers are) not only because I thought some of the discussions in the class would be uncomfortable, but also because I didn’t know how my thoughts and ideas would be perceived by others based on the color of my skin. See, the problem was not that my parents were conservative when it came to sex, the problem was that I was not. Despite my apprehension, I found health class to be a place where I could express my thoughts about relationships, sex, and health more generally in a fairly intimate way. I remember my teacher had us sit on the floor in a circle and led us into rather unstructured, facilitated discussions. This method worked well because of the small class size and the way the instructor facilitated conversation between us, even though we definitely disagreed about many of the topics she had us discuss. I never felt attacked because of my skin color or my more liberal opinions about relationships and sex. This was pleasantly surprising to me since I was uncomfortably aware that I was perceived as different by most people at school. Not a day went by that someone wouldn’t make some comment about how my liberal opinion on some topic was no doubt due to the “chocolate” color of my skin. Health class was something of a refuge from these kinds of comments.
I must give credit to the instructor: she worked at a rape crisis center and a rehabilitation center for individuals addicted to meth and cocaine before coming to my high school. She obviously had to be able to manage rooms full of people from different backgrounds. She was easily able to contact Planned Parenthood to come and do two workshops for us, one on different forms of contraception and another on abusive relationships.
I looked forward to health class every day because I knew the instructor would handle disagreement well while also allowing us to be honest about our opinions. It was only when I came to college that I realized that this was not everyone else’s sex ed experience. Many people had to deal with instructors who would slut-shame, or preach abstinence only to classrooms. Some people told me that they were terrified of engaging in sex for fear of becoming pregnant or getting an STI after going through sex ed in high school. Others told me they had no kind of sex ed at all in school. While sex ed wasn’t perfect in Corning, I at least felt that I had access to useful resources. My health class focused on the mechanics of heterosexual, penetrative sex and tended to ignore topics around gender (specifically gender-non-conforming people) and attraction. However, since I felt that I knew where to go if I had questions, I think my sex ed ended up being quite comprehensive. In addition, my instructor made it clear that sex can be really emotionally or physically painful for some people, forcing me to conceptualize my ideas about sex in a different way. This class also became the beginnings of my interest in feminism and gender theory more broadly.
So in general, I am very grateful for the way health class was conducted in my rural, upstate high school and I recognize I was very lucky to have such a good instructor. The way she handled cultural differences in the classroom was respectful and allowed me to feel very comfortable while discussing topics that weren’t necessarily very easy to talk about.
– Hadiyah Chowdhury
Hadiyah Chowdhury is studying Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies as well as Anthropology at Cornell University.