How is heterosexuality encouraged in primary schools?
Primary school is for the most part an ‘asexual’ environment. Children at a young age do not experience sexual attraction. Young children are “innocent” and in need of protection from sex and sexuality (Watkins, 2000). It is argued by Adrienne Rich that heterosexuality is a political institution of violence and that there is nothing innate or free in its compulsory practice (Rich, 1983). This theory is attacked by Debbie Epstein, Professor of Education at Goldsmith’s College, London, England, who has been researching issues relating to sexuality and education since 1990.
Epstein who primarily focuses on sexuality in primary schools, disputes Rich by saying that primary schools are sites for the production and enforcement of heterosexuality and stable marriages for the purpose of procreation, love and security. Her view on “compulsory heterosexuality” is extended to educational institutions and identify places where sexuality is silenced but heterosexuality is permitted and even encouraged. An example would be imaginative play in elementary school where children idealize and act out a heterosexual family life - a boy acting as a father/man, a girl a mother/woman. There are those children however, where the normative heterosexual model does not fit in their home environment.
Teachers have fears with teaching sex education as to what their limitations of what can and cannot be taught and/or discussed. Epstein feels that a broader version of sexual education incorporated with the informal cultures and pre-existing understandings of sex and sexuality among the students would be the way to go in place of the existing sex education curriculum that is ripe with moral judgment and devoid of emotion and context (Lesnick, 2003). The pressures of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ are primary concerns in children who are seeking the construction of their gender identities. The perceptions and experiences of violence in children’s homes can portray their idea of gender and their roles (Renold, 2005).
On May 24, 1988, Section 28 of the Local Government Act came into force. The act was to refrain local authorities from promoting homosexuality. On July 20, 2000, the Conservative Party voted to have its own version of Section 28 which stated that the schools should not promote the teaching of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship, but should promote the teaching of marriage as the key building block of society. In Scotland, Section 28 known also as Section 2a was repealed, but the ballot papers proved to keep the section (Moran, 2001). Thus the question of prejudice against homosexuals became an issue accusing that there was homophobic abuse in schools because teachers were inhibited by law banning the promotion of homosexuality. Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools in England concluded that Section 28 had not caused a problem, although his investigation was not very thorough. Epstein, after interviewing students and teachers, concluded that an atmosphere of “confusion and fear” arose because the teachers did not know how to comply with it. Therefore, teachers would ignore homophobic harassment and bullying. It is the most widespread form of abuse in schools. Any child that seems ‘different’ may be subjected to it. Section 28 is concluded to protect children from homosexual propaganda and if repealed would have damaging consequences losing the message of heterosexual marriage for life as a value to promote (BBC NEWS, 2000).
The pressures of compulsory heterosexuality are within the primary school as a key cultural area for identities. Boys and girls want to be ‘normal’ (Renold). Teachers have no desire to promote any kind of sexuality, or family structure, over another (Chitty, 2000). Parents certainly would not want their young children to be taught or engage in “non-traditional” role play to make sense of them so that they would grow up with warm feelings about trans-gendered people. If a child is ‘different’ the school system is not the place to exhibit the misfortune. Bullying is not necessarily the consequence of a sexual role. Children tend to prey on others who have learning disabilities, impairments, or any different feature other than their own. A school’s disciplinary practice is responsible for the overall breakdown of the continued harassment of a child (King, 2003).
In conclusion to support Section 28, as well as the findings of heterosexuality being encouraged in primary schools, Epstein would be the researcher to further investigate the support of exemplifying heterosexuality, and properly teaching it. Her concerns delve into deeper roots of the growth of sexuality and how it is developed. The promotion of characteristics above and beyond the norm of sexuality and its common role, are encouragement to cause yet deeper complex social threats such as HIV/AIDS. Society accepts male roles as manly. Female roles are to be feminine. However, they should be carried out by the sex of the portrayer. It can be reasoned that pressure of compulsory heterosexuality in children may indeed be exposed but is encouraged within the school system through customary examples (Epstein).
- BBC NEWS News Online. Anti-gay bullies ‘given free rein’. Education. Monday, February 7, 2000. 08:53 GMT. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/631451.stm.
- Chitty, Clyde. (2000) Editorial: Intolerance, Ignorance, Bigotry: the story of Section 28, Forum. Volume 42, Number 1, 2000.
- Epstein, Debbie (with O’Flynn, Sarah and Telford, David). (2003) Silenced Sexualities in Schools and Universities. Stoke-on-Tent, United Kingdom. Trentham
- King, Marjorie. (2003) Queering the Schools, City Journal. Spring.
- Lesnick, Joy. (2003) Review: Silenced Sexualities in Schools and Universities. PENN GSE Perspectives on Urban Education. http://www.urbanedjournal.org/reviews/breview0014.htm.
- Moran, Joe. (2001) “Childhood Sexuality and Education: The Case of Section 28”, Sexualities, Volume 4, number 1, pages 73-89.
- Renold, E. (2005) Girls, Boys and Junior sexualities: Exploring Childrens’ Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary School. London: Routledge Falmer.
- Renold. (2000) “I wanna tell you a story’: the use of vignettes in qualitative research, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 3 (4) pp. 307-323.
- Rich, A. (1983) “Compulsory Heterosexualtity and Lesbian existence” In E. Abel and E.K. Abel, (Eds.) The Signs Reader: Women, Gender, and Scholarship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Wallis, Amy. (2000) Sexuality in the Primary School, Sexualities, SAGE Publications, Volume 3, No. 4. p 409-23.
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