[Seniors in the SOAN department have the opportunity of pursuing a field-based research project that culminates in a senior thesis. I’ve asked our seniors to briefly describe the research project they are beginning to configure for fieldwork in the remainder of our academic year.]
When I think about how I learned about sex and communication, there are specific moments and conversations that stick out to me – moments that shaped the way I thought, what I perceived as normal, and my understanding of where I stood in relation to this “normal.” I find this process – the collection of moments and stories and facts that make up a person’s understanding of sex, their body, and their sexuality – particularly intriguing because of the way it influences how people engage in sexual interactions. As a member of Peer Allies, a group of twenty students on campus who focus on sexual assault support, prevention, and education, I spend a lot of my time working to understand why sexual assault happens. The longer I’ve been involved, the more I’ve come to realize that although we cannot do anything to ensure we, or someone we love, will not be sexually assaulted, we can take small steps to change our culture that allows it to happen so frequently and so normally. In order to change this culture, I believe we need to be shifting the way we learn about and talk about sex and communication. In American culture, this is particularly complicated, as we live in a society that is made up of many ethnicities, religions, and cultures, yet we often privilege only a small portion of these – especially throughout our public education systems.
For my senior thesis, I plan to investigate how the process of learning about sex and communication for people of different cultural identities (within American society) affects their conceptions of consent. How do we learn to engage in sexual interactions, and perhaps more important, how do we learn to communicate during them? How does this affect the quality and safety of these interactions? What roles do power and privilege play? I want to look into the intersection of formal and informal avenues of the learning process by comparing the education high school students receive in school to what they are receiving at home, and specifically how that differs across cultural identities. Ultimately, how does this process affect people’s conception of consent?
For this project, I will be focusing on how high school students learn about sex here in Tacoma. Although Washington state law requires HIV prevention education, as well as age-appropriate, “medically accurate sexual health education” (Washington State Learning Standards), and just this year implemented new health standards guidelines that include education surrounding gender identity, healthy relationships, and consent, districts are still able to interpret and implement the guidelines however they feel is appropriate. This means that the quality and depth of sex education greatly varies across the state. I will focus my time interviewing high school students, primarily 16-18 years old, in the Tacoma Public School system. Throughout this process, I will be conducting semi-structured interviews, as well as using visual methodology to map out how they learned about their bodies, sex, sexuality, and consent. I plan to sit in on sex education classes in various high schools across Tacoma whenever I’m allowed, as well as analyze the sex education materials used in these classes.