Vagina Is an ‘Inappropriate’ Word, and Other Ridiculous Tales from the World of Sex Ed


Last week, a science teacher in Idaho found himself under investigation for the language he used in a class on reproductive biology. What outrageous thing did he say? It wasn’t the F word; it was the V word. That’s right, in explaining the human reproductive system to a room full of high school sophomores, he used the word vagina. And he got in trouble for it. In reality, it would have been shocking if he hadn’t said the word, given that it is a medically accurate term for a body part that plays an important role in the reproductive process. However, even though it is 2013 and references to sex are everywhere, sex education teachers across the country continue to get in trouble for the topics they cover, the information they teach, and the language they use.

In the most current controversy, science teacher Tim McDaniel is being investigated for saying the word vagina, teaching sex ed in a science class, talking about birth control, using inappropriate humor, and showing a video clip that depicted genital herpes. (The complaint also suggests that he shared confidential student information with people other than the students’ parents, but that is an entirely different issue.)

McDaniel has been teaching about vaginas—and the rest of the human reproductive system—at a Dietrich, Idaho, school for 17 years. He teaches this part of the curriculum in science class because the health teacher at the school is too uncomfortable with the material and won’t teach it. McDaniel says that he teaches right out of the textbook without adding anything and that this is the first time in nearly two decades that anyone has complained.

For their part, the parents asked for more warning before the class is taught so that they can exercise their right to opt out of the class on behalf of their children. McDaniel says that he gives kids that option but that he thinks they need this information. “It’s important to teach this to kids,” he told the Times-News. “Hopefully, the students are being abstinent but most of these students will be getting married a year or two after graduation and they need to know about this.”

School administrators say that it is unlikely he could be fired over this incident, but he might get a letter of admonishment in his file.

McDaniel is also being investigated for showing Al Gore’s film on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, to students in his science class.

While I don’t know how often science teachers get in trouble for talking about climate change, teachers around the country, whether they specialize in health or science or other areas, frequently get in trouble for what they say about sex.

At the end of the 2011-12 school year, for example, a principal at Onalaska Elementary School in Washington state caused controversy when she answered questions during a lesson on HIV and AIDS. Reportedly, a student asked about other forms of sexual activity (presumably other than vaginal intercourse), so the principal explained oral and anal sex.   Onalaska superintendent Scott Fentor defended the principal for sticking to the curriculum and only giving factual information. As he told Q13 Fox News, “It’s pretty difficult to talk about STDs or sexually transmitted diseases without explaining what that is, or how it’s transmitted.”

A handful of outraged parents, however, felt quite differently. They claimed that the discussion included graphic accounts of oral sex acts and that the principal compared oral sex to licking a lollipop. The parents spoke to the media, with one father calling himself a “pissed off cowboy” on Q13. “Basically, how I feel is, it’s just the same as raping somebody, but you’re raping their innocence instead of their physical being,” he said.

Parents of students from the Cy Fair Independent School District in Houston were also outraged by what they say was a graphic lecture on sex education. This time the parents focused not on what the teacher said, but on videos that had been approved as part of a recent curriculum overhaul. One video depicted talking cartoon condoms, while another showed scenes of young people kissing on a couch and discussing the need to use condoms. The videos also included condom demonstrations.

In an interview with the local ABC affiliate, one parent called the video “shocking” and said she was disturbed by the concepts she is now forced to discuss with her 12-year-old daughter. Another said, “I don’t need the school district showing my kid how to put on condoms.” A third called it “soft porn.”

Some parents in the district disagreed, however, telling the affiliate that this information is necessary because 12- and 13-year-olds can and do get pregnant. Administrators reminded the outraged parents that the curriculum had been approved by a committee of parents, teachers, and other community members before being approved by the entire school board.

Prior approval is at least part of the issue in a controversy that started last November in Michigan. Susan Johnson, a middle school performing arts teacher in South Lyon, was suspended for two days without pay for playing a music video in class that supported same-sex marriage. The video for the song “Same Love” by rapper Ben Macklemore is about a gay man facing homophobia. A student asked Johnson if the students could view the video in class. She asked him if it was violent or included profanity, and when he said no she gave him the go ahead.

The music video became controversial after at least one student complained. Administrators said the video was inappropriate because of its use of the word “faggot” and its political and religious references. Administrators were also upset that the teacher did not have the video approved ahead of time as she should have, and that the video’s subject was not related to what the class was discussing that day.

In this case, however, parents took the teacher’s side. A group of parents gathered 180 signatures in support of the teacher and brought them to a school board meeting. Administrators ultimately decided to restore her pay for those two days.

Each of these controversies played out differently, but they share some common themes. First, talking about sex in school, even with the prior approval of a school board, can quickly become controversial. Though controversies over medically accurate terms for body parts, like vagina, are not common, the other topics—condoms, oral sex, anal sex, and same-sex relationships—may be the third rail of sex education, as they are frequently at the center of debates.

Whether parents want to believe it or not, these are things kids really need to know about. If a teacher or a sex ed video doesn’t teach a child how to put on a condom, who will? And if nobody does, how can we make sure kids will be protected when they start having sex, whether that’s in high school, in college, or later.

It may not be a teacher’s place to give a how-to on oral or anal sex, but that is not what sex education classes typically focus on. More importantly, these are behaviors that many teens engage in, and as such students need to learn about them and learn how to make them safer.

As for same-sex relationships, those are being talked about everywhere—on television shows, in sports news coverage, and in the Supreme Court—so it’s absurd to think students can’t have important discussions about the issue in school.

The real problem is that for every controversy that makes the news, there are probably two or three more that we don’t hear about. Worse, there are probably five or ten incidents that never even happen because a teacher sees the writing on the wall and censors him or herself before giving students potentially controversial information.

Much of this could be solved with better communication and training all around. Many of the teachers who are assigned to teach sex ed classes have had no formal training on the subject, leaving them unprepared and uncomfortable. (Think about the health teacher in Idaho who refused to even touch the subject.) Giving teachers better training about topics related to sexuality, proven ways to approach these topics, and the specific policies of the school district might help prevent controversies without educators having to censor themselves.

Equally as important, however, is communication with parents so they can better understand the reasons why educators need to tackle these topics. Then it’d be less likely that they’d be shocked when their middle schooler comes home having learned about vaginas.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Margaret-Whitestone/100001682409207 Margaret Whitestone

    So it’s OK for Republicans to regulate the hell out of it, but nobody can actually say the word? WTF?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=807845190 Cheryl Hopper

    This is freaking ridiculous. Totally ridiculous. I am absolutely floored he’d be in trouble for using ‘vagina’. It’s a legitimate medical term for an organ in the female body! What the heck? I can totally believe everything else, as ridiculous as it all is. If the health teacher isn’t comfortable talking about sex ed, they should find another health teacher.