Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities: Exploring Children Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary School
reviewed by Catherine Ashcraft - November 13, 2006
Title: Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities: Exploring Children Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary School
Author(s): Emma Renold
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415314976, Pages: 206, Year: 2005
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Coz my sister knows that Im going through the stage coz my sisters two years older than me and she knows that er shes been through the stage before and she knows that Im growing up and I want to know about it She goes to the shop and just buys me a magazine like with all the stuff in and like sex pages and everything Yeah it [sex education video] hasnt got enough detail (Pete, Year 6 student, p. 140).
These are troubled times for youth sexualities. Regressive educational policies and alarmist public rhetoric permeate many a national conversation around youth, sexuality, and sex education. This is particularly true in the U.S. where, in the past decade alone, federal funding for abstinence-only programs has tripled (Dailard, 2002). Not one dime of this funding goes to comprehensive sex educationthe only programs consistently supported by two decades of scientific research (e.g. Kirby, 2001, 1999; Kirby, Short & Rugg, 1994). Meanwhile, as Petes comments above indicate, youth increasingly encounter a barrage of messages about sexuality, particularly in popular culture. As a result, we know that youth already learn a great deal about sexuality in informal contexts, and that their vulnerability in these matters most certainly follows from imperfect knowledge, not from innocence (Epstein & Johnson, 1998, p. 197).
Perhaps now more than ever, then, we need to persistently challenge the assumption that talking about sexuality will send mixed messages or somehow corrupt innocent young minds. Enter Emma Renolds book Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities: Exploring Childrens Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary Schoola particularly timely and important resource for launching such challenges. Renold carefully illuminates the oft-neglected sexuality experiences of primary school childrenoften thought to be the most sexually innocent, if not asexual. In so doing, she offers a valuable contribution both for dispelling the pervasive myth of childrens sexual innocence and for justifying a host of more progressive sex education efforts.
Throughout the book, Renold gives the reader vivid glimpses into the everyday gendered and sexual experiences of two groups of children in Year 6 in two U.K. schoolsTipton, a predominantly white, working class school with a declining enrollment of 249 students and Hirstwood, a predominantly white, middle-class school with a strong academic reputation and an increasing enrollment of 392 students. In the first two chapters, Renold provides a thorough and well-written review of recent research into youth sexualities, offering a particularly cogent summary of the problematic consequences that arise from the presumed sexual innocence of children (p. 17). Readers unfamiliar with the literature on youth, sexuality, and schooling will find the overview accessible and informative. At the same time, readers experienced with this literature will be especially interested in Renolds concept of sexual generationing as she explores the ways girls and boys are differently positioned not only by gendered discourses but also by age-appropriate sexualized discourses (p. 17).
The rest of the book draws upon rigorously collected data from Renolds year-long ethnography, which involved extensive classroom/school observations and a wealth of focus group interviews with children from both schools. The reader encounters rich and detailed excerpts from youths conversations, as Renold certainly succeeds in her attempt to allow childrens own accounts and voices to occupy centre stage (p. 14). Chapters 3 and 4 focus respectively on girls and boys performances of and talks about doing femininity and masculinity. Much of the discussion in these chapters, particularly Chapter 3 focusing on femininity, echoes the findings of previous research with older populations (e.g., girls conversations about negotiating the delicate balance between being tarty but not too tarty).
In Chapters 5 and 6, the lens shifts slightly to hone in on the pervasive heterosexual boyfriend/girlfriend culture, illustrating the everyday interactions within these cultures that serve to reinforce and perpetuate compulsory heterosexuality. Chapter 5 explores girls experiences, performances, and investment in this culture, while Chapter 6 compares and contrasts these findings with the ways in which boys take up and make sense of the boyfriend/girlfriend culture and to what effects. While the racial demographics of both schools were fairly homogenous, Renold does give significant attention to how many of these relational dynamics varied in terms of class.
Throughout these chapters, Renold usually succeeds in her attempt to offer complex analysis and examples of how girls and boys take up of multiple and competing sexual subject positions empower and disempower in a range of contradictory ways. For example, while identifying the various ways these cultures inscribe girls in subservient subject positions, she is also careful to highlight how some girls, at least momentarily, harness these cultures in ways they experience as pleasurable and powerful. Likewise, Renold also illustrates the contradictory experiences of boys within these cultures, giving careful attention to the way many boys often experience these cultures as an emotional cocktail of fear and frustration (p. 117). Here, she offers glimpses into boys conversations where they reveal their private insecurities and dissatisfaction with hegemonic masculinities. In these conversations, the boys pose challenges to dominant discourses of masculinity that typically position their sexualities as simply predatory or experienced.
As Renold herself acknowledges, boys everyday sexual cultures have been rather neglected and undertheorized. In light of this, I would have liked to hear more detail and analysis about some of the boys private conversations in contrast to their public performances and how they negotiated these dilemmas (as in the case of Pete above). Even so, the conversations here hint at the kinds of conversations youth are already havingand indeed are longing to have in more depthas well as the powerful possibilities that might arise if schooling and sexuality education were to tap into these conversations and use them as resources for developing more liberating sexualities.
Chapter 7 shifts the focus again to look more closely at the gendered and sexualized othergirls and boys who considered themselves or were considered by others as not like most girls and boys. While we get a glimpse of these childrens experiences in previous chapters, this chapter returns to and expands on these experiences. In particular, Renold reconceptualizes the process of Othering by teasing out the differences between doing other, othering, and being other. Her analysis here is particularly interesting and helpful for illustrating the interrelationship between oppression and resistance and between hegemonic and non-hegemonic gender/sexual identities and performances (p. 146). At the same time, these last three chapters point to the need to better conceptualize how individual subjects (both children and adults) might challenge heterosexism and heteronormativety while still engaging in heterosexual romantic relationships. In addition, as Renold herself observes in an interesting aside, many of the relational dynamics between children seemed to operate quite differently in contexts outside of schooling. This also points to a need to examine primary childrens experiences with sexuality across a variety of social and cultural contexts, exploring how these differ, reinforce, or intersect with experiences in school.
In the final chapter, Renold offers a succinct summary of the books key contributions or new knowledges about boys, girls, sexuality and primary schooling. In light of these knowledges, she also suggests implications for better addressing the reality of pupils sexual cultures in school. While a few of these recommendations are specific to schooling in the U.K., readers from other locations will find useful information and parallels here as well. Indeed, the very youth conversations and experiences revealed throughout the book both demand and point to ways that a variety of educators, researchers, parents, and adults might disrupt our own normalized assumptions about what constitutes age-appropriate, gender-appropriate, and sexually appropriate knowledge and behavior (p. 178). Doing so is necessary if we are to meet the real needs of youth and turn the troubling political tide currently surrounding youth sexualities.
Dailard, C. (2002). Abstinence promotion and teen family planning: The misguided drive for equal funding. Guttmacher Report on Public Policy, 5, 1-3.
Epstein, D. & Johnson, R. (1998). Schooling sexualities. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Kirby, D. (2001). Emerging answers: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy. Washington, D.C.: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
Kirby, D. (1999). Reflections on two decades of research on teen sexual behavior and pregnancy. Journal of School Health, 69(3), 89-94.
Kirby, D, Short, L, & Rugg (1994). School-based programs to reduce sexual risk behaviors: A review of effectiveness. Public Health Reports, 109(3), 339-360.