Let’s Talk About Sex (Ed)
I was scarred in the fifth grade.
One fine and unassuming day, I walked to class and took my usual seat. The bell rang, we said the pledge of allegiance, and heard some announcements before an unidentified lady that I hadn’t noticed standing in front of the room, explained that our class would be splitting up by boys and girls that day for a special activity.
So, all of the girls in my class walked on over to the room next-door and sat down in a circle. The anonymous woman then began passing out pink pamphlets that had big words on it like “menstruation,” words that I had never heard or read in my life. As I was flipping this confusing piece of paper back and forth, the woman began talking about our “changing bodies” and explained that each month we would get a “special” gift from Mother Nature.
As she kept going on in incredibly vague terms, I zoned out. That was, until she said there would be blood every month. That’s when I started freaking out.
Before this moment, I had never even heard the word “period” used outside of the context of grammar rules. Now, I was having a meltdown. This strange woman had just delivered the heaviest life-sentence of my young life - my body was going to self-destruct each month and there was nothing I could do about it. The worst part was that what I thought was a bag of goodies, had no goodies - inside the woman’s bag contained an industrial-sized maxi pad and a scary cardboard-applicator tampon. While looking back now I can laugh at my clueless young self. As an about-to-be-college-graduate, I find this situation more concerning than humorous. This moment was so scarring that 11 years later, I actually remember how terrified I felt. Nobody explained to me what was actually going on and that I was not going to bleed to death. This experience and others have made me realize that the state of our American public school sexual education is bad. It’s really bad. And there is so much lost because we aren’t given a proper education in “Body and Sex 101” in a timely and balanced fashion.
In public high school, sex ed did not seem to improve. Through it all, I was basically taught that sex was just a bad thing. If you had sex, you’d get strange diseases and die. But if you had sex and were married, it was somehow OK and all of the horrifying risks we were learning about would magically disappear. Not once did I ever learn about really important topics like how to know when you’re ready to have sex or how to receive consent from a partner. Not once did we discuss how sex as an informed adult could be a good, healthy and pleasurable part of life.
In 2009, 46 percent of high school students reported having sexual intercourse. If about half of the high school student population is sexually active, why are we not taking this problem of misinformation more seriously? Studies show that sexual activity increases with grade level while condom use decreases, with less than 22 percent of all grades using a condom the last time they had intercourse. Why doesn’t this alarm us? The reality is that young people are having sex and have no idea how to do it safely or talk about it healthily with their partners.
Feeling troubled, I sought out the insights of Dr. Lisa Speidel, a Women, Gender and Sexuality professor who submitted a proposal to teach a course this summer called “Human Sexuality.” Dr. Speidel shared her thoughts on the state of the public sex ed system, leaving me with these five takeaways.
1. Sex ed should be comprehensive.
Many parents fear that total and complete sex ed will encourage their children to experiment around. What we find with life in general, is that the more informed people are, the better decisions they make. In countries like the Netherlands where curriculums are more open about promoting full sexual health, the rate of teen pregnancy and abortion are far lower than those in the United States. Students in the Netherlands report using contraception regularly and understand how to take precautions against STDs. While abstinence can be great as a concept to wait, it should always be chosen as an informed decision. Without comprehensive education, students will turn to other less reliable sources such as the Internet, and more dangerously, pornography, which distorts what healthy, consensual and enjoyable sex is like.
2. Build a safe environment.
Often times, kids and teens do want to talk about sex. That being said, it is critically important to create an environment where you deal with awkwardness directly and allow for both some of the joking and some of the seriousness. Building community in the classroom is essential as genuine learning comes from genuinely safe environments.
3. Train educators to build safe environments.
Many parents struggle with having conversations about sex, so instructors in schools need to be trained well to handle these heavy topics. What’s most important is that teachers promote mutual learning and that everyone can learn from each other. That way all can laugh from the awkwardness of talking about sex, but understand that the conversation can still move forward without shaming anyone.
4. If you decide to split up sex ed by gender, always bring the group back together.
There certainly are pros and cons to separating people by any grouping, but if you choose to divide the sex talk by gender, the most important concept to remember is to bring the group back together. Instructors should recognize that both groups should receive information from each other. Joint conversation on what respect is, what pleasure and enjoyment are, how people might be forced to do something through certain social pressures, etc. are important to discuss as a collective.
5. Start the conversation young, especially with consent.
Breaking “the talk” up into smaller, more digestible pieces is a beneficial way to ease into explaining sexuality to children and teens. For example, we can start by explaining language and deciding to stop shaming children who say the words “penis” or “vagina.” When we call those “bad” or “dirty” words, we teach kids to associate these terms with negative attitudes. Parents or not, adults should also stress the importance of consent beginning from a young age. We should ask for permission to touch or embrace our kids so that they understand that they have a voice in expressing discomfort. We often socialize our children (especially girls) to not understand consent because we force them to give grandpa or auntie a kiss. By stripping away the freedom to choose for themselves if they want to embrace someone else, we dilute the message that everyone has a say in what happens to them. Asking for permission first is a starting point. In our hyper-sexualized media environment, getting wrong information about sex is easy. What’s not easy, is finding healthy and balanced information on how to make informed decisions about sex.
While our public education system certainly has a number of areas it can improve in, as a society, we need to address the elephant in the room - most of public sex education is sufficiently inadequate. If we valued sex education as much as we value happy, healthy and safe sex in our own lives, perhaps we would all be better off.