The only thing I remember from my mandatory high-school sex-ed class are two terrifying, hand-drawn diagrams of genitals. Anything else I wanted to know, I had to wait until senior year, when I took the much-lusted-after human sexuality class (which, by the way, was an elective, not part of the core curriculum). A parent in the school district even tried to get rid of it due to its “lewd subject matter” — I fought that by way of creating a petition that got over 300 signatures, and the course stayed. (Honestly, it’s ridiculous that they don’t have a bronze statue of me in the hallway for my heroism, but I digress.) The point is, not providing teenagers with all of the relevant information and answering their many questions about sex shows just how badly the sex education system in American schools is failing us. It counts on parents or older siblings to pick up the slack, but that’s not working, nor should it be expected to.
“Sex education in the United States compared to many other developed nations is quite poor, and in many places it doesn’t even really address sexuality all that much,” says Justin Garcia, research director at the Kinsey Institute. The coursework fails to answer vital questions like, “What do you know about your own body? What do you know about potential partners’ bodies? About male and female sexual anatomy and reproductive health? Study after study shows that we’re not doing a great job.”
To start, current teachings are binary, and we are lucky to live in an increasingly nonbinary world. Only nine states currently require discussion of LGBTQ identities and relationships to be inclusive and affirming, according to Planned Parenthood. Since state or local, not federal, laws dictate sex ed curricula, what is (and is not) taught in sex education falls to state and local legislators, who, to say the least, have varying views on topics from homosexuality to premarital sex. Too often, the idea is to scare us out of a basic part of life. If you have unprotected sex, you will get pregnant. If you sleep with too many people, you will get an STI. That’s sometimes true, and it definitely needs to be taught, but not through fear-mongering. Imagine if, in addition to getting the facts in a neutral manner, you heard, “If you focus on mutual pleasure, you can have a joyful experience. If you ask for what you want, you’ll enjoy the experience more.” A school’s job is to provide its students with the tools they need to succeed. And in this area, it is abundantly clear that they are failing.
“School sex ed is meager to begin with, and it doesn’t begin to focus on the different acts of pleasure that are possible through sexual experience,” says Ian Kerner, Ph.D., sex therapist and author of “She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman.”
In addition to glossing over pleasure (which is like, the main point of sex at this stage in our lives, IMO!), those teachings don’t start soon enough. “As a nation, we are simply not addressing sex education at an early enough age and in enough of a holistic and data-driven fashion that provides resources and help to individuals,” says Garcia. “There’s a push now to start talking about some aspects of it in primary schools, particularly around issues of consent.” In some parts of Europe and South America, where sex ed starts sooner — in the Netherlands, for example, it begins at age four — schools not only talk about consent, but the curricula are more forthcoming about the issues and subtleties surrounding sex and anatomy. “In places where there’s better sex ed, there are more positive outcomes, including later ages of first birth, lower rates of unintended pregnancy, and lower rates of STIs,” adds Garcia. Pardon me if I don’t see the argument against moving in this direction.
Mary Jo Podgurski, president and founder of the Academy for Adolescent Health, Inc., which provides in-school sexuality education and educational mentoring, calls the contrast of the quailty of sex ed in Europe and the U.S. “sobering.” “When meeting with the French Department of Health [on tour of Europe for youth advocates], a group member asked if France’s standing as a Catholic country influenced the content of its sex ed. The response remains with me — not at all, sex ed is a condition of public health,” she says. While many Americans do support comprehensive sex education, here, it is as much if not more of a matter of politics than of public health. As of 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, only 24 states and Washington, D.C. mandated sex education. Of those states, only 21 required both sex ed and HIV education. And, while 33 states and Washington, D.C. mandated HIV education, only 20 of those states mandated that sex or HIV education be medically accurate. Furthermore, who decides what is and is not “medically accurate” is not standardized.
Because of these gaps, young people tend to look elsewhere for answers. “Research is starting to point to the fact that some people are getting their sex education informally,” says Garcia. “That could be from the internet, a magazine, talking to friends, or pornography. The problem with the pornography sources, in particular, is that they’re not intended as an educational tool.” Of course, he adds, porn, especially (albeit lesser-known) ethical porn sites, can be a great tool for both individuals and couples. But mainstream porn often proves misleading, especially to heterosexual men who see intercourse as the be all end all. “They really lose sight of the connection with their partner,” adds Kerner. That impacts everyone’s pleasure and, in turn, creates a mediocre (at best) overall experience.
Ilana*, who grew up and received sex education in Sweden, had a better experience. In Sweden, many kids hear from Inti Chavez Perez, a sex educator and author of “RESPECT: Everything a Guy Needs to Know About Sex, Love, and Consent.” His book and teachings are a reassuring, factual, and straightforward sexual education resource written for adolescent boys but appropriate for all genders and ages. They are also built around consent.
Sex ed encouraged Ilana to become more familiar with her own body, a step toward advocating for yourself and your pleasure. “Our teacher had us look at a book with pictures of vaginas to show us that they could look very different. She also told us to take a mirror and look at our own vaginas [at home]. It was pretty progressive. I looked, and I was amazed!” says Ilana.
Sarah*, who attended school in New Jersey, is familiar with the other side of the spectrum. Her sex education was abstinence-only, in addition to being fear- and shame-based. “We were told the most aggressive statistics surrounding STDs as a tactic to get us to abstain,” Sarah says. “I was never taught how to put on a condom or to communicate with partners in a safe way.” Sarah is hardly unique. Thirty-seven states require abstinence be included in sex ed, but only 18 require educators to also share information about birth control, according to Planned Parenthood.
“I was actively told that, as a woman, I was inferior to my male sexual partners and I existed only to have babies,” Sarah adds. “My middle school health teacher even showed us a home video of his wife giving birth, which was extremely disturbing and creepy. I had to find ways to learn on my own as I got older.” She hopes that others get a different education. “Sex ed should include lessons about conversation, limits, and bodily autonomy. Educators should be uplifting their students and making them feel empowered to communicate openly and honestly with their partner without feeling judgement or shame.”
In this country, we treat sex like well, an unwanted STI. And while there are regional, religious, and social undertones that have historically pushed this narrative along, that doesn’t need to continue to be the case. “Imagine a world where people’s early sexual experiences are not a big unknown but are pleasurable, satisfying, fun, mutually consensual,” says Garcia. “That doesn’t have to be a fantasy. That can be reality if the nation takes a strong stand on providing adequate sex education and takes it seriously.”
*Names have been changed.