In my third year of university I signed up to take a course entitled “The Psychology of Sexuality.” It was the most popular course on campus. (Of course a sex education class would be the most popular on a college campus!)
On the first day, in a room with roughly 600 students, our professor asked us to write down whatever we wanted to know about sex.
It could be a psych question (What is love, really?). It could be an anatomical question (My “friend” has a hole on the side of his penis, is that normal?). Or it could be a relationship question (Do men and women really view sex differently?).
The professor answered a few questions each lecture over the five-month course. Between the high enrollment and the constant stream of questions, it was very evident that even though we were all twenty-somethings having sex, we had no idea what it actually was. Sure, we understood the mechanics, but we were ignorant to a lot.
Abstinence Or Else
I went to a Catholic high school that taught me the blanket rule of abstinence. By the time I got to the twelfth grade (a little late) there were scary slide shows of graphic herpes and syphilis infections. Power Points was a relatively new teaching tool and as a scare tactic, it worked.
The presentation was generally along the lines of if you have sex, this will happen to you. It was a very end-of-days vibe.
Teen pregnancy was also common in my high school (shocking, I’m sure). We had no idea we had multiple options for contraception, let alone how and when to use them.
Now, almost twenty years later as a high school teacher there are some things that have changed and others that have not. The sex education given in most high schools is not the sex education our children need.
First of all, teenagers are having sex. To pretend they are not is delusional. The problem with so much of sex education is it is often taught in the frame of reference that sex is bad.
Students are taught of all the pitfalls that can befall them should they engage in sex. There is unwanted pregnancy and STIs, and those conversations are necessary. But there is so much about current sex education that is really not much of an education at all.
Sex Education Needs To Be Taught In A Way That Is Healthy
Why is there never a discussion of when sex can be meaningful and healthy. I’m not suggesting that the Kama Sutra be the course textbook.
However, if teens are encouraged to talk openly about their questions and concerns with a teacher who volunteers to teach the course, and has been given up-to-date medical and social training on conversations of sexuality, students would have a platform with which to discuss their sexual questions.
Instead, not talking openly about these things leads to shame and denial and searching for answers in the wrong places. I am particularly talking about pornography. This is the last place that anyone needs to learn about sex.
Pornography is a fabricated fantasy of what someone wants sex to be. It is usually from the male gaze, and not what it actually is. It is dangerous for teens to assume THAT is normal sex.
So much of our sex education is also based on just the physical act of sex itself. Yes there are quizzes on anatomy (F-A-L-L-O-P-I-A-N), and the stages of how a zygote becomes an embryo, but there is so much more to sexuality than sticking one body part into another.
Imagine having been able to discuss gender within sex education, and what it means to be non-binary, or to be asexual (That’s okay!). What if teens were given the space to hash out those topics with one another and an adult they trusted?
As someone who works with teenagers as a living, so many of the issues we have within schools stem from ignorance. I am happy to report that LGBTQIA+ students are starting to occupy the space they deserve. Those students have always been there. I’m proud of them for not feeling like they have to hide anymore.
Knowledge Is Options
What if students were taught about options for birth control, and how to take them responsibly. The default option for most women is the birth control pill. It is also a rough adjustment for most women.
What if they could learn about IUDs, birth control through injection, or physical barriers to protect the? Male students need to also be educated on this.
The responsibility of birth control should not solely fall on the shoulders of young women. Men need to know how birth control works, how it can be used safely and properly. That includes learning about a vasectomy.
Fertility is also a topic worthy of discussion. With the prevalence of pregnancy loss being 1 in 4 women, it is realistic to assume some of those students will eventually experience a pregnancy loss or know someone who will. If this is something taught to them as a teen, maybe they won’t feel ashamed or blame themselves as adults should this happen.
Fertility treatments are becoming more commonplace as well — not just because of couples struggling to have children, but simply because the makeup of a family in our society is different today.
I was completely unaware of the cosmic lineup of events that must occur for a pregnancy to actually be successful. Learning about potential fertility treatments is just a reality of our current world.
They should also be taught how to screen themselves for breast cancer, or for the signs of testicular cancer. I would have also appreciated a sobering conversation on what happens to your body during pregnancy, morning sickness, and how you heal from birth.
Sex Education Is Also A Legal Conversation
More pressing than ever in the advent of social media, students need to learn about the legal implications of sexting, consent, and sharing explicit images of themselves. What if they are taught about what consent means and what that looks like?
We can have a societal shift from teaching how not to rape instead of teaching people how to avoid being raped. I remember being given a rape whistle in my orientation package when I moved to campus in my first year. We need to do better.
I primarily teach law, and when I teach about the legal definition of sexual assault and the age of consent, I always go into that lesson knowing that it will veer into a mini sex education class.
I have one rule I place above all others in my profession. When a student asks you a question, you always tell them the truth. Sometimes the truth is that I don’t know the answer, but I know which resources to use to help them find it.
There Is Still So Much They Don’t Know
I am startled by how little some students still know. For example, swallowing a month’s worth of birth control will not terminate a pregnancy.
I’ve had students say they simply don’t use condoms because they have been together “long enough.” As if herpes has the capacity to think “Aww, they love each other, we’ll lay off infecting him.”
They need to know where they can access STI tests. And they should be taught there is no shame in getting these tests. It is actually their responsibility to do so.
The problem with sex education, like almost everything else in education, is that we are at the mercy of politics. Sex education was set to get an overhaul in my jurisdiction in 2015, a revision of curriculum by a liberal government that had not been updated since 1998.
When a conservative government was then elected in 2018, they vowed to repeal the update, including a snitch line to call in on teachers who dared to teach their primary students the proper names for their own anatomy.
We are in a society that needs and expects open dialogue about something so fundamental to who we are. Not giving children and teens an updated, comprehensive and inclusive sex education is doing them a disservice.
The point of education, a good one, is to acknowledge a child as a whole. And part of who we are is our sexuality. Pretending otherwise perpetuates a dangerous ignorance our kids don’t deserve.