The Sex Talk That You Never Knew You Needed

Emma Hackley, Guest Writer

There is one subject in schools that is considered taboo in over half of the states in America, and that is sex. Sex, specifically sex education, has remained controversial since its introduction into the U.S. educational system. Still in the year of 2018, many schools refuse to teach in-depth sex education for religious and moral reasonings. These schools are in predominately conservative and religious-centered areas, many of which teach abstinence-only “education” instead. The abstinence curriculum teaches students that refraining from sex until marriage will ensure a healthy and happy lifestyle. This also leads to there being almost no talk about birth control, STDs, and how to prevent them. Although the most effective birth control method in theory, only three percent of the population follows through with abstinence until wedlock (Guttmacher). Even then, when sexual intercourse takes place after marriage, those who are brought up in abstinence education often have little to no knowledge on how to have safe sex. Many teenagers are actually forced to take an abstinence pledge as a child, with little explanation as to what they are actually agreeing to (Khazan). Of course, most adolescents have broken that so-called ‘pledge’ by high school, which is precisely why schools need to educate their students on sex education-from condom usage to how to identify STDs. Despite the need, there are many schools that are not allowed to teach in-depth sex education at all, yet being uneducated will only bring harm to their students down the road. Liberal sex education is crucial for students to be able to live healthy lifestyles.

Sex education should not be censored for adolescents, yet within the United States, sex education greatly varies in content and quality. In fact, the laws and stigma surrounding the subject matter have fluctuated over time, the only constant being the inconsistency of knowledge being delivered. It wasn’t until 1913 that “Chicago became the first major city” to apply sex ed into the curriculum for high school students (Cornblatt). The program did not last long enough for it to be beneficial, as The Catholic Church was swift to launch campaigns against the subject matter, forcing the program to close. Later, in the 1920s, high schools started to integrate sex education into their systems, following suit with the U.S. military in 1918, as STDs had become a widespread “public-health issue” (Cornblatt). Although there were protests from the church, some form of sex ed remained intact. Within the three decades that followed, the U.S. Office of Education began to support the notion of training teachers in this health field. Soon after, human sexuality was taught on college campuses. However, this support for public sex education did not last long. By the 70s, religious and conservative parties outwardly spoke  against sex education, claiming that it promoted “promiscuity and moral depravity”. Soon after, abstinence-only education became a large part of health programs in high schools located in conservative areas (Zimmerman). As of February 1st, 2018, only 23 states within the U.S. require some form of sexual education to be taught in school. Of those 23 states, only 13 of them require schools and education providers to be medically accurate. It is here that the common theme ignorance surfaces (Guttmacher). By avoiding explicit sexual education, the risk of teens and young adults contracting STDs and unplanned pregnancies increases.

There is a great divide in what is and is not required to be taught in schools across America. Because “there is no federal law” that “requires schools to teach sex education”, there is great inconsistency between the information a teen in a conservative-dominated area learns, compared to a teen in a liberal one (Masl). Often, students in conservative school districts get abstinence-only sexual education, which is when the education provider only teaches students about how to avoid having sex because the only way to achieve a happy and healthy lifestyle is to abstain from any form of sexual activity until the act of marriage. An issue with this is that the defenders of abstinent education support this method of teaching not because it provides the most accurate information but because it adheres to their moral and/or religious beliefs. As a result, there are many cases where the content being taught is a concoction of “blurred religion and science” (Alford). In fact, there are many programs that teach “false, misleading or distorted information”. To name just a few of the ‘medically inaccurate’ information that is taught in multiple abstinence-only education programs:

  • HIV can be spread via sweat and tears.
  • Pregnancy can result from touching another person’s genitals.
  • Women who have an abortion ‘are more prone to suicide’.
  • As many as 10% of women who have an abortion become sterile.

As shocking as this may be, abstinence-only sex education is gradually on the rise due to its support by the current Administration in Washington DC of 2017. By teaching children and teenargers false information, it leads them to be unprepared to have safe sex later in their lives, either before or after marriage. A common argument of pro-abstinence teachers, is that if schools advocate against the use of drugs and the dangers of using them, then why should schools engage in teaching how to have safe sex. They claim it will just encourage kids to have more premarital sex (Livni). Firstly, sex and drugs are not interchangeable. One is a natural human function and process while the other is generally man made, synthetic, and lethal. By comparing sex to drugs, not only is it making the subject seem more shameful and secretive, it deters teenagers from asking for help or knowledge on the topic. Another argument against liberal sex ed is that by teaching in-depth sexual education, schools will influence students to engage in more sexual activities. According to research done by the World Health Organization, however, “there is no evidence that” in-depth sexual education “encourages sexual activity” (Masl). One popular abstinence-only education program is called Choosing the Best. In this curriculum, the teacher “compares people who have sex before marriage to chewed-up gum,” saying that those who have lost their virginity aren’t as appealing at those who have not (Denvir). Not only is this incredibly degrading to teenagers and their body/worth, but it also perpetuates the belief that virginity- a construct in which someone performs sexual intercourse for the first time- determine one’s self worth. Historically, virginity is a state in which a woman has not had her hymen broken through sexual intercourse. Thanks to modern science, doctors have concluded that the hymen wears away naturally over time, which nullifies the meaning of the ‘medical’ definition of virginity. Virginity is still a term used today, but instead of it being an actual physical state of being, it is now recognized as a medically inaccurate phrase with origins in the idea that women are sexual objects with labels that determine their value. Nevertheless, virginity is still valued in women in religious and conservative communities.

There is also evidence that in areas where abstinence-only education is predominant, teenagers’ “sexual behavior” is also the highest (Denvir). Not only this, but there is “no evidence” that abstinence education “bring about the desired long-term behavioral outcomes at which they aim” for, which are “delays in sexual activity” in youth (Alford). Although this is high talk of abstinence-only education, it is in reality only a loud few that are the voice of this belief. In fact, only 15% of Americans believe that sexual education should be restricted to abstinence-only education. According to a survey conducted by Planned Parenthood, most parents (up to 90% of those surveyed) supported some form of in depth sex education.  However, it is the vocal minority that overpowers the majority. Due to a combination of school board members having biased views towards sex ed, and a select amount of parents not wanting their children ‘tainted’ with sexual prowess, abstinence only sex education remains to be a dominant form of learning and curriculum.

Not only is there a great divide between abstinence and liberal sex education, but the content that is being taught to the female and male populations respectively, is just as stark in contrast.  The Center of Disease Control (CDC) did a study on how sex ed is taught differently between the two binary genders. Not only in, but out of school, are girls confronted by their parents about sex ed, either passively or officially. More girls than boys receive sex education from their parents (usually mothers), but it doesn’t just stop there. In many schools’ sex ed programs, educators often separate the two sexes, teaching them separately. As a result, the knowledge that the two sexes learn varies by topic and subject matter. On average, young women recieve more sexual education in school on a variety of topics than young men. The only topic in which this proved not to be true, was in the case of condom usage.“Male teenagers [are] more likely than female teenagers to talk to their parents about how to use a condom,” reports the CDC. It was only here that teenage males were more educated on average in a subject than females. As a general statement, it is safe to say that women are educated on all forms of sex education, while men are usually educated on the topics that are ‘applicable’ to them (Figure 4).

There is one topic in particular, that raises concern on the divide of education between men and women, and that is the act consent. There is an overwhelming gap between the number of men who are taught how to say ‘no’, compared to the number of women. This could just be a stigma between masculinity and knowledge, more specifically a mother or father being comfortable enough to sit down and talk to their son about important sex education. Or, more likely, it might be how society as a whole interacts based on the ‘fragility’ of women compared to men. As a whole, women are more often taught on how to protect themselves from sex, abuse, and rape rather than having men being taught what consent is, both on giving and receiving. This is not to put a blame on men themselves but rather to say that they need to be taught growing up, rather than learning the ‘fundamentals’ of behaviour through media and society. This is exhibited through the “Me Too” movement that is taking place to address sexual misconduct within Hollywood. Throughout the allegations of sexual abuse that women are making towards men, it sheds light on the lack of education and learning that these men were brought up in. In the future, if boys are raised in respectful and educational environments, actions and movements like these can be avoided in the future. Many of the men who were accused, such as Aziz Ansari, were not sexual perpetrators but rather men who never learned respectful and healthy boundaries/relationships between men and women. This all ties back to sex education because a lot of these conflicts stem from the misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of how to have safe, healthy, and consensual sex.

On the flip side, there is concrete evidence that successful sex education exists. In many European countries, not only do they practice liberal health and sex education, but their abortion and teen pregnancy rates are also significantly lower than that of the United States. (Henderson). It is here that the argument that there is a “strong correlation between social conservatism and high rates of teen pregnancy, abortions” and STDs becomes all the more evident (Henderson). An ‘extreme’ case of liberal sex ed can be seen in the Netherlands, where they start “educating children as young as 4 about sex” and how their bodies work (Bell). However, that doesn’t mean that the toddlers learn about sexual intercourse, but rather gain a general understanding of “relationships” and “sexuality”. By having such an open and friendly environment of learning, kids and teens are able to feel safe enough to ask the questions that they need to live the healthy and safe lifestyles that they so choose. As of 2009, the Netherlands had a remarkable “teen birth rate of 5.3 per 1,000 compared to the 39.1 per 1,000 in the United States”. In fact, the US rate is remarkably worse than most other western European countries who practice liberal sex ed (Henderson) . It is examples like these that exemplify that there is a way to educate young teens and adults about their bodies and how it works, without promoting sexualy promiscuity.

At the end of the day, teenagers will do what teenagers want to do, and it’s less about whether you can stop them, but rather, can you make it safe for those who do have sex? Although there is much talk about complete liberal sex education, there is a happy medium that can be achieved to appease both parties, and this is through a simple compromise. There should be abstinence education, because many teenagers are not physically and emotionally prepared for the repercussions of sleeping around. However, there should not be a limit on the education that those teens receive because the average age for someone in this day and age to lose their virginity is 17. So where should they go for information? The lust filled and romanticized media? Or a trusted and educated adult? Sexual education does not have to be black and white. In fact, there is so much more to sex education than just sex. It is knowing about their bodies, and how they work. It is knowing the dangers of STD’s and STI’s and how to treat and avoid them. It’s knowledge that someone will carry with them for the rest of their life, paving a safe and healthy path.

There comes a point where personal beliefs need to be put aside for the greater good. Adolescents and students rely on adults, both teachers and family, to prepare them for maturity. Sex is a prominent activity in many individuals’ lives, and without the proper education, more harm than good will come from it. Proper and in depth sexual education in school systems is crucial for healthy lifestyles.