"Abstinence, abstinence, abstinence!"
That's pretty much all I remember from my high school sex education class. The term abstinence was the main course of our curriculum, and it was preached by my health teacher as often as possible. We touched on sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy, but these subjects were mostly used to scare us into waiting until marriage to have sex. I was 14 years old, and knew next to nothing about my body or having intimate relationships. By the end of the year, I left the class feeling more lost than before. The lack of education left me ashamed of my sexuality.
I stumbled through the rest of high school feeling not only clueless about sexual health, but totally scared and embarrassed of my own body and needs. Over the years, as my knowledge and experience expanded, I realized how much the public school system had failed me. So, I decided to do some research.
I came across some pretty alarming statistics that assured me I couldn’t be the only student who felt that way. According to the CDC School Health Profiles, less than half of American high schools, and only one-fifth of middle schools, teach all 16 essential topics of sexual education recommended by the CDC. 20 states in the U.S. don't require public schools to teach sex education classes at all, and even most of the states that do still don't legally require their classes to discuss methods of contraception, to use inclusive language, or to have medical accuracy. My mind was blown at the lack of legislation and curriculum policies; there are so many subjects that should be vital to sex education, but often aren't even introduced to students.
Abstinence and contraception
29 states, such as Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Kentucky, require abstinence to be highly stressed in sex education classes, yet don't require other forms of contraception to be taught at all. 19 of those states mandate instructing students about the importance of having sex only after marriage. Abstaining from sex is an effective way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but introducing it as the only way can be very harmful. Choosing to have sex before marriage is a completely personal choice; those who choose to engage in it at a young age should not be prohibited from learning how to do it safely.
Failing to teach all methods of contraception is not only damaging to physical health, but emotional health. Preaching abstinence-only can stigmatize sexual activity, labeling it as deviant and shameful. The more my health teacher encouraged us to stay away from sex, the more embarrassed I felt about my own sexuality. Wanting to engage in sexual interactions suddenly felt dirty, and I carried that feeling with me for a while.
Believe it or not, students that identify with LGBTQIA+ communities are still ostracized from sexual health education. In a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2015, only 12 percent of millennials reported learning about same-sex relationships in their previous sex education programs. In 2020, 18 states mandate discussion of sexual orientation, but only 10 of those require inclusivity. Some states, such as Texas, still prohibit sexual orientation and gender identity from being mentioned in the classroom at all.
LGBTQIA+ youth have the right to be in an academic environment that is inclusive to their identities, behaviors, and experiences. Excluding these students from the education they deserve encourages prejudice and can result in social isolation, discrimination, lower self-esteem, and harm to physical health. According to the CDC, young males that engage in sexual activity with other males have disproportionately high rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, non-heterosexual adolescents are more vulnerable to suicide attempts, substance and alcohol abuse, and peer violence than their heterosexual, cisgender classmates. It’s no secret that sex education in the U.S. follows heteronormative standards, and that needs to change.
Related: Why Isn't Gen Z Having Sex?
In my sex education class, I couldn't help but notice that the curriculum was mostly catered toward the boys. I constantly wondered, "Why are they teaching the boys how to put condoms on, yet teaching me that if I have sex, I'll either get pregnant or get an STI?" It felt like my teacher was treating sex as a natural, instinctual activity for boys, yet something that girls should be ashamed and scared of.
My classmates and I were taught two forms of protection: abstinence and condom application. We were not introduced to methods of female birth control, such as the pill, an IUD, implants, the Depo-Provera shot, patches, or vaginal rings, which can all be up to 99 percent effective in preventing unwanted pregnancy. We did not discuss the choice of safe, accessible abortion. In addition, my teacher never even mentioned the term clitoris, especially not as a pleasure source. I left the class knowing the full anatomy of an erection, but not knowing that women could even feel pleasure during sex. I felt like as a young girl, I had no place wanting or enjoying sex. This kind of male-centered curriculum not only encourages stereotypes of male aggressiveness and female passiveness, but can lead to implications of slut-shaming.
Sex education is not just about sexual health and preventing diseases; it's about mutual respect, communication, and fostering healthy relationships. As an adolescent, I was never taught how to say no in sexual interactions, or that I could even say no at all. As I grew up, I found myself in many interactions where I felt pressured and coerced into having sex, and had no idea how to express that I was uncomfortable or disinterested. In addition, many of my male partners felt they were entitled to my body, and didn't know how to read the signs or that they needed to ask for my permission.
Consent is the most important part of intimate relationships, and it should be the most important lesson in sex education too. Students need to be taught how to say no, how to ask for consent, and how to respond to their partners saying no as well. Thanks to the impactful #MeToo Movement, legislators are finally making moves to implement consent education into public school systems. Currently, 9 states require sex ed curriculum to cover consent, healthy relationships, and identifying violence and abuse. This is major progress, but there's still tons to be made.
The only solution to this corruptive curriculum is a comprehensive, inclusive sex education program. This type of program would promote sexuality as a natural, normal part of human development, and provide students with the skills they need to feel prepared. It would also promote a positive, healthy representation of relationships, sexual orientation, gender, family, marriage, and reproductive health. A handful of states, such as California, have already adopted this program, and hopefully more will in the future.
Becoming sexually active or curious as a teenager is super intimidating and confusing. The classroom should be a space where adolescents feel safe to discuss why they feel confused and intimated, and receive the knowledge and tools they need. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender women, I know that there are tons of students who were even more negatively affected by their sex education than me. For those students, let's continue to speak up. If we start conversations about comprehensive, non-shaming sex education as much as we can, change is bound to follow.