“It was like that scene in Mean Girls,” my 13-year-old reported after seventh-grade sex ed. “'Don't have sex, 'cause you will get pregnant and die.'”
In the class, which lasted for just a few weeks at the end of the semester, she learned a lot (perhaps too much) about biological inner bits like Fallopian tubes and the harrowing effects of STIs, but nothing about arousal, consent, orgasm, masturbation, sex, technology or anything about the mechanics of sex beyond vague notions of the “sperm meeting the egg.” (“Pleased to make your acquaintance.”)
It was a shockingly half-assed education, and she's one of the lucky ones. Her school's in California, one of only 22 that requires sex ed and of 19 (!) requiring it be “medically, factually or technically accurate.”
Sex is a hugely important, sometimes harrowing, all-around amazing part of being a human. To leave young people to just fend for themselves with scraps of iffy knowledge gleaned from friends, porn and furtive looks at dirty books is a travesty. The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed country and U.S. teens are not only less likely to use contraceptives than their European counterparts, when they do, they use less effective methods.
We need to rethink how we're doing this. Here are some dumb things we teach kids about sex and what we should be teaching them instead.
1. Abstinence-Only Is the Best Way to Prevent Pregnancy and Disease
Abstinence is great for preventing pregnancy and disease—if people actually practice it. But despite threats of damnation, hideous diseases, emotional havoc, etc., 95 percent of people have premarital sex. We need to accept that even though some of us reallyreallyreally hope that kids will suddenly stop it with the premarital fucking, it's not going to happen.
Kids who are taught abstinence-only are statistically more likely to be involved in a teen pregnancy. The irresponsibility here is not on the kids, but on us. (See also: Professor Live Tweets Her Son's Abstinence Class.)
Teaching abstinence as a safe option is great. But it shouldn't be abstinence vs. full-on babymaking intercourse. By focusing only on forbidden heterosexual P-in-V sex, we are inadvertently pointing teens toward the one sexual act most likely to cause disease and/or pregnancy. Mutual masturbation and dry humping are much safer options that provide connection and relief from sexual tension.
2. ”The Sperm Meets the Egg” and Other Unexplained, Vague Allusions to ... Something
How many kids have struggled to parse phrases like "the sperm meets the egg"? We need to stop being coy and explain the real mechanics of sex. Warnings like “you can catch X from oral sex” are confusing and useless if a kid doesn't know what “oral sex” is. Let them know what various acts entail, including benefits and risks, plus info about masturbation. Teach them how male and females bodies work and how they respond. Having sex is an important life skill, and it would be nice if they learned how to do it well.
3. Sex Is All About the Biology of Reproductive Internal Organs
It's great to have a working knowledge of what's going on inside, but what kids really care about are the outside parts. Letting them see photos of the range and variety of real genitalia—an oddly radical concept—is a great way to start.
“It's really a process of desensitizing them to what real genitals look like so they’ll be less freaked out by their own and, one day, their partner’s,” said human sexuality educator Al Vernacchio in New York Times Magazine.
4. Sex Ed Is a One-Time, One Semester Class (If That)
Canadian kids get sex ed every year until 12th grade, learning proper names for body parts in first-grade (based on suggestion of child abuse educators) to sexting, gender identity, masturbation and healthy relationships in later grades.
In the Netherlands, kids start sex ed in kindergarten. In quite related news, the Netherlands has one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates among developed nations.
5. Sex = Penis in Vagina
“A definition that needs to change based on the orientation of the people involved is a problem,” says Vernacchio in a TEDx talk. “Let's redefine having sex as consensual activity designed to bring sexual pleasure and satisfaction to the people involved.”
“Even though sex ed is invariably aimed at straight kids, it totally fails them. We need to 'queer' sex ed so that it is valuable to absolutely everyone (even those that don't want to have sex)," says Justin Hancock at cheeky sex ed site Bish. Besides, even for some heteros, penis in vagina sex can be meh.
6. Girls Are Responsible for Fending Off Boys Who Can't Control Themselves
It's important for everyone to know how to say no and recognize a no, but there's far more to sexual communication. “We also need to learn how to offer consent, how to negotiate safer sex practices, as well as how to begin healthy conversations about sex more generally. We could save our kids a lot of future grief and anxiety if we started teaching them more about sexual communication than just how to avoid having sex,” says Justin Lehmiller, social psychologist and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. (Here's an excellent video on consent using tea as a metaphor, i.e. "Unconscious people don't want tea.”)
Plus, implying that boys like sex and girls don't disempowers everyone. For the record, plenty of girls dig sex and plenty of boys don't.
7. Sex Is About What Happens IRL
Tech has exploded what “sex” is and sex ed needs to keep up. Kids need open, honest information about sexting, online safety and posting pictures of their bums. Give them a framework for thinking about porn, too; while it can be sexy, much of it is also male-centered or degrading to women. Point out the ways porn is unrealistic (99.9% of pizza deliveries do not lead to sex; a lot of women actually don't like mechanical pounding, etc.).
8. There's a “Normal” Way to Have Sex
“Even in more comprehensive sex ed, I think the idea [of 'normal' sex being married, heterosexual sex] still gets communicated implicitly. We see a lot of users who are anxious that they're somehow doing sex 'wrong' or that they're weird for wanting or doing what they do,” says Sam Wall of Scarleteen. “Sex and sexuality are learning process, one that continues throughout life as you meet new partners, or your partner's desires change, or you figure out new things about your own desires. And, as long as everyone is consenting, there is no wrong way to have sex. Human sexual desire is a vast, weird, and wonderful tapestry, and exploring it can be fun.”
Sex is a “vast, weird, and wonderful tapestry.” We need to be brave, responsible grownups and give kids the information that they want and need.