Not surprisingly, disclosing that I’m a sex educator often elicits questions, wide-eyed stares, and/or giggles. Recently, after telling someone what I do for a living, I was asked, “what do you think about abstinence-only education?” I replied (with a smile), “That’s like asking an evolutionary biologist what they think of Intelligent Design” and went on to discuss a few of the problems with America’s notorious (lack of) sex ed.
While it’s not news to anyone who works in sexual health that comprehensive sex ed is a good thing and that abstinence-only sex ed doesn’t work, sometime it’s nice to be reminded why the work we do is important. Recently, I came across an article on Twitter (thanks @jezRSH) that describes some of the more noteworthy and atrocious “lessons” in New York State’s sex ed curricula that have been uncovered in a recent study by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Not surprisingly, many of the truly shocking anecdotes the author, Martha Kempner, describes are related to abstinence education. While I (and most sex educators I know) have no problem with the “wait until you’re emotionally ready” message, all too often it seems that abstinence approaches rely on fear and slut-shaming to communicate their lesson.
The author quotes one of the pamphlets included in the study: “Maybe you think your friends will say you’re cool if you have sex. Well, just wait until you catch a sexually transmitted disease. Every year, thousands of teenagers do. And the sex that was supposed to make them so popular, turns them into the school’s biggest outcasts overnight.”
There’s so much wrong with this statement, it’s difficult to know where to begin.
It’s not just abstinence monomania that’s the problem; even allegedly comprehensive programs are often riddled with misogynistic and heteronormative messages. The article’s title includes the reference to vaginas as “sperm repositories” and later goes on to describe other male-centric and baby-centric language that’s used to describe female genitalia. It would be absurd to call a penis a “vagina filler,” so why is it appropriate to call a vagina a “sperm depository?”
Additionally, almost two thirds of school districts in the study did not include any information â€“ diagram or otherwise â€“ that described female external genitalia. While I understand why teachers aren’t telling their students how to do reverse cowgirl, sex ed should be pleasure-inclusive enough to at least describe the location and function of the clitoris. If we’re going to talk about penises, erections, and wet dreams, why not the clitoris?
Another primary point of the article is that there’s a glaring omission in most of New York’s sex ed curricula: healthy relationships education. Last I checked, healthy relationships wasn’t a particularly partisan issue and its inclusion in sex ed curricula has a strong evidence base to support it.
That said, part of what’s tricky is that it can be difficult to teach. Even if the instructors have healthy relationships themselves, knowing how to communicate that to students can be challenging. Also, discussing interpersonal relationships is far from emotionally neutral for teachers and students alike. Fortunately, there are a number of educators who specialize in health relationships education and several organizations offer lesson plans and activities for classroom teachers.
The author, a Human Sexuality professor at a local college, finishes the piece by describing her intention to never assume that her students have had any sort of comprehensive sex ed, which I completely understand. Most of the students I’ve taught are university age and I’ve been asked some frighteningly basic questions. It can be difficult to “teach to the middle” when young adults’ experience can be so vast.
But the bottom line is that while I may be alternately infuriated and having a knee-jerk-face-palm reaction to reports like this, it does remind me why I do what I do. There’s nothing quite like hearing someone’s question that you know they’ve been holding onto for years and seeing the relief on their face when they get it answered. While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I’m always happy to continue facilitating the dialogue and connecting people to the information they need to lead sexually-fulfilling lives.
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