Let's Talk About Sex ... Ed

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

Or let’s not. Salt-N-Pepa had a good point back in 1991, but in 2015, we still haven’t heard the message.

Sex education remains a controversial subject when it comes to the what, the why, and the how it’s being taught in public schools. There are hot-button stories, like the high school in Texas with the chlamydia outbreak but no sex-ed classes, or the professor who live-tweeted her son’s sex-ed class in Michigan. The big issue is usually around abstinence teaching: Is it effective? Is it moral? Is it moral to teach anything else? What are the goals?

Let’s start with the rules. Nineteen states require that sex-ed instruction stresses the importance of having sex only within marriage. Nineteen states cover contraception. And only 13 states have laws that say sex ed has to be medically accurate. Let’s say that again: Sex ed only has to be medically accurate in 13 states.

Mandy Stadtmiller wrote an op-ed for Mashable discussing the chlamydia outbreak in Texas and the way sex ed is taught, and honed in on abstinence-only education, since that is what she feels is wrong with sex ed today. It is also what she was taught in school, exclusively.

Now, I don’t think anyone believes that talking about abstinence is bad, in and of itself. It is absolutely the only 100 percent foolproof way to avoid getting pregnant or getting a sexually transmitted disease, period, and telling kids that is neither inaccurate nor controversial. It is, however, simply not enough to leave it at that and teach nothing else. And that’s what Stadtmiller wants people to know.

She uses statistics to talk about the high percentage (83 percent) of teen girls who don’t receive their first formal sex-ed class until after they’ve had sex, and about the fact that the approximately 10 million sexually transmitted diseases spread yearly affect people between the ages of 15 and 24. Kids are having sex, and kids are thinking about sex, and if sex education is only going to tell them not to do it and walk away, then it’s not doing its job.

She points out that what isn’t being taught is more important than what is. She was taught that abstinence was the only acceptable option, when she could’ve been taught about how important sex is and how an encounter can have the power to impact the rest of your life, for better or worse. When you’re only telling kids not to do it, you’re going to get tuned out by a whole lot of them, and then they’re going to completely miss the message that sex matters, and it will matter more to them than they realize.

I remember equally ridiculous sex ed, myself. I think it was junior high, although I don’t remember it that clearly, and two women came into the class and showed us various birth control devices. This was the very late ’70s. I don’t think any of us were having sex yet, and it was all very silly and embarrassing. We watched them put a condom on a banana and saw them holding up a diaphragm and an IUD, and it all seemed like something that had nothing to do with us. We made fun of them afterwards.

So what’s the big flaw? No context. Both the birth-control-as-toys players and the abstinence-only advocates are missing out on some basic teachings.

We didn’t learn how to talk to potential partners about birth control, or how to get it.

We didn’t hear about when we’d know we were ready, or how we’d know we weren’t.

We didn’t hear about what to do if we had partners who were ready before we were, or if we were ready before they were.

We didn’t talk about how difficult it is to insist on condoms with a partner when he or she is against it.

And we didn’t talk about how it’s still a completely confusing, weird area for adults, too.

It’s supposed to be education, but the abstinence-only plan is not educating, and it’s not addressing the kids who need to hear a real message. Stadtmiller suggests talking about the beauty of delayed gratification, about the power kids don’t realize they have to make their own decisions and do what’s right for them and not their peers, and that wanting to have sex and thinking about it and feeling those urges doesn’t make them rebellious at all—it makes them normal. It’s not just about the mechanics or the devices or the moral imperative. The dynamics are just as important.

Bottom line: Whatever they’re doing now isn’t working. Continuing to do it, and insisting that it’s the only way, is not going to make things better. Let’s talk about ALL the good things and the bad things that may be because that’s the only thing that might help.

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