How Schools Are Screwing Up Sex Ed

by Karen Johnson
Steve Russell / Getty Images

News flash, folks. Kids have sex in high school. Like a lot of them. In fact, a majority of them. Sex. In. High. School.

Although are there people out there who truly don’t know this?

If you’re still here and didn’t immediately clutch your pearls and click off this article, it’s probably because (A) you’re thinking, “Yeah, of course they do. What about it?” or (B) FALSE! Not my kids! (And you plan on reading further so you can disprove my points) or (C) What? They do? (And you’re panicking, hoping for answers.)

I won’t judge if you’re in the last category because parenting teens is scary business. So are teenage pregnancies. So are STIs. So is rape and assault and teaching consent and how to protect yourself. No one will judge you for being worried, and hopefully you’ll find help here. And we won’t even judge if you’re in the disbelief category — though keep in mind that this naive mindset is what hurts our young people.

But here’s the thing, even if it comes as no surprise to you that teens are having sex, we could all benefit from a refresher in how to talk to our kids about it. Our kids deserve better (far better) than the shitty sex ed they are receiving in school. They deserve to know the facts, how their bodies work, how to be safe, and that regardless of where they are on their sexual journey, that they are normal and have support.

Unfortunately, they aren’t getting those messages. Instead, they are getting shamed. Shamed for having sex. Shamed for wanting to have sex. Shamed for even being curious about sex. Shamed for being anything other than heterosexual cisgender teens. Shamed for having unprotected sex, even though maybe they were never taught how to be safe or given the means to do so. Shamed for contracting an STI. Shamed for getting pregnant. Shamed for having an abortion. Shamed for having the baby and being a teen parent.

So much shame when really our kids deserve education, resources, and support from grownups who were once teenagers ourselves and should remember how hard it was.

Cosmopolitan recently published an article that highlights the problems caused by reinforcing archaic and harmful “abstinence-only” education, the complete absence of any education at all, and teaching our kids blatant lies about sex and their bodies.

To start, here’s an important statistic: 95% of Americans have sex before marriage. How many of those 95% do you think started in high school? Yeah, a lot. Yet across this country, teens are still being told “to wait.” Even though we know they won’t. And they don’t. And even though if they don’t get sex ed in high school, they NEVER GET IT.

Do you know of a sex ed program for young adults? Yeah, me neither. This means we send our sons and daughters naively into the world with zero knowledge of how their bodies work, how to take care of themselves, how to communicate consent, how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and how to protect against diseases. Or if they do learn anything, it’s probably from their peers, Google, or porn, rather than educated professionals.

And that is a grave disservice to all of our kids, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion.

I’m not here to knock on abstinence. Abstinence keeps kids safe and I know many people who’ve practiced it as teens and adults. I do think we should talk to our kids about abstinence—as one of their choices. However, to deny them the rest of sexual education is, according the Guttmacher Institute Journal of Adolescent Health, a threat to their “fundamental human rights to health, information, and life.”

Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes the reality that teens have sex and recommends “teaching abstinence alongside birth control, STI prevention, and healthy relationships.” Because the truth is, a “just wait”/”abstinence-only” approach can actually lead to risky behaviors when young people do have sex, since they are never told how to avoid pregnancy or STIs or how to communicate consent.

They need the information, folks. They need it. They deserve it. And it’s our duty as their parents, as educators, and as fucking grownups to get it to them.

I know this one’s tough for some parents to think about, but part of sexual education is also teaching our kids to love and enjoy their bodies. Yeah, those first few times for most of us aren’t super enjoyable as we learn how everything works and fits and where our arms go and what’s comfortable and not so comfortable. But a proper sexual education teaches that sex should be enjoyable (not painful or scary or shameful).

Another area completely absent from most sex ed programs is sexual orientation and gender. Look around you, America. Sex isn’t only happening between a boy and a girl. And it’s not only happening with penises and vaginas. Sex can mean many different things, and that goes for teenagers as well. Our vulnerable students from the LGBTQ community, who are still fighting for their other human rights as well, deserve a proper sexual education just as much as their heterosexual, cisgender peers.

To highlight the problems with America’s sex ed programs (or lack of sex ed programs), Cosmopolitan shared the story of a woman named Andrea who grew up in an Atlanta suburb where she was taught sexual education via the “Choose the Best” (CTB) approach. CTB teaches abstinence as the only option. She shares that as a teen, she “learned about the failure rate of condoms but not how to use one.” She was also shown “stomach-turning slides of untreated genital warts but not advised how to reduce her odds of getting them, beyond staying abstinent. Sex in any context outside marriage was portrayed as unhealthy or dangerous. Intimate pleasure wasn’t mentioned at all.”

And what happened, as a result, to Andrea? She suffered years of panic attacks and anxiety after sex. “Every itch, every bump, every discharge—it all seemed like it must be an STI,” she told Cosmopolitan. Also, Andrea thought something was wrong with her because she was attracted to both men and women (since sexual orientation wasn’t covered in CTB). And after being told that sex was bad and wrong, she waited until age 19 to ask her doctor about birth control. “Sex was stressful. It wasn’t enjoyable,” she said. “Shame is a really hard lesson to unlearn.”

That’s an education? No. That’s a scare tactic based on false information and shame. Yet Andrea’s story is the reality for so many adults after being denied the information they deserved as teenagers.

Cosmopolitan also highlights the fact that OUR tax dollars fund these harmful programs. And before you spout off, “Well I’d rather my tax dollars teach abstinence instead of encourage kids to have sex” let me stop you right there. Sex ed doesn’t encourage our kids to have sex. Being hormonal teenagers does. Sex ed merely teaches them how to be safe when doing it. By supporting government policies that allow or permit abstinence-only education, your tax dollars are doing far more harm than good to America’s youth.

Our government is making decisions that impact our children. That’s right, people. Our president, with a history of non-consenting sexual conquests and trysts with porn stars, has already upped the funding for abstinence-only education by $100 million, but has asked for $277 million in his 2018 budget. The irony of this is astounding, but not surprising. So, while there’s not much we can do about the executive decisions made in that morally depraved joke of an oval office, we can act locally. We can vote for local politicians and school board members who support a comprehensive sexual education in our schools. We can talk to our kids and to their schools and ensure that they know what sex is, how it works, how to do it safely, and how to have a healthy and enjoyable sexual future.

We teach our kids how to drive. We teach them how to cook and how to do laundry. We teach them how to manage money, go on job interviews, think critically, and problem solve. We teach them everything they need to know to be functioning and responsible adults. Why wouldn’t we want this knowledge to be a part of our teenagers’ education? Why would we ever want to deny them this essential information as they head into adulthood?

To America’s youth, you deserve better than this. All of you do.