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The Tragedy of Sex Education in American Public Schools

Science, Environment, & Health

The Tragedy of Sex Education in American Public Schools

Radix Admin

By August Burg '17

***Trigger Warning – discussion of sex/genitals, mentions of assault/rape


Despite going to a public school in a small conservative town in Massachusetts, I received a decent sex education in my sophomore year of high school. I got a chart that explained the different types of contraceptives and their effectiveness, as well as getting quizzed on anatomical diagrams of the penis and vulva. We watched Juno to talk about teen pregnancy, and even Philadelphia, which deals with AIDS and actual gay people. We didn’t get shown scare-tactic pictures of genitalia infected with STIs. And we only learned about abstinence in the context of it being an “option for safer sex.”

That being said, I had to do some more research and education on my own time. I was also lucky enough to get age-appropriate sex ed from my parents since pre-school; I was never taught that babies came from storks or the cabbage patch. But I didn’t learn how to properly put on or take off a condom until I started going to an LGBT+ youth group. Aside from learning about AIDS and a brief mention of “gay people need to have safe sex too”, I didn’t learn about dental dams or safe anal sex, or a single thing about transgender people. Turns out the clitoris is a lot bigger on the inside than it is on the outside! And I certainly didn’t learn about how the hymen actually doesn’t mean jack-shit and that virginity is nothing more than a social construct created by the patriarchy to make a someone’s value inherently tied to a vagina.

Everyone deserves medically accurate and shameless education about their bodies. Unfortunately, this is very, very rare. In case the state of reproductive freedom and education didn’t seem dismal enough to you, the Guttmacher Institute reports that only eighteen states require teachers to provide information about contraception; only twenty-two states plus Washington DC require any sex ed at all; thirty-seven states allow for schools to teach medically inaccurate sex education. That’s right, folks: only thirteen states require that the sex education that students get be medically accurate! And Massachusetts isn’t even one of them. Given these figures, it isn’t surprising that the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate compared to  any other developed country.

The logic of lawmakers who are against comprehensive sex ed goes like this: “I can’t teach you about safe sex because it’ll encourage you to be promiscuous” holds up just about as well as “I can’t teach you about what airbags do, that’ll encourage you to start crashing into things.” That just sounds silly, doesn’t it?

Lack of extensive sex education is a serious feminist issue, and an extremely dangerous tradition that schools and lawmakers keep advancing. This continues to teach people that men have a right to have sex be enjoyable where those with vaginas do not. It’s teaching people that if a woman is uncomfortable or in pain during sex, that this is normal and they have no right to complain. It’s teaching people, women especially, to do something just because it makes a man happy, regardless of how she feels. It’s teaching people that those with a vagina are supposed to be the submissive, receptive partner rather than an active participant. I didn’t learn about a “woman’s arousal” or a “woman’s orgasm” simply because apparently that isn’t important -- it doesn’t matter if a woman is enjoying it. It doesn’t matter if she likes what you’re doing. We teach this in our schools, media, and through socialization, yet we wonder why youth are legitimately confused about what constitutes assault, and why it is a bad thing that has a profoundly negative and possibly permanent effect on the victim. Lack of consent education in high school then feeds into the toxic and pervasive rape culture on college campuses nationwide. Also, it’s very important to realize that access to comprehensive sex education is stratified by racial and socioeconomic status.

Speaking of harmful, it is extremely difficult to talk about these issues without falling into using cis-normative and binary language. If accurate, equal information isn't available for the average person that exists within this binary, what does that mean for everyone else? If all teens are “supposed to be” having sex, then where does this leave asexual and demisexual kids, who leave a sex ed class feeling broken? Where does it leave the trans and non-binary kids, who are told time and time again that their anatomy is deterministic, and don’t know if they could ever have sex in a “healthy way”? The language of most sex ed and lack of education is not only othering; it’s erasure and it's invalidating.

American sex ed is taught like Dolores Umbridge’s Defense of the Dark Arts class: inaccurate, censored beyond recognition, and an overall failure to give students the skills they need to be happy, healthy, and safe adults. A growing majority of students and their parents don’t actually find banning “abstinence only” sex ed and teaching about real prevention methods all that controversial. Taking that into consideration, it is completely unacceptable to have the state of sexual health education in America be as disastrous as it is. Students—all students—deserve better.